Wednesday, August 9, 2017

From Cave to Classroom

What I learned about teaching art

Freelancing can be an isolating and sometimes lonely profession. But as any self-loathing artist will tell you “what’s wrong with that?”.  Deep down in the recesses of our workspace along with our solitude, we have our unopened action figures, our bagged comics, our books, magazines, toys, posters, LPs, the flotsam and jetsam of any decent studio. Our studios are our museums created apparently by what appears to be an eight-year-old with disposable income. I have my clients. My down time (aka: waiting for a client). My self-inflected projects (aka: frustration with a difficult client). What more could I want? After twenty years of this troglodylian profession I decided to go out in the sun and once more be with people.

It wasn’t just the social aspect of teaching I was looking towards. It was also the idea of a steady paycheck, something intangible to many freelance artists. But I don’t regret my decision. I thoroughly enjoy teaching at the college level. That of course is the first criteria. However, the professions of teacher and working artist are so different it is no easy transition. One that I am still working on.

When I was a student I had the good fortune of attending two excellent art schools: School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology, both located in Manhattan. While studying there I realized that some instructors were wonderful artists, some great teachers, but few were both. Many artists were pigeon-holed as they became experts at their craft. Some had a difficult time teaching a room full of students, different techniques and various mediums. You also need to adjust from introvert to extrovert as you stand onstage in front of your classroom. I honestly had flop sweat my first time. Weekly public speaking eventually brought out the ham in me. There are, of course, quite a number of things not to do.

Such as, now that people can actually see me it is time to throw away that coffee-stained bathrobe, shave every morning and head down to a decent men’s store for a makeover. It need not be Barney’s or Odin, but more than a t-shirt and worn jeans. My students can dress like they are going to a EDM bar, tattoos a blazing, but if I want any kind of respect from them I better dress for business and not the studio.

I don’t pretend to listen to their music either. I tried and failed horribly with my own children. They know I’m not twenty or thirty (I’ll stop there), so I don’t bother to act it. I do play music in my classes, mostly Rock, Funk, or Blues. Once in a while I sneak in some Classical. If I feel particularly vengeful Opera, yes Opera. Those are the nights when the headphones come out. In return, on some nights they have their say and convince me to listen to K-Pop, Folk Punk, Goth or whatever they come up with. Everyone needs victories against authority to stay inspired. Especially since I run my classroom as a friendly dictator and not a democracy.

And make mistakes. You learn more from failures than successes and it makes you more human. Demos use to be particularly stressful. When I received praise from students for a drawing, the last thing I want them to take away is that I can do this every time (I can’t), that there is something special about me (there isn’t) and therefore they shouldn’t try (they must). I want them to see me draw a funky face, a distorted figure, a crappy still life. I want them to know it takes hours and hours of hard work and practice and even then, there is no guarantee. It is not a gift of either you have it or you don’t. The only gift I experienced in my years of working and teaching is that the hardest worker achieves the most.

The last thing I want to do is create a clone army too. It is comforting to teach what you do best, but it is not helping them to create. We are visual problem solvers. They need to shade it, lay it out, color it, render it the way they see it. Even if that means using one too many typefaces. Brush script is one too many, by the way. That means learning new things for both of us. Perhaps it is a filter I stay clear from in Photoshop or starting a portrait in charcoal instead of pencil. They push me to be a better artist and I believe my work has improved somewhat since teaching.

They should want to come to class not loathe it. I couldn’t wait to get to a class taught by Vincent DiFate or Will Eisner, two of my favorites among many. They were so filled with knowledge and pure love of art I soaked it up and left inspired every time. Remember, they’re in art school, not catechism. Have some fun. Laugh at yourself and don’t take art too seriously. I do have three rules, however, commandments really. I issue these at the start of every course no matter what I am teaching. Are they ever broken? Of course, but they are a starting point for school and the work that lay ahead. They are:

Thou Shall Meet All Deadlines
Thou Shall Follow Specifications
Thou Shall Not Be Difficult*

And if all that fails, bring in food. Students are always hungry.  

*I have a crasser version I use to get my point across in class that seems to have a greater retention value.

Digital Color Theory demonstration in Photoshop © J Stroud 2016