On Choosing and Art Instructor
by Jack Faragasso



In the earliest of times one had no problem finding a good art instructor, for if a student showed ability and interest in drawing and painting, he was apprenticed to a Master at an early age. There, growing up in a workshop, he learned every aspect of the craft from the bottom up. As apprentices progressed, they were entrusted to work on more important passages of paintings that were being created in the master’s workshop.

In 1580 the Caracci set up the first major art instruction school in Bologna, Italy—the first institution offering ordinary citizens the chance to learn art. The prime focus was on drawing, painting, and rendering the nude human figure; standards were high. The concept was a success and over time came to replace apprenticeship as the primary learning path. State-supported art academies became more common and were treated as a kind of “finishing school” for the financially well off. The academy system (still focused on mastering the techniques of representation and modeling the nude) reached its apogee in the nineteenth century, some three centuries after the Caracci School. Then, of course, the twentieth century saw a flood of contrary ideas, and the old forms and methods were reviled and denounced. A handful of dedicated artist-instructors have kept the traditions alive—often in obscurity—while in the absence of accepted standards, inherited techniques, or even a commitment to representation, the mainstream of art instruction has been reduced to chaos.

The following suggestions are not for those interested in specializing in, say, watercolor, or landscapes, or murals—or any specific technique. It is offered for individuals who have had little or no art training and want to embark on a path of painting representational art, and are not sure of the right direction.

For the would-be professional artist (or even for an amateur of any age) it is very important to start with the right art instructor, as one can waste years before learning one has been in the wrong place. Students are usually channeled or steered to a particular instructor and they then tend to stay with them for a long time; it takes unusually good sense to perceive that this is not where they should be, so it is best to do homework on instructors before beginning to study.

A novice artist wants facts, knowledge, a foundation to build upon. Finding instructors able to offer these things requires effort. Herewith are some principles to follow in the search:

1. Catalogue reproductions of an instructor’s work cannot tell you if that person can teach. They will tell you if that person favors representational art, but that is about all. Look at originals, not reproductions, wherever possible, as these convey far more about the painter.

2. Do not choose an instructor based solely on how well he paints. Every teacher has arrived at this point after many years of arduous work. The error to avoid lies in looking at the end result and wanting to emulate it—that is, thinking to start at the end rather than the beginning.

3. Do not choose an instructor based solely on wanting to paint like him. Every one of us is unique, and if we learn our craft well, working from nature, our paintings will come out uniquely ours. For centuries artists have painted nature in a representational manner; yet each artist still has a unique viewpoint and is easily identified by his style.

4. To reinforce a key point: a good painter is not necessarily a good teacher. Some cannot convey their thought processes to a beginner; others do not have the patience to describe the thousands of things that go into learning how to compose, draw, and paint pictures. Conversely, a mediocre painter can be an excellent teacher—especially if he has spent more time teaching the craft of painting than actually painting masterpieces.

5. Do not choose an instructor based on an instructor’s fame. Some beginners do this with the goal of having a famous name in their own resumé—so that people will assume the pupil is also good. This unfortunately does work (at least occasionally) but usually the beginner learns little, spends a lot of money, and winds up fooling himself as well as the public.

6. Do not assume you can learn by attending demonstrations. Many students say “If I could only see so-and-so paint a picture from beginning to end, that’s all I would need.” This is one of the most ill-informed, ignorant statements anyone can make. A beginner does not know how to draw, especially with a brush. He does not know how to mix nuances of color and values; indeed, he cannot even see them. When a demonstrator puts the brush to canvas, it is the result of many, many previous split-second decisions, which are unknown to a new observer. A beginner does not know if the painter intends to make this patch lighter or darker or weaker or stronger in color, or how much, or whether it should be fused or left alone. The student will get very little out of watching a demonstration, unless perhaps to enjoy it as a performance. It is equivalent to someone who has never played a piano thinking he can play a Beethoven concerto after hearing it once.

7. Seek out an instructor with experience, both in the world of art and in teaching, who is able to organize that experience into lessons. A definite program is essential, as any reasonably experienced instructor has a vast amount of knowledge on the subject, but few can convey all that knowledge without some structure. One learns more quickly and easily within a program.

8. In the early years, focus on getting a thorough grounding in drawing, painting, and technical procedure. This is important, as whatever the student does not master at the beginning of his training will dog him throughout his career. This may take a long time, and the impulse will be there to begin specializing, to push into development of a distinctive style. Master the basics first. As a famous artist once said, “A picture painted without method is doomed to failure.”

9. Choose an instructor who is also a bit of a psychologist, someone able to recognize and unblock a student’s mental blocks. Students come with a diversity of personalities, with real or imagined problems that block learning. An instructor should treat these as part of the creative process and seek to build a rapport between himself and each student.

10. Seek out and talk with the students of any prospective instructor. A good instructor will have good students and the students will have good shows, in which the quality of the work is apparent year after year. It is better to judge the instructor by how well his students do than by anything else he does.

Finally, although it should not be necessary to say it—draw and paint at every opportunity. Thousands of demonstrations and lectures are no substitute for one completed picture. Skill comes from constant, appropriate, diligent practice

Jack Faragasso is a prolific painter of the figure, landscape, and still life, who has shown in major exhibits and galleries throughout America. He has been an instructor at the Art Students’ League in New York since 1968.

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