Self-teaching definitely has a lot of advantages. I can choose my own classes, proceed at my own pace, and I don’t have to worry too much about assignment deadlines or passing grades. I can more or less do as I please, when I please.
Despite the advantages — or because of them, perhaps — self-teaching presents certain pitfalls. Being both student and teacher leads to a few difficult-to-resolve dilemmas.
Right now, I’m spending most of my art time with oil painting, but I do still have other art studies on my schedule. My interest in anatomy and figure drawing has never waned, and I still love doing portraits. I also make time for a variety of different projects in different media. I want to continue doing occasional colored pencils works, occasional watercolors, a pen-and-ink drawing now and then. I do this by following along with “Live Lessons” at The Virtual Instructor.
I’ve always believed that it’s beneficial to learn from a variety of teachers, and so many months ago I compiled a list of different drawing and painting tutorials from artists’ websites. Most are general instructions in “how to draw” or how to “improve your drawing skills”. Seeing techniques from different instructors is always helpful to me.
And so it was that I recently found myself at Art Tutor, ready for an online lesson titled “How to Draw and Observe Like an Artist”. Essentially it was a simple drawing exercise, one designed to show the value of measuring various elements within a reference in order to obtain correct proportions. I’ve studied this before. While I’m not good at it, I do understand the technique, and yes, I do use it from time to time.
But this time, I was resistant. I looked at the reference photo, and I simply did not want to draw this particular still life. Being an obedient little student, however, I followed the directions and did a completely free-hand rendition of the scene.
It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t supposed to be very good. Due to my disinterest in the scene, my first drawing was sketched very, very lightly — too light for my scanner to make a good reproduction. Don’t worry. You’re not missing much.
The second part of the assignment was to complete the drawing again, this time carefully measuring the angles, checking the proportions, and ensuring that the drawing was correct in all dimensions.
I shook my head. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like the reference photo, I hadn’t wanted to do the assignment, so…what the heck! Why should I bother with an assignment I just did not want to do?
First, let me explain why I disliked the reference photo. Here it is.
Maybe your eyes can see the various lines and angles clearly, but mine struggled. My brain couldn’t quite separate the different elements of the trunk. I couldn’t distinguish ledges from lines. I couldn’t focus on the proper placement of the hinges. I just could not see where the various “outlines” of this old trunk — or whatever it is — should begin and end.
Needless to say, trying to measure things out only made it all appear more complicated to my eyes. Yes, I did force myself to finish the assignment, but to be honest, I didn’t put much effort into it. I just did the best I could, finished the sketch, and chalked it up to experience.
Here’s a look at my completed drawing. Well, I’m not sure I should refer to it as “completed”. It was never intended to be more than a quick sketch.
I captured the essential elements of the still life. I have the wine bottle, the glass, the grapes, and the trunk. Are my proportions correct? No. Do I even have certain things — like the hinges — in the right places? No.
I tried. My eyes and my brain just could not coordinate this particular image for whatever reason. Maybe it was the colors in the reference photo. Maybe it was the relative darkness of the image. I just couldn’t grasp it enough to put things where they belonged. It was an odd feeling, really, as though I couldn’t “hold on” to the different pieces of the picture long enough to put them together. I’d work on one area, then when I tried to move to the next, nothing aligned. So, I would erase, start again, and find myself facing the same problem. Just where was that hinge supposed to go? Where did that little ledge begin and end?
I did the assignment. That was the most important thing, or so I told myself. But was it really all that important? I’m not sure, and I’d love to hear opinions.
Teaching myself means I have choices, of course, but how far does that freedom extend? If I “skip school” and turn away from any assignment I don’t like, what’s the point? How much can any of us learn from doing only what we want to do?
Yet, if an assignment is too difficult, too boring, or too … anything, will I really gain from pushing through and finishing it? I look at my wine bottle sketch and wonder what I learned from finishing it. All I really learned, it seems, is that my brain just can’t comprehend certain constructions. I learned that my eyesight is obviously not as good as it once was. I learned that some scenes are simply difficult to see, and if we can’t see clearly, we certainly can’t draw accurately. Right?
So, maybe under those circumstances I could have “skipped school” and written myself a legitimate excuse for missing class. I’d love to hear thoughts on the topic. When should we “push on” and make ourselves finish difficult assignments, and when is it permissible for us to “skip school” and move on to something more to our liking?