That’s Not What I Was Taught

We all learned our craft somehow. And if we develop as artists there comes a point where we have to stop relying on what we were taught and make our own way, maybe in a different direction. At that point we are going beyond what we were taught.

Instruction

Unless you were raised by wolves and picked up the concept of making art through a mystical infusion, you were taught somehow. For many that means formal art school or classes and workshops with leading artists.

Even though I consider myself self-taught, I had thousands of hours of instruction in the form of books, videos, self-evaluation, looking at art, visiting museums, etc.

Somehow, we got trained. The “muscle memory” was built. We learned the basic techniques and technology. The history and design and composition and color theory and the dozens of other layers of information we need to create art are introduced to us. We build on what has come before.

It’s like shooting thousands of baskets until you are completely comfortable with the feel and weight of the ball, until you start the have the “touch” to put it where you want from all different angles and distances. This isn’t playing basketball, it’s just getting prepared to play basketball.

Apprentice

When the basics are laid down, most of us go through a long “apprenticeship”. It may not be formal and we may not call it that, but that is what it is.

By apprenticeship I mean we are practicing the basics until they are smooth and natural. At this point we are probably listening to or watching a mentor and trying to create work like theirs. Nothing wrong with this. It is part of the learning process. But we are still creating someone else’s art. This is practice, training.

To continue the basketball analogy, now we start to practice with the team. We become comfortable passing and catching and playing positions and working smoothly with the others. The coach is yelling at us and making us do drills and repetitive work that seems boring and useless. Maybe we mostly sit on the bench in games and only rotate in occasionally. The reality is that we are probably not as good yet as we think. The coach knows that. That is why we aren’t playing much right now.

As artists, maybe we go out shooting or painting a lot with our mentor. They direct us to locations and talk through how they see the image. It is helping us learn to create a decent image. It may not be how we see it, but at this point we are trying to produce results that match theirs.

Independence

Ah… someday. The longer we go through our training and apprenticeship, the more we begin to chafe under the restrictions. As we develop our own style and vision some of us yearn to break away and do what we think we need to do.

One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was interesting (well, a lot were): “Students are not greater than their teacher.” That’s true, as long as there is a teacher/student relationship. As long as the teacher has something to teach you. But he goes on to say “But the student who is fully trained will become like the teacher.”

There comes a point where there are diminishing returns from studying from a teacher. If the student comes to a parity level with the teacher, they become the teacher.

That is the thing. At some point, we become our own teachers. Not that we know everything, but that no one else does either, so we have to guide our self.

Where do you go then?

What I observe, unscientifically, is 3 paths at this point:

  • Continue doing what you were taught
  • Enhance it a little and go slightly beyond
  • Figure out that there is something different

It seems to me that most artists proudly continue doing work like they were taught. They go on to get better and better at the same things. I’m not criticizing them. This seems to be the best path for many people. I can’t understand it myself, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Another group pushes a little beyond what they were taught. They enhance the techniques, maybe modernize them with new materials or processes. Maybe introduce a little fusion from another school. The result is a natural evolution of what they learned. Again, no criticism. But again, I can’t understand staying so close to home.

It would seem obvious that I must be in the last group, since I don’t fit anywhere else. 🙂 We sincerely thank our instructors for the training they gave us. But we realize we have a different vision and will be creating a completely different form of art. This is not a rejection of our instructors, just a growth stage.

Our own body of work

My view is that at some point, we have to let our own vision and style emerge and take the lead in our work. This is not something that happens automatically as soon as we leave the umbrella of our instructor. It happens over some period of time. The time is completely personal and dependent only on ourselves.

Hopefully at this point we can trust our judgment to recognize and follow the path we are being drawn to. We are creating our own body of work, in our own style, following our own vision. Now we are really an independent artist. We have no more need for a teacher. Confidants, advisors, mentors, critics even, but not teachers.

What we are doing is not what we were taught. It is what we have transformed that teaching to that works for us.

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