Monday, March 31, 2008

Getting an Art Education Online, Part I

"Genesis" - work in progress
colored pencil on rtist-x board
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater

I thought that I'd take this week to talk about how I've gotten my education as an artist. I know there are many wonderful art schools and programs out there that have produced many wonderful artists . . . but I'm not one of them. If I wanted to get an art degree now, I'd never have the time with two small ankle-biters on the loose (and two dogs, too). And back when I could get a traditional art degree, I couldn't.

Imagine the scene: bright-eyed Maggie, a stellar but bored history major approaching the art department with her portfolio.

ME: Lookie. Drawings. Do you think your class . . . and I . . . we could . . . you know, get together sometime?
HEAD OF DEPT: (looking at portfolio)
ME: I'm hoping that long pause means awe of some variety.
HEAD OF DEPT: (looking at porfolio)
ME: Okay, now it's just rude.
HEAD OF DEPT: Right. These suck. Go study dead people some more.

Okay, so they didn't say "suck." They said "not sophisticated enough," which means suck. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I wasn't going to be taking art classes any time soon. So I put my art away, short of my in-class doodles, until after college. When I decided to pick it up again after I graduated, I knew it was going to be all up to me.

So tonight I want to talk about what sort of mind-set you need to have when you tackle self-teaching yourself art. And of course, as usual, this isn't the only way, it's just the way I did it (which is of course the right way, duh). On Thursday I'll be talking about resources and non-traditional learning methods that helped me.

Things You Need in Your Brain Matter to Teach Yourself Art


1. Self Confidence. No, you don't have to style yourself "Future Queen of America" (what kind of loon would do that anyway?) or strut around with a really high opinion of yourself or think that you know all the answers. In fact, two of those will hurt your chances and one of them will tick me off. But you do have to believe that you can teach yourself to be a better artist. You do have to believe that you have that better artist somewhere inside you, and that if you just rummage around long enough, you'll pull her (him) out of your innards.

2. Curiosity. If the way other artists work and compose and shape their art doesn't interest you, you might be looking at the wrong hobby or profession. A well-developed sense of curiosity about new techniques will always serve you well. Without it . . . yeah, you're one of those kids in sleeping in the back of the classroom.

3. Insanely Keen Powers of Observation. You're teaching yourself, so there's no wise Obi Wan figure here. A lot of times there will be a brilliant concept in front of you for the taking -- but no one's going to explain it to you. If you see a painting that you love, don't just love it. Deconstruct it and steal its soul. It's what I would do.

4. Constructively Critical Eye. This goes along with #!. You need to be able to look at your work with a helpfully critical eye. This takes a nice dose of #1 and #3. There's a big difference between knowing your work can be better and thinking that you suck.

unconstructive criticism: Wow. These paintings look like chimps on amphetamines painted them with q-tips dipped in curdled yogurt.
constructive criticism: Wow. These paintings look like chimps on amphetamines painted them with q-tips dipped in curdled yogurt, because I need to work on how I apply my pigment. But $%^&, look at those colors! I rock (for a chimp on amphetamines).

5. Willingness to Listen. There are a lot of blogging artists with very big brains and also a lot of generous artists who talk a lot in person. Recommendation? Don't tune them out and begin fantasizing about next time you can catch Family Guy on TV. Ask questions. Listen. Put it into practice. And then show the artist, if you can, how you've put their advice into practice -- because then they'll give you more. I can't tell you how many people told me that they gave me advice because they saw me putting other artists' advice to good use. I'm starting to get cynical myself -- a lot of people who ask for my advice do nothing with it, and it makes me feel like I'm wasting my time giving it. But when I see someone who is using other advice wisely? I feel like they're a good investment.

6. Motivation. You gotta want it, grasshopper. You have to want it enough to ride out everyone who tells you your portfolio isn't sophisticated enough, your drawings not precise enough, your colors not saturated enough, your subjects not salable enough -- because there will always be more negative around you than positive. So you have to be your biggest cheerleader.


So questions and comments in the comments as usual! For those who have gotten a non-traditional education or want one!

17 comments:

Barbara Pask said...

Hi Maggie, It's very encouraging to me that you don't have an art degree. I'd like to have an art degree to say I have one but at this point in my life it's not happening. So I'm working my butt off taking lessons and eating up all the advice I can get on line, yours included and painting, painting, painting. Blogging has been wonderful, people have just reached out to help me. A question, do people treat you different because you don't have a art degree? Gallerys etc? Thanks,Barb

Lorrie Drennan said...

Hi Maggie,
Ok, when did my mother have time to birth you, and me not know about it? You and I are so the same! My bros called me "Queen of the World" growing up. I have copied your time management expose and have re-vamped the way I do my daily goal list (but I did used to do one very similar). I, also, have no formal education, but everything on today's list is so dead-on what I do, and think and how I act....so I cannot wait to see part two. I plan to mention you on my blog today, this site is just too good not to share. Thanks for your generosity of spirit in sharing so much of what makes things go well for you. We can only hope it will circle around and come back to you a hundred-fold. (I plan to plug your book, too).

Linda Hiller said...

Hi Maggie, I enjoy your blog very much. You are very generous in sharing you experience and advice. I've already printed #6 and have it stuck on the side of my computer. I plan on mentioning your site on my blog and encouraging epople to visit you. Thanks, and best of luck to you.
Linda

Rafi said...

I would add take an evening class because that way you get to have a teacher (and you don't need to pass some committee to get in). However in the same breath I would say that this shouldn't make anyone think for a moment that everything else you said here isn't true.

I learned a lot on WetCanvas and by observation and curiosity than my teacher ever got around to teaching me. Most important, it is only going to happen if you want it to happen and make it happen - and that is what Maggie is talking about here as the mindset to get you started. "I need to take a class" is an excuse.

Casey Klahn said...

Looking forward to this series, Maggie. Looks like you have a host of acolytes right here!

If I may, I'd like to say that gallery people will not think twice whether you have a degree or not, if they like your work, and believe (have confidence) in you.

Self taught artists are in good company, historically. Van Gogh ring a bell?

Sue Favinger Smith said...

Hi Maggie,
I did get my art degree - at age 57! But here's the truth - we're all "self-taught", it's only a matter of whether you processed information given by an "Art Professor" or through other means. The key for me was the solid two years after graduation that I filled with constant painting, experimentation, pushing myself, and nurturing a sometimes irrational belief in myself as an artist. And what I discovered is that it's not your artistic credentials that matter, it's the passion, insight, and the artist's ability to communicate visually that count in the end.

Rose Welty said...

Don't stop giving advice Maggie, your advice to me opened up another dimension in the art world for me! Without your help, it would have taken me much longer to grasp onto the idea of values and their importance. Another good post...looking forward to the rest of the series.

vivien said...

a great post and I agree with Sue - I too did my degree as a mature student so for those who want to, it's never too late.

But the curious mind and experimenting, learning from other artists (hopefully looking at lots of contemporary ones as well as past masters) going to exhibitions whenever possible - it's the hard work, practice and curiosity and learning from others that's the key at uni or outside it.

one of my favourite contemporary artists, Kurt Jackson (link on my blog) did a degree in a totally different subject, none in art, but is a very well respected artist.

Dennis M Dewey said...

I never got my degree (but that's another story).

I started reading your blog from a recent post on WetCanvas and have been reading ever since. Your words have inspired me and I've added to my small list of blogs I look at every day.

Miki Willa said...

I am another self-teaching artist. I really appreciate all the words of wisdom shared by you and other artist bloggers. You mentioned getting other artists to look at your work and getting constructive feedback. How does one do that outside of workshops and classes?
I am looking forward to the rest of this series. You always have such great insights.

jackie said...

Hi Maggie,
I have heard about similar experiences from art pals who approached "art Depts" in colleges for study. I don't understand how you or my friends could be turned away. Alot of what is produced there does not entice me to purchase anything. On the other hand I'd take out a second mortgage to buy your art,you are great!

S. M. Lacy said...

I love you. Seriously.
Now that I'm done being creepy...I'd just like to say that I love your blogs and your work, and its great reading sensible advice for once.
Today's blog really touched home to me because I'm chronically ill, so I can't exactly go off and get an art degree, and I've had a few people tell me that, in a nutshell, I'm going to fail because I don't have one.
Thanks to you, I now know where to tell them to stick it.
Keep on being awesome. I'll be reading.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
I enjoy your work and your commentary. I am a soon to be retired Art Professor (does that mean I profess art, but have to quit when I retire?)and agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts. I have been telling students for years(26), "all artists are self taught," get started. The only thing art school can provide you with is access. Access to ideas, prompts on where to look for things, encouragement when all is dark, and a sounding board. Keep up the good work. Education is changing faster than I ever imagined it could. Darn it, I can never remember my Blogger password so I have to choose "anonymous" who ,btw, is responsible for some of the best artwork.
cheers, bill b.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks everyone so much for the comments! You guys are great!

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