Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tell Me About Your Teachers

If we are lucky, we get a few good teachers in our lives. They give us priceless gifts, and we cherish them long after they've forgotten us. I'm doing research on teaching methods and styles. Teaching personalities. I'll offer some stories of my own first, then I'd like to ask for yours at the bottom of this post. 

Henry Pearson, Composition, 1982

Mr. Pearson taught realistic painting surprisingly well. So far as I know, he never painted that way himself. He was famous for Op-Art Pictures he'd done in the 1960s, those fields of wavy lines that make your eyes vibrate. He moved slowly, carried himself in a dignified way and spoke with a Southern accent. Born in 1914, he was already advanced in age. He died in 2006 at age 92.

He was the first artist I met who lived in Manhattan. Fascinated, I asked him right away if I could stop by his apartment on my next trip to New York. He reluctantly assented, and I visited him one afternoon with a friend. Mr. Pearson had a long studio apartment right in mid-town, in the heart of the giant machine. Mr. Pearson's apartment displayed a curious a New York asthetic, based on extremely limited space. His sofa and table were of high quality, and there was almost nothing else in the room. He hung one small painting by his most famous student, James Rosenquist. On the opposite wall was a miniature box of shelves, holding about twelve sake cups. Mr. Pearson held up one of these and showed us how the ceramic glaze had melted away from the clay; the cup was from Hiroshima.

He told me to draw every single day, whether from life or a Sears catalog. The point was to keep doing it over and over and build perceptive and technical muscle. It was great advice. That's the main benefit from my time at the Academy; I could continue painting all these years, in less-than-perfect circumstances.

Oliver Grimley, Cast Drawing, 1980

Oliver Grimley taught me cast drawing, copying the casts of classical sculpture in the Academy’s collection. Grimley was already sixty years old, but he was fit, with a thick shock of gray hair and pointed goatee. Grimley was patient but meticulous in his criticism. He forced us to physically measure every mark we put on the paper. Typically he came to my easel and told me exactly how each line was wrong, then said, “I think the best thing you can do is to start over.” I did start over, and I kept the same view of the same cast. I never finished a drawing in that class, but Mr. Grimley strengthened my vision enormously. 

In early 2008, after working on four big canvases for six months, I realized I needed to scrap what I had done and start over. Thanks to Mr. Grimley's strong training, I had the courage to follow through. Twenty-eight years later, he was still dead-on; “I think the best thing you can do is to start over.”

Should I include a bad teacher? Oh why not? He was funny, in a strange way.

Bad Teacher Who Will Remain Nameless [and faceless], Figure Drawing, 1978

BT taught art at an expensive private university in Dallas, Texas. He was a short, plump man whose mouth locked in a smirk. He painted in an impressionistic style, mostly from photographs. His work was in the Dallas Museum of Art and the important local collections. BT spoke softly, as if from a great distance. He did not want to be there; he wanted to be in New York living the art life. He only liked messy drawings. Any picture that nailed the form down was “stiff.” Trying to satisfy his action-drawing aesthetic, I lunged at my paper, trying to clear it with movement, like a hurdler. [This method, lunging at a drawing and tossing it, off is still popular. Many drawing groups in San Francisco do endless “warm up” drawings. I have no idea why.] 

BT knew how to set up a pictorial space, and to lead the eye around in it. That’s the main value I took away. His drawing class was crowded. Everyone used a 24 x 36” newsprint pad and ripped the pages off after each short pose in unison, as in a dance. I still hear the dry paper ripping and landing on the floor. 

Toward the end of the semester, BT came through the studio and picked out several of the classroom model drawings, setting them against the wall, while we all watched. He took mine, and I was excited to hear what he’d say about it. He walked down the line of drawings, then turned to us.

“What I’ve done here,” he said, “is to pick out what I see as the worst drawings in the class. He then proceeded to tell each of us what we’d done wrong. The hurt and embarrassment showed on my face. A tall, skinny girl whispered to me.

“Don’t listen to him. I’ve been in college a long time, and your work is some of the best I’ve seen. He’s just being an asshole.” I liked that girl. I should have asked her to go for coffee and let her comfort me further, but I didn’t. 

Please comment or email me: artist (at) . I'm especially interested in art instruction, but if you were taught something else that ended up being important in your life (think about it), I'm interested in that educational experience, also.


What was being taught? 

Who was a good teacher? 

How were they effective? 

How did they handle you / the subject / other stuff?

Who was a bad teacher? 

What did they do that was bad?

How could they have been better?

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