Monday, February 02, 2009

MAM Poll: What's the most effective way of improving your art education?

This post is about finding out what you think has been the best approach you've found so far for improving your art education - that knowledge about art which informs your personal effectiveness.

In the last month, I've had a couple of posts about how to improve our knowledge and our competence as artists.
Worst snow in London for years
Outside my home at 7.20am this morning

I think most of us probably agree that there is absolutely no substitute for just getting on and "doing" when it comes to learning about art. Practice, practice, practice is a mantra for us all if we're ever going to ratchet up our 10,000 hours and achieve outstanding performance!

Plus if we want to be the best we can we be, we need to know something about what looks like and how it is achieved.

But how to get there? That's the question to be addressed by the Making A Mark Poll in February.

We all have to start somewhere and for the adult artist there are various ways of finding out more about art and learning about art.

Which works best? I guess it's always going to be a case of there is no one right answer. What works is what works best for each individual.

Many successful professional artists have never studied for a degree in fine art. I've seen lots of incredibly effective art produced by people who were trained as illustrators rather than painters. A lot of people who studied fine art at university think that they really only started to learn after they graduated.

So, assuming we all agree that "Practice, Practice, Practice" is essential and therefore excluded from this poll, what's the best approach for improving your art education which involves a third party.

What's the most effective way of improving your art education? What have you personally found to be the most useful way of learning more about art? Is it
  • higher education/an art degree?
  • atelier method/private instruction?
  • short workshops with professional artists?
  • regular local art class?
  • membership of an art group/society
  • museums & art history resources?
  • online art forums/projects?
  • online art blogs/projects?
  • art instruction books/art journals?
This poll will close at the midday GMT on 28th February and the results will be published later that day.

You can find the poll in the right hand column - just below the followers widget.

I'm very interested to hear what your views are on this subject., Please share by leaving a comment below (click "comments"). I use all the comments left from those participating in the poll to inform the analysis at the end of the month when I report the results.

Links: See also
(Note: Heavy snow fell in the UK last night and this morning - with some sites describing it as the worst snow for decades and others identifying snow chaos - hence the photograph! Central London NEVER usually has more than sprinkling of snow which almost always disappears very fast - but I woke up to 4 inches this morning. Forecasts from the BBC are for another 12 inches to fall in the south east today. Airports are closed, buses are cancelled and schools are closed! I'm very tempted to find some suitable shoes - which could be difficult - and go and photograph the Ecology Park Pond!)


  1. Good poll Katherine. I think that people learn and keep learning through a number of the ways you've listed. I don't know which is the most effective and would imagine that there are a huge number of variables that make each perfect learning experience for a particular person.

    For me, I like a session where an experienced artist can give some insight into how they create what they create. I also learn from group sessions where the composition, whether human or still life, is someone's else's vision and I just draw it. I learn by seeing how others approach the same subject.

    Snow! Welcome to my world. I got 10 inches of the stuff yesterday. However, life goes on and nothing shuts except during a major blizzard. The sun is out today and everything is very pretty.

    Yes, go dig out some wellies and extra socks and see how the snow affected the Ecology Pond Park!

  2. Interesting question - having done the university route I am not sure that is the best way. I've often said all I learned was how to make a stretcher but there was a lot more that I learned. No techniques but a lot of below the surface stuff that really effects how I work and my approach.

  3. I was about to say 'stay inside and keep cosy, don't take any risks on icy footpaths.' I see I'm too late - you've almost certainly settled on the right shoes and are currently crunching around the pond! Looking forward to the photographs. ;)

  4. Robyn - I'm in two minds and haven't gone yet. However I don't think it's icy yet - although it will be before much longer. I'm going to put my ankle support on, make sure I've got soles with grip and then have a go. If I'm having problems walking up a quiet side street then I'll turn back as I can't risk another fall. Six weeks on crutches every time I fall is no fun!

    Thanks Jeanette and Anita - keep those comments coming - let's share!

  5. I didn't go to art school or uni so my experience is a bit limited but I did have some evening classes (while I was at school as the nuns only taught us to copy the lettering from the Book of Kells!!) run by a very competent artist and I found the one on one really fast forwarded my progress. I think that is probably the best way - to have someone point out things about *your own* work rather than something generic for a whole class. When my son was very young, his teacher told me she was concerned his drawing skills were behind the rest of the class and so that weekend we did some drawing together and she told me his work was transformed 'as if he'd been to art school'. Flattering, but it didn't take much, only some one on one attention which teachers often don't have time or inclination for. (Sadly, my son is still not interested in art!)

  6. I does not matter which way you improve your art education. The biggest barrier people have is not trying new ideas and fearing 'failing'. When giving one to one tuition I am amazed at being told "I do not work like that ...".

  7. Doesn't it kind of depend on what type of learner you are? I think I do better on my own. I learned (and am still learning) most of what I know from Wetcanvas, reading and seeing what other artists are creating, and then putting what I learn into my own work. I've never been to art school or anything, so the only experience I've had with art education is that which I got in public school growing up.

  8. Hope you got to the pond...the snow is such a complete & magical transformation of the land..that it is special gift to us landscape artists.

    I treasure all the one-week workshops I took in the past decade. Each teacher gave me something to grow on. Each week of nothing but painting built skill & strength & focus.

    One of those teachers said his teacher told him you're not really an artist until you've done 1000 paintings!

  9. To learn the technique of traditional visual arts I find workshops with great artists are the best way to learn (own experience). A full week workshop is great, the effect develops in weeks and months after the workshop. I fear short weekend courses Fr-Sun are not that efficient. I would prefer 1 full week instead of 2 short weekend workshops.

  10. a mix of all of them preferably - no one way is ever enough

    Personally I found the degree route fantastically improved the depth of my understanding - maybe I was lucky with my tutors and fellow students. I know I wouldn't be where I am without what I learnt from them and then gave my own twist.

    Being immersed in art for hours a day with like minded people accelerates learning - visiting exhibitions and discussing them with people with in-depth knowledge, visiting artists giving lectures ... I'm so glad I did the degree (as a mature student)

    I've also enjoyed and learned from workshops. atelier style visiting artist workshops, sketching with friends, conversations with fellow artists, talks, demos, books, tv .....

    To learn you need an enquiring mind and a willingness to experiment and not settle for an easy option - and not try to work 'in the style of' anyone but find your own voice - whichever route you choose.

  11. Take care in the snow and ice Katherine! I'm sure the pond will look amazing in the snow, but not worth 6 weeks on crutches?

    I found choosing just one option in the poll hard! When I first started painting I found that I needed some external motivation - like a weekly class. I also found that a working class was more helpful than a review-only class. But I had suppressed my wish to paint for so long that I needed that group environment to see that no-one gets it perfect right away. Now that I am self-driven I find blogs and books helpful for structuring my planning and approach to painting. Also for distraction when I'm sick and can't summon up the energy to actually paint, like today!

  12. Since art is a second career for me (my first being an educator), I have given much thought to the best ways to improve my art practice. I had to work very hard to convince myself that the lack of a fine arts degree would not impede my development as an artist. That was a big mountain to climb because I felt so well educated and successful in my other career. I'm over that hump.

    I think we are continually learning even when we may not recognize it as such. Here's a summary of what I'm finding most effective for my "learning plan". I will not comment on the most obvious -workshops and reading how-to books and magazines, which I now do less and less.

    1. Reading about other artists both current and through history. I want to know why they create the work they do,how they create work, how their practice has developed, etc. I'm more interested in what's driving them intellectually and creatively than how they create. Once I stopped obsessing about "how to" I found my own voice.

    2. Group critiques. I have several friends who I can count on to give great feedback to my work. Nothing is more valuable than these discussions. We meet regularly and use a structured response framework to keep it out of the personal arena.

    3. Visiting galleries and looking at many diverse types of work, especially work I'm not attracted to. You have to see real work. Up to ten years ago, I had seen very little art work that was not in a book. I could not believe how much my world expanded when I went to The Met in New York. You never get the nuances from pictures. Who knew that Georgia O' Keeffe hardly used a lick of paint on her canvases! Luckily, I have visited many of the world's major museums and galleries since then. I am also a frequent visitor to all the galleries in the small, rather isolated city where I live.

    4. Writing about my own work. The first time I had to write an artist statement I realized I did not know what I was interested in painting or why I wanted to paint. This one task opened my eyes to the importance of intent in your practice. It sent me on a personal quest to discover what I had to contribute to the world through my work. I'm getting there. I now keep a reflection journal where I record all my tidbits of knowledge and how they relate to me and my work.

    5. Experimentation. I have found some of my best ways of working by fluke. The ah ha moments that are often the result of throwing caution to the wind can't be beaten. Give yourself permission to "fool around".

    I could keep going, but 5 will suffice. Thanks for the opportunity to sound off on this topic.

  13. Excellent poll Katherine. Please be careful out in the snow. We have had a dreadful winter here with ice, snow and low temps.

    For me, I really seemed to improve when I took several art classes from a local community college in AZ many years ago. (I have a degree, but it is not in art.) There were two fantastic teachers there at the time. They emphasized knowing how to draw above everything else. I took as many classes as I could as well as several life drawing classes. I feel that the life drawing classes were very beneficial for me. They helped with connecting the eye/mind and the hand to the drawing. The human form is difficult to master and very challenging to draw.

    Now that I live in another part of the country in a rural area, I look for whatever I can find to improve:
    1. Workshops and seminars by artists whose work I like.
    2. Online demonstrations that are free. Here are a couple that I enjoy - Dave Darrow's demos on ustream with portrait painting demos ( Roger Bansemer who does realistic paintings in acrylic.
    3. Books on composition, color and techniques as well as books about other artists.
    4. Going to the Minneapolis Art Museum and others museums whenever I can.

    One thing that I do miss is having other artists nearby. I really feel that artists need other artists for support. Thank goodness for the web. I also feel that no matter where I am with my drawing and painting, I can always improve. It is a never ending process.

  14. My art education has been a wonderful mix. I never intended to become an artist, but unknowingly I was preparing for this career. While studying art history in college I first learned how to look at art. I was always falling in love with different artists– from 15th c. Masaccio to 20th c. Picasso – and examining every inch of their paintings.

    Graduate studies in art conservation taught me patience – a skill I was completely lacking. Repairing art is a slow, respectful process and working too fast can lead to an “oops – I just removed the signature!”. Honestly, the discipline of restoration now helps me complete my own paintings. I was always great at starting, but too impatient or fearful to finish them.

    I quit that career because it was not creative enough, and dove headfirst into art classes to figure out how to paint. I love taking classes to learn new skills and for the stimulation of working with other artists. Class critiques toughen the artistic skin, encourage me to question what I’m doing and sometimes send me off in a new artistic direction. I’ll always take art classes to improve my own art. Plus, they’re really fun!

  15. Vivien said it all. A mix of things, with high level, sustained instruction being massively important. And it's an ongoing, lifelong continuing education.

  16. Great Poll.
    I chose the classes because I work full time. In a perfect life I'd chose atelier first, then university. I take both regular workshops and evening classes with art.

    I learn quite a bit at workshops and love being so focused, but a weekly class is helping to make me disciplined-progress is happening in slow steps but I can see the progress.

    Please stay safe~when I saw you picture I thought of the old christmas carol movies with all that wonderful snow!

  17. Great poll Katherine. Having done the atelier route, and having taught at The Atelier in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I do think that it can give an artist an excellent foundation.

    It gave me a good working method to start with. I have since taken the basic visual language that I learned there, and added to it through workshops. A lot of the workshops that I've attended have a specific focus. For me, taking a chunk of time and giving it a specific focus seems to be the most effective way to move my skill forward.

  18. Been thinking about this one... and I can't answer! I've decided that personally I think variety is the answer, no one source is the ideal. Of course I'm sure I'm biased based on my experience. So, can I ramble a bit?

    I have slightly regretted not doing art by degree, but mainly because I still feel the peer and instructor critique is very valuable. (and by still I mean it's something I currently feel I lack to an extent)

    For me private instruction was a huge benefit, and others I've met over time have commented that that route gave me a lot of insight into the business side of things, a materials and skills based knowledge, and great support for my individual voice. I didn't choose it over a degree for any reasons other than the fact that I was a bit older (no excuse!) and had recently come out of 3 years of postgrad studies. I simply wanted to paint for fun and wasn't looking for an educational experience at the time.

    Once I was hooked local art classes were also of great benefit to widen my view. Having different kinds of teaching and teachers, getting to try other mediums and styles, and meeting other artists at my level. Being able to have short or one-day chances to try something a bit different. Or longer classes to explore an aspect of work in much more detail.

    Art societies and groups worked well early in my career for networking and experimentation. To an extent they still do.

    My most influential "style" moments were in museums. Just as one example, seeing Barnett Newman's work in the flesh was something of a religious experience and totally changed my view towards my own abstraction. Sketching in museums and seeing regular collections even is a constant way to revisit drawing or explore composition.

    Art books are invaluable as that at-hand reference for all the other ways you learn. :)

    So I need to tick most of your poll options. ;)

  19. Thanks for all the comments to date. This is obviously a fascinating topic!

    For the record I can find value in all the activities listed and recognise that most people combine at least some of them to achieve progress

    However, having run a fair number of surveys in my time (pre-blog) I know the value of not giving people the 'easy' option for an answer (e.g. "Practice, practice, practice" or "more than one of the above"). Having to try and work out which works best really makes you think with this one. That was, in part, the point of the survey - and your comments have been an enormously productive result.

    ....and a confession - I still haven't voted because I still haven't come to a decision
    ....but I will! :)

  20. Thanks for all the good wishes in relation to my walk yesterday afternoon

    I only fell over once and didn't damage myself too badly!

    You can see some of the results of the walk in The snowman cometh......

  21. I can't really give an educated opinion on this. I have absolutely no formal education in illustration or drawing. (Before I became disabled, was an RN..a CRNFA, and my 6 years of university were focused more on natural and social sciences.)

    What initially motivated me to blog was my desire to share anecdotes about the little critters in my yard, (me being the odd neighbor). To me, the more interesting blogs had images embedded in their entries, so I made images.

    Then I discovered IF, and my images became more important to me that my stories.

    I would love to go to some workshops, and learn how to draw. Each new sketch feels like I'm starting over again. I'd really like to learn some there'll be some consistency in my work.

    Meanwhile, I'm back to writing more. And next to drawing little birds, that makes me feel best.

  22. For me, there are several factors that come into play. I have a BFA in painting and also a BA in Art History. While the studio time involved in the BFA reinforced a solid work ethic, the hours spent studying others' art were far more beneficial.

    20 years after college graduation, regular and consistant studio work that challenges my boundaries is key.

    I also make a point of being brutally honest with myself about what I need to learn, locating a mentor/artist who has mastered that, and actively working towards improvement.

    And as tough as it is (esp in winter!), I get my butt out in front of real art at least once a month. There is something about the mental dialogue that happens when I stand in front of a painting and really see it, imagine the artists' thought process, and measure successful (or poorly) painted passages.


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