The Worst Art Student in the World!

Sometimes I wish I were a real, true artist. I’m not, and I never will be. I do call myself “an artist” now, and I do a lot of things artists do. I draw. I paint. I play. I take part in art clubs and exhibitions, and I’ve even got a nice collection of awards, including a first place finish. So, yes, I think it’s all right if I call myself “an artist”. But, when it comes right down to it, I’m not a real, true artist.     

Here’s why. Real, true, honest-to-goodness artists have two things that I don’t have: talent and training.

Now, I do understand that “art” is a learned skill. I’m living proof of that. But I know, too, that some people are simply born with a natural talent for art. These are the people who become real, true artists. These are the people who attend art schools. These are the people who take their natural talents and develop them through ateliers, studio work, and classes with the finest art teachers in the country.

My training — such as it’s been — is nothing like art school. I’ve learned the basics, I can recite the elements of art, and I know the fundamental principles of drawing and painting. I’ve taught myself through books, online classes, workshops, and video tutorials. And, all said, I’ve done fairly well, going from someone who truly couldn’t draw a straight line — even with a ruler — to an award-winning landscape painter in the course of only a few years.

But, none of that makes me a real, true artist, and thank goodness for that! As much as I might sometimes think, “Oh, I wish I’d learned to draw earlier so that I could have gone to art school,” I count it as good fortune that I never had the art school experience.

I recall being shocked when one of the most talented artists I’ve ever known advised me straight out that if I wanted to be an artist, not to ever go to art school. Art school, she warned, would “knock that idea right out of you.” She was speaking from personal experience, and I’ve heard other artists say the same thing.

But then, there are those who thrive in art school, those who patiently listen to every lecture, practice every line a thousand times, and learn to use all the elements of art in ways that leave the rest of us gasping. One such real, true artist is Tony Curanaj.

Now, I don’t know him personally. I know him only through a Craftsy class I’m taking. It’s The Oil Painter’s Handbook. His website describes his art as “still life, figurative, landscape and interior paintings by a contemporary realist painter.” He is an incredible artist. He is, to say it again, a real, true artist.

Over the last few days — I took advantage of Crafty’s special one year membership for $2.49 — I’ve watched as Curanaj has carefully drawn a still life arrangement. This is the project for the class. Here is the reference photo.


It’s a daunting assignment in some respects. In other respects, perhaps not so formidable. It’s an image that I think I could successfully draw. Not to perfection, but to a reasonably good and recognizable illustration.

The class assignment begins not with a canvas, but with a large drawing pad. Curanaj uses a 16″ x 24″ sheet for this drawing. His paper, of course, is meticulously taped into place on a nice, vertical easel. The instructions are for us to follow along, duplicating his efforts on our own.

I don’t have any 16″ x 24″ drawing paper, and I wouldn’t want to use it if I had it. I don’t have any large drawing paper, nor do I have the sort of easel he’s using. Yes, I do have an easel, but it’s currently in use, it’s in another area of the studio, and no, Mr. Curanaj, I’m not cleaning it off and dragging it over here.

What did I do instead? Well, while the instructor was slowly and carefully drawing out the arrangement on his 16″ x 24″ sheet of drawing paper, I rushed right through this first step — or skipped right over it, I guess — to draw my still life arrangement directly on the canvas panel I chose to use. I didn’t go all the way to a full 16″ x 24″ size, but I did select a larger than usual panel — 16″ x 20″.

So,  you see, already I’m not being a very good student. I’m not following directions.

I’ll admit that I struggled with the drawing. I tried it once, felt it was too out of proportion, and I erased it all. I next tried creating a grid for the photo reference and a corresponding grid for my canvas, but forget that idea! I tried. I really tried my best! But after at least an hour — or more — of sheer frustration, I gave that up and erased everything on the canvas again. My third try was by using “comparative measurement” methods, and I’m just not very good at it.

Yes, I completed my drawing. Yes, it sucks. Yes, I did my best. Honestly, I did. But the simple truth is, I’m not a real, true artist, and assignments like this are difficult for me. And all the while I was thinking how glad I was that this wasn’t a real assignment in a real art class, because obviously I’d end up with a very low grade.

But this is a grown-up version of playing school, a “pretend” sort of art class where I won’t be graded — thank goodness!

Let’s move on now to the next lesson. Here Mr. Curanaj showed a process of doing an oil transfer or a graphite transfer to get his lovely, highly-detailed drawing from his paper to his canvas. As I looked at his drawing and compared it to mine, I could only shake my head. Essentially my drawing was made up of contours — the outlines of a lemon, an urn (or something), a milk jug, a book, and a bowl. I’m not working from a real life set-up. I’m working from a photo reference. It’s hard to see all the little details. That’s my excuse, anyway. I could probably have added a bit more indication of where the lights and shadows should be, but, hey, that’s the sort of thing real, true artists do. Struggling, untalented artists like me do what we can and hope for the best.

At least I already had my drawing on the canvas, so in some ways I felt like I was a step ahead of the art game here. I watched as the instructor transferred his drawing, and all the while I was thinking, thank goodness I didn’t really have to do that! Transferring the drawing — with either method — was akin to completing the entire drawing all over again.

Once was enough for me. I would never have had patience enough to methodically go over it again, line by line. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Next came the underpainting process. We covered our canvases with a thin raw umber and then began the process of addition and subtraction. For highlighted areas, we used a rag to wipe away the stain we’d just applied. For shadowed area, we applied a bit more. At least that’s what we were supposed to do. Since my drawing was so very basic, I didn’t have clearly marked areas for highlights and shadows. I wiped away a few places. I added more raw umber to other places.

Oh, wait! I left out a crucial step. Once the drawing was transferred to the canvas, we were instructed to go over it once more, this time with ink. Are you kidding me? After all the frustration of drawing it in the first place, you want me to re-do it with a pen? At this point I was really, really glad that I’d “cheated” a bit and had been able to skip re-drawing it as part of the transfer process.

By this time, I wasn’t too optimistic about the outcome for my sad still life, so I grabbed the nearest ink-based writing and drawing implement I had. A big, thick Sharpie. Yep. I quickly and a bit carelessly went over my initial lines. You can clearly see them in my image.

And then I did the additive-subtractive underpainting with all the raw umber. Now, at this point, Mr. Curanaj’s underpainting bore a strong resemblance to an actual finished painting. Every highlight was accurately defined. Every shadow was in its proper place.

Not so with mine. Here, take a look.

Mine is a bit of a mess, but what can you expect from a really bad art student like me? I laugh as I write this. Please, don’t tell me I’m being too hard on myself. I’m actually considering it a badge of honor to see myself as the worst art student in the world. Were I in a real art class in a real art school… well, I’m sure someone would be talking to me, politely suggesting that maybe I should consider another course of study.

But, what next? Ah, a value study! I’ve been dutifully studying values, you know. Remember all that information about simplifying a scene, reducing values down to three — or maybe four? I guess that idea isn’t taught at real art schools. It’s certainly not advocated by Tony Curanaj.

For the next lesson in this still life class, he began by — guess what — drawing the still life arrangement again. This time he did it on a slightly smaller scale, but yes. He drew it all again. And he then showed us how to mix grays. Uh, been there, done that, Mr. Curanaj. But while I was doing good to mix three or four values, he was slowly and oh, so very, very carefully mixing and matching nine different values — in addition to the black and white he was using. I when I say “mixing and matching”, I mean that quite literally. He used little “value chips” and a lot of eye-squinting to be sure every value was as closely-matched to its numerical equivalent as is humanly possible.

Nine values? Really? Well, actually, by the time he was through painting his smaller “value study” — which he would be using as notes for the actual painting — he was speaking of shades and tints “in-between” the nine he’d created, so theoretically this man was working with eighteen different values!

That, you see, is what real, true artists do.

This is why I’m very glad that I’m not a real, true artist. This is why I’m quite happy to be if not the worst art student in the world, at least one in the bottom half of any art class.

As I tuned in today to Craftsy and watched Tony Curanaj complete his value study, I was certain that in the next lesson we would actually begin to paint. Apparently not. Before signing off on the lesson, he mentioned that next we would be doing another small study — the same still life — only this time using our value notes as a guide to work on developing our colors.

So, he’s drawn the arrangement once. He’s drawn it again to create a transfer. He’s drawn it a third time to do the actual transfer from paper to canvas. He’s drawn it a fourth time to “ink over” the lines. He’s drawn it with thinned paint and a process of adding and subtracting to make an underpainting — that’s the fifth time. Then, for a sixth time, he’s drawn the arrangement and painted it with a range of eighteen possible values. Coming up, he’s going to draw the same still-life for the seventh time.

I’m going to sit back, and I’m going to watch. Being a terrible art student gives me the right to do that. I’m not an honors student in an art school. I’m not even a reasonably good art student in art school. I’m just an old woman who decided to learn to draw, and while I am interested in becoming a better artist, Tony Curanaj has taught me one thing for sure. I don’t ever want to be a real, true artist. I don’t ever want to painstakingly labor over a painting in the way he approaches his art.

I’m an awful art student, and thank goodness for that!





  1. lol..ever considered the saying “those who can, do..those who can’t , teach”? it’s one reason i stopped teaching.. agree with you on the whole here..but all anyone has to do is be happy with who and what they are..the best, the worst or something in between:)..i’m an in between-er i think!i also find that the best teachers i know are actually quite rigid ..its more like doing by rote than anything…although i do admire their results, i look at their work over decades and essentially it all winds up looking the same at some i say- rejoice in the experience and constant change..but hey- thats just my opinion, man….lmao

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I know the Craftsy instructor is an awesome artist. I would just never want to labor over a painting the way he does. To me, the perfection he demands from himself is not the way I want to approach art. I want to be looser, more casual, more relaxed. I’ll never be a great artist, and that’s fine. That’s not my intention. I just want to be able to enjoy working at my level and get satisfactory results. While I can appreciate his methodical approach, it’s just not for me!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. yup yup..same, i love to follow along with tutors at times but def like variety in me a freedom some dont have! when i taught, i always felt ripped off inside afterwards..because it got repetative and was always something i wasnt really enjoying after the first time or two..i think its why i stay out of my comfort zone so much in my media choices now..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s good when we’re exposed to different teachers, different methods, and different styles. I think when we really know we’ve made progress is when we’re able to choose among them and know what does and does not work for us. I was very fortunate to find “The Virtual Instructor” soon after I started learning to draw. His teaching style just “clicked” for me. Other teachers, not so much. I understand the importance of all the things Tony Curanaj is teaching in the Craftsy class, and if I had ambitions to become a professional artist represented in galleries I might pay more attention. Again, though, that’s not who I am, and it’s not who I want to be. Going through the slow, methodical process he demonstrates would make me end up hating art! At the same time, I am glad I went through the course. (You’ll be seeing my finished still life in an upcoming post.) I did learn a lot, and I did improve some of my techniques. But, all in all, it makes me grateful to get back to my more casual, loose, impressionistic landscape art!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. You seem like a real artist to me. You make art. That’s all you need to do. You can take as many classes as you want to or not at all. A lot of great artists are self taught. Art school is for partying. It can be a huge waste of time and money. But good teachers can help set you on a certain path. Even if you find a good teacher you still have to work on your own for the rest of your life to improve. The right attitude is all you need. Don’t put yourself down! I’m an artist and will never be recognized because I don’t have the right personality to schmooze. The art world isn’t about what you know its about who you know. Art school is secondary. Keep at it and be yourself. Every artist has a different life story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks. Yes, this experience — and my joking reference to myself as the worst art student in the world — is really my affirmation that I am where I want to be in art. I don’t want to get bogged down with strict, stuffy teachers, too many details, and worries over rules and grades. I just want to enjoy being the artist I am. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, trust me. I sucked like a mongoose with any art-related projects! If I can learn to draw and actually “become an artist”, believe me, you can, too. It’s surprising what we can accomplish when we make the decision to do it. Go for it!


  3. I personally believe that art in all o fits forms and subjective and self interpretive.As long as we are happy with what we have created, the process of getting there is unimportant and.. like you’ve heard said about staying away from formal schooling, can be disheartening. The moment one puts paint, ink, chalk to canvas, they are an artist. The first step and twirl a dancer, the first word to paper, a writer. Designations and classifications are unimportant and basically useless.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Séraphine Louis comes to mind as a true artist, no school. Don’t take me wrong, I have a PhD in the biological sciences and understand the value of education. But I think it’s complicated in the arts. I know for sure that I am not one (artist), but I find the definition of an artist to be more complicated, or simpler, than having to include school.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that anyone can be “an artist” — with out without formal training. In some cultures, lack of formal training is considered a good thing because it allows creativity to flow more naturally, not in a “trained” manner. Education is valuable, and I’m sure there are highly-talented artists who have gained immeasurably from a formal education in an arts program. I could never have made it through even a single semester of art school. I would have been booted to the curb right away. That’s fine. I’m glad I wasn’t subjected to all the rigorous training demanded by a formal education in the arts. I’m glad I never went to art school. It’s so much more fun, and so much more rewarding, to learn by doing, to make mistakes, and figure out what sort of artist I am.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Huh? Artistry is about vision, not technique. You can study all you want. You can learn technique. But, you may not have a thing to say.

    Half of my life roams around the music industry. Compare two guitar players. Eric Clapton plays from the soul. He moves a lot of people. He made it okay for children to grow up wanting to play guitar. He didn’t study anything. He just practiced. Then you have Joe Bonamassa. He studied everything. He has mastered technique. He plays like it.

    It’s the same with just about every other artistic genre. And, no. Not everybody can be an artist. That’s a sensibility entirely on its own. I hear that about photography. With the advent of digital cameras and smart phones everybody thinks they are photographers. Most of them are lucky if they can get the subject sharp, let alone make a statement with a camera.

    That’s the difference. Statements, comments and vision v technique.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Love it! Yes, you’ve put into words something I’ve been trying to say for a long time. I definitely agree that not everyone can be an artist, although I do believe that anyone (with sufficient desire) can learn to do the things an artist does. Look at me! I’m learning to draw. I’m learning to paint. I’m learning to create all kinds of things with paints and pencils and colors. I don’t have the patience to be an “artistic Bonamassa”, diligently working, studying, and mastering every technique, but in my own right, I’m still an artist. But, then again, do I truly have something to say? Do I truly have a vision to communicate? Sometimes I think I do, at other times I wonder if I have any message at all to share. Still, I am an artist in some ways. I would be a terrible, terrible art student, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be an artist. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and giving me the opportunity to think on these things.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That reminds me of an excellent piece of advice I heard once: No matter what you’re going through, always remember you’re not the only one who’s ever faced that problem.


  6. On a second note your description of how you failed to follow directions really reminds me of myself. I recently took a course on food photography. Oh my oh my. The whole week assembling props, the whole day setting up and cooking, then cleaning every drop, rearranging every lettuce leaf on the plate, so much work, so hard. Then hear the instructor say, well, the highlight on the strawberry is not big enough, the lettuce goes under the protein in the hamburger, not above, the light is flat on this rice on white background… drove me nuts

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. There are necessary skills, of course… but sometimes people take it to ridiculous extremes. At least, that’s how I feel about it. I can see where some people want to be “the best” and are willing to put in all that time and effort, all the hours of study, all of it! I don’t have a need for perfection in art. If I have to take 100 photographs to set up “the perfect still life arrangement” before I can even begin to paint… well, no. I’d lose interest long before I got the first dozen photographs taken. I don’t want to drive myself crazy with every little detail. I want to use my creative ability and the knowledge I’ve gained, do a reasonably good job of drawing and painting, and be able to joy both the process and the result.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I just don’t ever want to be the sort of artist who is “too picky” about getting things exactly right. I want to enjoy what I do, not get caught up in doing everything exactly the way some art professor thinks is right.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘true’ artist. You either call yourself one or you don’t. And let us be really honest, there are plenty of musicians and other people in the creative fields who have little to no formal training. I think everyone is capable of art. Valuing it is something completely different and irrelevant. Art is art. Mark making is art, whether you sell it or not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. I just don’t want to be a “true artist” in the sense of having to be too particular and too precise about measurements, details, getting everything absolutely perfect. That’s not the kind of artist I am, and that’s not the kind of artist I would ever want to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right. More and more I am seeing good reasons to take a little time, to be more methodical and precise, yet still come away with loose, impressionist paintings. Much of art is a balancing act, in many different ways. Little by little, I’m starting to find a balance of my own, I think. 🙂


    1. Thanks. You’ll see the finished project coming up in a few weeks. (My posts are scheduled about a month in advance.) I actually did enjoy the project, and I did learn a lot from it. I especially enjoyed learning to paint glass. From a distance, my glass bowl really does look like a glass bowl. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Art is something that stimulates an individual’s thoughts, emotions, beliefs, or ideas through the senses and we all express it in different ways and I think that is the beauty of it…the diversity 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, diversity is a huge part of what art means. I used to have a very limited understanding of “art”, and now I’m learning to see it in so many new ways.


  9. I have seen art schools exhibit favouritism over one student from another for a hundred reasons. more money, more ( Lick your a%se) , teachers pet and the rest. I have seen them encourage plagiarism, theft and downright copying to their students. Then Laud them as the next Bright Young Thing) I personally have been missold packages and then been taught by half drunk, inexpert teachers. Who are more concerned about the state of my car, then the education I was supposed to be receiving. I spent a year in Art School (if you can call it that) and had everythig confirmed to me. They steal your ideas, kill any originality, you may have and make you wish to become an accountant instead.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So sad that you had to go through that experience. More and more, believe me, I’m very glad I never had any inclination to go to art school. I wouldn’t have made it through the first week, truth be told. Now, I’m having a good time teaching myself (with a lot of online help) and learning at my own pace.


  10. Art is an expression, I believe, the work that you did was surely a piece of art and for whatever commitment you have over your artworks, you can be called an artist. But there’s just that little difference. There are people who enjoy their art just the way they want to. Then there are those who have committed to learn everything they possibly can, and given themselves wholly to art. They have practised and worked towards perfecting their skill all their lives, and made a career in it. They are willing to learn every technique or method there is to do something, only so they can know it if someone asks, or pass it on and in practice, use the method that best suits them. These are known as the passionate and committed, real, true artists, while others who create artworks that are a beauty, for self- satisfaction are just real, true artists, in my opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, there are some who, as you’ve said, give themselves wholly to art. I sometimes wished I could approach art with that same degree of devotion and dedication, but I can’t. For me, it takes the pleasure out of creating art. After a few years now of learning to draw and paint, I’m finally also learning to respect, accept, and even appreciate my imperfections. It makes my art my own, and that makes me happy.

      Liked by 1 person

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