Observations from art schools. Somewhat rambling.
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    Observations from art schools. Somewhat rambling.

    I have recently been studying to become a teacher and have spent some time at various art schools observing and doing some teaching of my own. I would like to share some of my thoughts here. I'm sure these subjects have been mulled over in one form or another on this forum yet I find it interesting to discus these matters. I apologise if these kinds of discussions have been done to death already.

    My observations lead me to question whether or not there is any place for one such as myself at these art schools. I get the impression that not many schools are interested in the kind of art teaching that I would like to offer. My main concern is that a lot of schools seem to focus on cultivating some kind of abstract artistic quality rather then giving the students a solid understanding of the basic techniques in art (how to paint, draw, sculpt and so on). I have yet to meet someone who can really describe this abstract quality so it can be understood. I had a discussion with one teacher who claimed to be uninterested in such things as composition, perspective, colour theory (and so on) but instead wanted to teach some kind of creative thinking that couldn't really be explained. Skills like composition were refereed to as being shallow and boring. I also noticed that often during reviews of student work not one word was said about the technical execution or how they could improve their craft. It was all more or less philosophical talk about “this shade of green means this and that..”. Such discussions can be interesting but I find it problematic when they become the be all and end all of art education.

    Some teachers appear to harbor some resentment towards representational art. For example I have observed teachers speak negatively and almost hostile to students that strive to create realistic representational art. They say things like “your art is shallow. You should paint more abstract” or “Why are you sculpting a horse? Oh, because you like horses? That's not exceptable. This is ugly and boring.” Some I spoke with expressed the view that they did not need to learn to paint “properly” because that would hinder them from investing real emotion and meaning into their art.

    For some it seems that one must chose between being a more abstract “free” artist and creating “real “ art that says something or being someone who just paints still life all day. I think that one can (and should) be something in-between. Technical skills without imagination and interesting ideas can be boring yes but interesting ideas without the skill and experience to realise them is no better.

    Of course I have not visited every art school there is. And only some here in Sweden. I have heard tough that this style of teaching and view of art is fairly common.I realise that my own preferences in art play a large part in how I interpret my experiences. I try to view things from other peoples perspective too.

    So, what is there to discuss? I guess if anyone agrees, disagrees or has experience of being a art teacher/student under similar conditions it would be interesting to hear about.

    Last edited by Bergulf; March 19th, 2010 at 06:32 PM.
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    I don't know about art schools but I hear this all the time from my friends and relatives about public schools in America from kindergarten through college level . Representational skills are frowned upon and derided by those teaching.
    I have about 40 nieces and nephews and some of them have children now and because I'm an artist they have an interest in art. They tell me that their art teachers are horrible. It is all about agenda art so if you are in a minority group your art is supposed to be something other than realist academic style art. Somehow you are a traitor if you don't agree.

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    Opposite experience in community college in Prescott Arizona, so my field of view is extremely limited. The classes I'm taking so far have been focused almost exclusively on representational art from a commercial art and a fine arts standpoint. In two semesters I only have 1 assignment that will explore abstract art. Otherwise my instructors and the general art program have all been geared toward the fundamentals which I've been happy with.

    Shrill anti realism and shrill anti abstraction have no place in art education as far as I'm concerned. The art teacher is there to teach students how to make better art in accordance to that student's goals, not pass on bias.

    From what I've been reading here and there it seems like you're not alone with this problem in Europe. I've seen other Europeans post that they're annoyed with their art school's attitude toward realism. I'm not sure how prevalent the attitude is in the states.

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    Art education is a huge industry in America and most of it is rubbish, especially in university art departments. And the vast majority of art teachers are rubbish, because they are the product of university art departments. However, just playing the percentages, there are a lot of really good people out there as well. Also, because the American commercial art market is so large, traditional training remained available for illustration even as it fell out of favor in the fine art world. The situation in Europe is more difficult because there are so many fewer options in most countries.


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    Hmm, I don't know what it's like in Europe, but it seems to me that in the U.S. the art schools that focus on commercial art generally have a lot of practical classes (anatomy, perspective, life drawing, learning to use different media and software, etc.) Whereas a lot of art schools and courses that focus on "fine art" are mostly fuzzy theory without much practical method. Universities seem to have especially impractical, fuzzy-wuzzy art courses, from what I've seen.

    "Trade" schools, i.e. art schools specializing in commercial art, often have teachers who make a living as artists and only teach part-time. This helps keep the classes at those schools grounded in reality (in my school it was mandatory for teachers to be currently working in the field. Or at least it was when I was there.) This is also true of community colleges - I've had some decent classes at community colleges, and so have other people I know... (Although with community colleges the quality of classes and teachers varies a lot, so there's no guarantee.)

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    I hope you're not saying that you are giving up on teaching because there are a lot of bad teachers out there. I would think that might be reason to pursue teaching, if you really want to do it, so you can contribute in some way to something you believe in. I am a university professor and really enjoy it. Yes there are bad profs around but we also have faculty dedicated to a strong foundation in drawing and formal issues. If you perceive a problem and truly want to teach then be one of those teachers who teach with passion and work with passion contributing to both the academic and professional worlds.

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    I do wonder if it is a regional thing because I'll have to commemorate with what other's have said: I've had the exact opposite experience at the Academy of Art University which is located in San Francisco. That is, everything that is taught here is entirely technical, all fundamentals.

    If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that teaching the abstract side of art is a common view? Are you serious? Are you absolutely positive about that statement? Because, well...okay, I don't know if this is a regional thing, but I find that to be an extremely strange statement. I'd be amazed and rather disgusted if what you're saying is the common teaching style. Honestly, I don't know of any serious art schools here in California that teaches like that and the only ones that I think probably would would be schools where the art class is simply an elective for fun.

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    In representational art, and in basic drawing classes, I think there are grounds that separate "right" art from "wrong" art. I had a wonderful art teacher in high school that taught us that. I'm in my first year of college and I felt bad for some of the people in our Drawing I class. The teacher praised almost every drawing she saw in that class. Bad habits and mistakes that could have been improved on were suddenly artistic expression and exploring creativity. I don't blame the school, though. Our teacher was new and I saw other classes working from a more traditional setting i.e. still life, perspective, live models, etc. I was glad I had such a good high school teacher or else I wouldn't have learned anything but bad habits.

    Yes, I do believe discovering your style and exploring different methods of art are great.... Great for someone who has a grasp on the basics of drawing. I think you have to have an understanding of light and shadow, basic color theory, perspective, anatomy, and the like in order to move on to greater challenges. And I think a lot of art teachers forget where good art habits begin. I'm terrible at teaching but I'm almost compelled to teach at a college level much later in life so at least someone gets better training than drawing what you feel like in a fundamental art class.

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    I've had the exact opposite experience at the Academy of Art University which is located in San Francisco. That is, everything that is taught here is entirely technical, all fundamentals.
    I wonder if there's something about "academies"... From what I can tell, the National Academy here is also strict about fundamentals and seems to focus heavily on traditional approaches (judging by the student work, anyway...) But they're a very old-school institution.

    When I was applying for art schools, though, all the art departments at universities looked pretty flaky, and so did the "fine art" departments in a lot of the art schools. The "fine art" department in my own alma mater was a bit of a joke, in contrast to the commercial art departments, which were excellent. (This was Parsons School of Design.) I roomed with some of the fine art majors, and their homework consisted mostly of coming up with what they were going to SAY about their art. Making art was totally secondary.

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    Thanks for the replies. It is interesting to hear others opinions/experiences. It appears that there is a wider selection of art schools with different focus in America. It stands to reason that smaller countries would have lesser options and a more homogeneous art community.

    To bcarman: I'm not one to give up so easily. I have enjoyed what little teaching I have done so far and I'm sure I will continue with it one way or another. Yet I think I would need to find a school where the teaching is geared in a direction that I understand and can agree with. I think there needs to be a clearer distinction between schools. Some focus on the more abstract and experimental and that's fine if the students want that. Currently it appears to be quite hazy though. Its hard to tell what the school really teaches unless one has been there. I think many students end up in places that wont/cant offer what they want.

    To daeyeth: I have gotten the impression that a more abstract focus is fairly common here in Sweden yes. I have also heard from other teachers with a lot of experience that this is the case here and in other places like the UK.

    As I stated earlier I have not been to every art school. I am sure there are exceptions. Actually I am aware of a few that focus solely on representational art. Like http://www.atelierstockholm.se/ for example. These schools are rare but possibly this style will have a revival.

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    Quote Originally Posted by 6 Sided View Post
    Yes, I do believe discovering your style and exploring different methods of art are great.... Great for someone who has a grasp on the basics of drawing. I think you have to have an understanding of light and shadow, basic color theory, perspective, anatomy, and the like in order to move on to greater challenges.
    My sentiments exactly.

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    Yeah, this is indeed what it's like in sweden, pretty sucky. The art classes I took in three different schools were all more or less aimed at expressing your ideas or feelings rather than actually handling anatomy and the like. I actually ended up with a lower grade than my friends because I wouldn't be as abstract as them during some assignments (and probably because I expressed that I wasn't exactly learning alot from painting random colors and gluing objects to the canvas...).

    I remember one teacher in particular who would always talk about his own ideas and how awesome they were - and then he'd show us some of his work - one time it being a little wooden house filled with old markers. Such were his brilliant ideas and such art was the art we learned. Makes me pretty angry thinking back on it, it's actually not until now that I started attending gamedesign at university level that we have truly gotten to learn perspective, composition, anatomy and the like - and where it has been approven of. Feels like many many hours of wasted time up until now.

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    I wonder if there are fewer commercial art-oriented instructors because they have developed some strange set of skills that allows them to find employment opportunities beyond being an art teacher.

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    Quote Originally Posted by daeyeth View Post
    I do wonder if it is a regional thing because I'll have to commemorate with what other's have said: I've had the exact opposite experience at the Academy of Art University which is located in San Francisco. That is, everything that is taught here is entirely technical, all fundamentals.

    If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that teaching the abstract side of art is a common view? Are you serious? Are you absolutely positive about that statement? Because, well...okay, I don't know if this is a regional thing, but I find that to be an extremely strange statement. I'd be amazed and rather disgusted if what you're saying is the common teaching style. Honestly, I don't know of any serious art schools here in California that teaches like that and the only ones that I think probably would would be schools where the art class is simply an elective for fun.
    Really? Did you check out the Art Institute or The California College of Arts and Crafts, its crap. While it is true that the illustration departments can be good, they have to be, but the fine art painting programs are a joke. It was that way at the Academy in the 80's but they turned it around. So yeah I'm very confident that schools are teaching mostly crap with a few bright spots like the Academy. Also SF is a modern art town, how many representational galleries are there? John Pence and North Point and maybe the Art Exchange and thats about it. Everything else is either kitschy whales or modern abstract painting.

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    I always drew realistically, and when I showed up at my first art history class, I was scornful of everything but the Renaissance, Realists, Surrealists, and Impressionists. I'm still basically a realistic illustrator, but over time I started to really appreciate the sophistication that exists in abstract and conceptual art when it's done well (and also in primitive art).

    Good fine art, whether it is abstract or not, has certain qualities of conceptual and formal exploration and expression that are very important. These are the qualities most collectors/museums/galleries are looking for, rather than a beautiful picture. IF YOU DO NOT APPRECIATE THESE QUALITIES, YOU WILL NEVER BE RESPECTED AS A FINE ARTIST. Therefore any school or teacher who wants to prepare you for the fine art world will try to instill this appreciation in you -- and it's very hard to learn it if you're spending all your time trying to master anatomy and perspective, so in many cases, one approach gets sacrificed for the other. It's a rare teacher who can teach both at once, and a rare department that isn't heavily biased one way or the other.

    (And of course CA has a bias too, which is for representational painting and the entertainment market.)

    To the OP, I think you just need to find out whether these institutions are open to what you want to teach. If they aren't, then you're not going to get a job anyway. If they are, then you will add diversity and a new skillset to what they are offering, and that will be a good thing for everyone.

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    Quote Originally Posted by klortho View Post
    I wonder if there are fewer commercial art-oriented instructors because they have developed some strange set of skills that allows them to find employment opportunities beyond being an art teacher.
    Could be klothro. Could well be. I like to think however that those who teach have chosen to do so for the right reason (they like it and they are good at it) rather then as some kind of last resort. Being a teacher is certainly not easy, not only should one be very skilled and knowledgeable but also poses solid pedagogical ability. I have a lot of respect for skilled teachers.

    Some teach and have some other creative profession simultaneously so its not like one necessarily has to chose on or the other. If anything its probably a good thing to combine. I find that one learns a lot oneself when teaching to others.

    To mickeymao: You make some very good insightful points. I agree that it is a problem if teachers become too heavily biased in either direction.

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    I'll just add my two cents...many of the U.S. academic institutions (universities and junior colleges) are still mired in post-modern, idea/concept oriented art or even performance art. Fortunately there are also many private schools and universities that offer a more traditional, technical approach to art. Hopefully you can find a place in Sweden that is more in line with your own ideas, if not, set one up! It sounds like a great opportunity to establish a more traditional school because people are starved for academic training - you may be surprised at how many students and fellow teachers flock to you.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Hopefully you can find a place in Sweden that is more in line with your own ideas, if not, set one up! It sounds like a great opportunity to establish a more traditional school because people are starved for academic training - you may be surprised at how many students and fellow teachers flock to you.
    This is along the lines of what I was thinking. If the climate of art education in Sweden has gotten this skewed than a career in teaching could be as much a mission to provide a counter balance and revive traditional realism as a paycheck. It's time for a backlash.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dpaint View Post
    Really? Did you check out the Art Institute or The California College of Arts and Crafts, its crap. While it is true that the illustration departments can be good, they have to be, but the fine art painting programs are a joke.
    Well, no I didn't. Okay, I pulled that statement out of my ass lol, I just assumed everyone else was like the AAU.

    I was too harsh in my original post. It does make sense that a lot of places would teach that abstract style, especially at places where art isn't the focus. But I mean, that's still disappointing to know because, besides the ppl taking the art class as an elective, how do they expect the ppl majoring in art to get a job without an understanding of the fundamentals? They must be assuming that if they're majoring in art, they must already know how to draw.

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    Quote Originally Posted by daeyeth View Post
    But I mean, that's still disappointing to know because, besides the ppl taking the art class as an elective, how do they expect the ppl majoring in art to get a job without an understanding of the fundamentals?
    There is absolutely no expectation that most people graduating with an art degree will ever be able to make a living as artists. Like most academic disciplines, the major use of a degree is to get a job teaching other people, so that they can get degrees, et cetera ad infinitum.

    Last edited by Elwell; March 22nd, 2010 at 07:12 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    There is absolutely no expectation that most people graduating with an art degree will ever be able to make a living as an artist. Like most academic disciplines, the major use of a degree is to get a job teaching other people, so that they can get degrees, et cetera ad infinitum.
    I see, that's interesting. I've been under the wrong impression of how art study is looked at in Universities because I'm at a trade school, where the sole focus is get you a job in your area of study.

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    I studied fine arts in a community college before going to art school for commercial arts (cartooning), and, if your description of the average teacher's sentiment in fine art classes is correct, I was fortunate then to have a teacher who was really strong in advocating Realism, almost religiously, even though all other teachers, their portfolio and focus were more abstract. I don't think I would have been where I am in terms of skills today without his class, even though I did give up life painting for comics instead once I went to art school (which is almost similar in fundamental studies but more focused on drawing from the mind and doing it fast, than by observation)

    I was there for 2 years; he became chairman of the art department by the end of my first year there, and right then he introduced a figure painting class, even though the department was small (so not well funded, sometimes the models were students). He also managed gallery shows in the school with more realism paintings than abstract paintings in most shows.

    so I agree with bcarman, you should stick around and make some changes :-P

    edit: *I should explain how serious he was about it. My first class with him was a drawing 1 class, just an elective, most students assumed an easy A just like high school, but half the class dropped out after the first day once he went through the curriculum. He would tell students to go home if they forgot their supplies, and pressure us really hard to try our best. it was intense, but all 5 of us students who stayed through the end, enjoyed it.

    Last edited by nauvice; March 22nd, 2010 at 07:30 PM.
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    To the OP... I would say before becoming a teacher, go out and work as an artist first and THEN turn around and bring all you have found out back to the students.

    As for the fluffy "draw what you feeeeel" type of art instruction. Well... there is a reason such huge numbers of students coming out of a college art program can't find work as an artist. I think artists in education should ALL be aiming to developing the core skills and understanding of art (so that they CAN actually find work) and then if they decide to go the "fine art" direction, well, they can have fun trying that on the side.

    It just seems like a huge injustice to take a students money for so long and not leave them with much more than "art is about expressing yourself and being freeee!". That attitude is fine when in kindergarden... but the vast majority of people need college to set them up on a career path with a range of abilities so that they are more marketable.

    We would ALL love to just sit back and paint whatever we feel like and get paid huge sums of money for it... that is the dream... but so is winning the lottery, you shouldn't gamble your life on it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    There is absolutely no expectation that most people graduating with an art degree will ever be able to make a living as artists. Like most academic disciplines, the major use of a degree is to get a job teaching other people, so that they can get degrees, et cetera ad infinitum.
    Absolutely right, El...I can take that a step further...there is absolutely no expectation that most people graduating with Masters degrees in Fine Arts can even draw. A friend of mine has one of those from Yale of all places. He fills abandoned buildings with sand and sets up massive fans to blow it around. He teaches at a university in NY if anyone is interested. I could go on...

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    I actually think a Yale MFA is one of the rare good academic investments, if that's what you're interested in.


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    My first class with him was a drawing 1 class, just an elective, most students assumed an easy A just like high school, but half the class dropped out after the first day once he went through the curriculum.
    Heh, that sounds like my freshman year at Parsons... A lot of the foundation classes when I was there were brutal - they were drilling us in the fundamentals and they weren't messing around. There was always a bunch of freshmen who applied because they thought an art major would be "easy". After the first few weeks of insane homework they soon changed their minds, and most dropped out before their sophomore year (except a few who drifted into the fine art department...)

    I hear they've changed it all, though. I wonder if it's still as tough...

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    Quote Originally Posted by zwarrior View Post
    edit: *I should explain how serious he was about it. My first class with him was a drawing 1 class, just an elective, most students assumed an easy A just like high school, but half the class dropped out after the first day once he went through the curriculum. He would tell students to go home if they forgot their supplies, and pressure us really hard to try our best. it was intense, but all 5 of us students who stayed through the end, enjoyed it.
    That's to weed out those who're not serious about art from those who are truly into it.
    Hardcore teachers like these are my type of dream teachers. The harder, the fiercer, the more brutal and cutting, the better.

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