Being Both Student and Teacher

I heard an amusing joke recently.

If a home-schooling mother talks to herself, is she crazy? Or is she just having a parent-teacher conference?

I sometimes look at myself as a “self-taught” aspiring artist and think the same joke could be applied to me with a little rewording. When I talk to myself — which is often — I’m not crazy. I’m just fulfilling my dual role as both student and teacher.

But how can I teach myself something I don’t know?

Good question. In many respects, I can’t, of course. I wouldn’t be where I am today on my art journey without the help of many, many teachers. I’ve “met” these teachers through books, through online tutorials, videos, and classes. There are far too many to name individually, so let me merely say “Thank you” to every art instructor who takes time to work with beginner students. What you do is greatly appreciated.

I consider it an advantage to have a variety of different instructors. Each has different methods and approaches toward art. Sometimes they have different opinions on various techniques or other art-related topics. I take it all in, evaluate, practice, and ultimately try to arrive at my own conclusion, a process which I think is what true learning is all about. When students do no more than parrot back an instructor’s words, or rigidly follow an instructor’s method, no true education takes place. Learning involves more than memorization or rote procedures; it involves the ability to think things through, to reason, to consider different factors, observe situations, and come up with answers, solutions, or methods that best resolve any problems. That’s true not only in art, but in all learning experiences.

Well, you’ve certainly never been afraid of learning things.

Those were the words my sister uttered when I told her I was learning to draw. It’s true. I love learning new things, and over the years I’ve often played those two roles: student and teacher. Through my experiences, I know the importance of gathering information, figuring out correct procedures, and practicing consistently. I know, too, that making mistakes is an important part of the process. Mistakes can be corrected, helping us learn what we did wrong and how we can improve next time.

With the wealth of information available on the subjects of drawing and painting, I’m never at a loss for “teaching materials”. Lectures, galleries, and museums provide opportunities for plenty of “field trips”.

The tricky part in teaching myself isn’t what to teach or how to teach. It’s more a question of when…not in the sense of time management, but in understanding when I’m ready to move on to new techniques or whether or not I’m ready for a particular project. How can I evaluate myself? Am I qualified to judge my level of artistic performance?

At first, of course, there was no question of my level. I was an absolute beginner. It’s interesting that I see the word “absolute” in so many how-to titles, such as Drawing for the Absolute Beginner, and by the same authors, Drawing Portraits for the Absolute Beginner, Oil Painting for the Absolute Beginner, and…well, you get the idea.

Apparently there’s a difference between a “beginner” and an “absolute” beginner, but even that’s not as low as you can go. You can be an “absolute and utter” beginner. That title — Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner — is by Claire Watson Garcia. It’s a book that belongs in every aspiring artist’s library.

When I began, I was definitely an “absolute and utter beginner”. Persistence alone brought me up to the level of “absolute beginner”, and months of practice allowed me to reach “beginner” level. I’m still rather comfortably-ensconced at that level.

I am now working with “intermediate” drawing lessons at The Virtual Instructor, however. It’s a way of pushing myself, challenging myself to take on more difficult projects and learn more techniques for using various media.

What I’ve found helpful in teaching myself is to continually give myself “assignments” and to “test” myself from time to time. Whenever I feel I’m at a turning point and I’m unsure as to whether or not I’m ready to move ahead, I’ll devise a “test project” such as completing a series of drawings or completing a specific art project.

I also try to be very objective about reviewing my progress. Looking over my sketchbooks shows how much I’ve improved in certain areas. Trees, for instance.

It’s not easy to get good photos from my sketchbooks, but even with these blurry images, you can clearly see improvement.

My first attempt at drawing a “real” tree looks like something a 6-year-old might draw.  This, in a way, is logical, really.

Tree 1

In Anyone Can Learn Watercolor Journaling, author Jolyn Parker explains:

As adults we try to draw something and get frustrated because it looks like a six-year-old drew it, but that’s when we stopped practicing, so our skills never progressed.

I’d never thought of it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. Most of us do stop drawing around that age because we’re not “gifted”. We stop learning how to improve because we’re told that unless we have talent, we’ll never succeed.

But, with a little practice, my trees began looking a little better, a little more realistic.

Tree 2 (2)
Perfect, no. Better, yes.

At the very least, my trees no longer looked as though they’d been drawn in a kindergarten class.
So, I kept on drawing trees, figuring out what was wrong, and trying to make each one a little better than the last.

My trees still aren’t perfect today, but there’s a marked improvement. I can see definite progress.

Tree 3 (2)
Am I proud of my trees? You bet. Am I satisfied with them? Nope, not yet.

I’ll go on drawing trees, painting trees, and striving to improve each different part — bark, trunk, roots, leaves. I’ll draw trees in winter, flowering trees, and fruit trees. Each tree will help me learn more skills.

As a student, I’m thrilled to see such progress. As a teacher, I understand the importance of recognizing growth and adjusting my lesson plans accordingly.

Yes, it is possible to be both student and teacher. My progress might be slower than if I were attending an art school or even taking classes at a community center. The important thing isn’t how swiftly I move ahead.

Just like in the old “hare and tortoise” fable, slow and steady wins the race. I’m glad to be an “art tortoise” crawling slowly over the landscape. It gives me time to look at all the trees.


  1. My watercolor trees…well, that’s been quite a learning experience. I’ll be sharing a few of them in future posts. 🙂


I'd Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s