Sunday, 7 March 2010

Guest watercolour artist and teacher, Michele Webber, answers the question: Can Art be Taught?

Prompted by a small email discussion with Judy, I thought I would talk about something  I am often asked. I have been teaching classes for several years now. I have taught toddlers, teenagers, adults, the middle aged, the very elderly and the disabled. People from every type of background and profession, ranging from people who are pretty competent with a paintbrush to people who haven't painted since school.

And they all ask the same thing: "is it just natural talent, or can I learn it?" I must admit, I used to think that it was only about talent; art always came easily to me. But years of teaching has made me profoundly change my mind. Of course some people are more talented than others, but that goes for lots of things, like driving or cooking or operating computers. I have never taught anyone who did not improve, and some made remarkable strides that surprised themselves as much as me. It is very personal; some people progress slowly, others fast, some find talent in detail, others in bold abstraction. Some people can paint portraits, but struggle with landscapes; others paint fabulous landscapes but have trouble with still life.

I have been moderately successful with teaching as I decided at the start my main rule would be guide, don't preach. The best art teachers work with what they have. You cannot make someone who is bold and painterly produce detailed botanical work. Nor can you get someone who is precise to paint splashy abstracts. Sure you can challenge them and give them a little push in a new direction, but style is inherent, like genetics, and finding their own style is what will make them happy. That's without even mentioning physical challenges of different glasses prescriptions, shaky hands, or the very common colour blindness (four times as prevalent in men as women!)

And really, is it all about the result? I have seen disabled teens struggle for days to produce something recognisable; but their pride and happiness makes the work priceless to them. I have seen the relaxation and companionship of a painting class help people through divorce and depression. And I have seen the elderly given a new lease of life by having soemthing to do that doesn't require youth and vigour.

But perhaps the best thing about learning to paint is that it teaches you to look at the world in far greater detail than before. Time and again students have told me how they suddenly notice colours and shapes in everyday objects that before would have been invisible to them. The world is fast and hectic, and art forces us to look closely at nature, to be really involved in the world around us instead of just rushing through with mobile phone in one hand and cappuccino in the other. And that may be far more valuable than producing a good picture.

So yes, I say art can, and definitely should be taught.

Thank you to Judy for kindly allowing me to contribute to her blog this week.

You can browse - and buy! - Michele's wonderful collection of cards and gifts with a 'Southwold' theme at her Zazzle store.


JudyAdamsonArtandDesign said...

Michele, I've always felt that the Southwold lighthouse was unusually close to the houses and you've captured that perfectly in your painting! I'm sure you will have lots of Southwold Sales!

Michele said...

Thank you Judy, and if readers are wondering, the snow scene is the water meadows, and the garden painting is the rear view of Gainsborough's House, both from my home town of Sudbury, Suffolk.

Country Mouse Studio said...

Beautiful images

Lorna May said...

Great artwork.
Very interesting reading.
Definately got me thinking.When first saw the article thought "no it's a natural talent" but your article got me thinking and changing my opinion

{dab and a dash.}

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you for your comment, Lorna and I'm glad Michele's article clarified things for you.

I still think there's only so much you can teach but far from going down the 'natural talent' line, I think we all have the ability but some of us need to be 'un-taught' so that we can unlock what is already within us.