For years I regretted not having stood up to my parents and teachers who decided that I shouldn’t go to Art School because they were ‘full of Beatniks, aka 'The Great Unwashed’. And for years I worried that I wasn’t doing my Art ‘right’ because I’d missed out on an Art education.
But then, with the coming of the internet, I discovered vast numbers of ‘self-taught’ artists making a success of their Art careers and I began to wonder whether a degree in Art is necessarily an advantage. The young man who started the Sunday Afternoon Book Club in our local Waterstone’s was an Art student and the projects he described – some involving quantities of fresh cream being liberally applied to his person to make prints – didn’t seem to me to be necessarily the best use of the taxpayers’ money! And this didn’t exactly encourage me to believe that going to Art School would necessarily have been an advantage.
Maybe it's helpful for getting a gallery to take you seriously? The owner of one of our local galleries once pointed out to me that one of my favourite artists was so good because he’d been to Art School and you could see it in his drawing. But on the other hand, when my house was on the market, one of the viewers was a tutor from the local Art College and when he saw one of my ‘works in progress' he rather shocked me by telling me that he wished some of his students could draw like I did, even though I know that my drawing often isn't my strongest point.
So what goes on in an Art School? What can we learn that we can’t get from am Adult Education class, a private workshop, an online tutorial or through simply being part of a community of artists? All of these can provide us with useful tips, for instance, about how to get the best out of a certain medium, a kind of toolbox of ‘how-to’s that can come in handy.
My own view is that attempting to teach anything beyond that runs the risk of being counterproductive, weighing the artist down with notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to make their art. I believe that many would-be artists are inhibited by the idea of this ‘right and wrong’ way to make art and that what they really need are some suggestions that will liberate them from this belief. Maybe that’s what the fresh cream exercise was all about?
A couple of things helped free me up from this pervasive feeling that I wasn’t doing it ‘right’ because I’d missed out on Art School so I didn’t need to go down the fresh cream route. Both were discoveries I made online.
- One was a discussion forum attached to an online Art College where someone asked whether others bothered to stretch their watercolour paper and everyone who replied admitted that they didn’t! A similar ‘breaking of the rules’ came up in relation to pen and wash. As Chris Fothergill mentioned recently, traditionally the ‘pen’ comes first and the ‘wash’ afterwards. But there was a general consensus on that forum that it was fine to paint first and outline in ink afterwards. After all, it’s the finished results that count, no matter how it came about!
- But probably the most liberating moment for me was when I watched Quentin Blake’s video clip of how he works on his illustrations! Do take a few minutes to watch this if you haven’t already seen it – or even if you have! No mixing of washes in a palette; instead he keeps a strip of paper beside him and tries out the colours on that, adding a bit of this and a touch of that as necessary! And to crown it all, I caught a glimpse of his paint water and what an eye-opener that was for me!
So, together with discovering so much ‘professional-looking’ art on the internet, created by self-taught artists, that was enough to convince me that I hadn’t really missed out by not having a degree in Art, or even an A-level.
However, there’s one advantage I can see to having a formal qualification in Art, apart from the confidence it might bestow.
- A fellow student at one of the Adult Education classes I attended in Norwich commented that she came to the class to make sure that she painted regularly. She was a doctor’s wife and mother of several children. At home, she said, she could rarely paint without feeling guilty about neglecting her wifely and motherly duties. But coming to a class where everyone else was devoting at least one morning a week to their artistic pursuits, relieved her of her guilty feelings. Maybe, for some, being in an Art School environment where everyone is focusing on their art for a considerable portion of their time, fosters the idea that it is a legitimate way to spend time, rather than something that they should regard as a hobby to be fitted in around all the other demands of their lives?
From that perspective, I can see the value of a formal training in Art.
But I’m sure there must be other advantages and I’d love to hear what they are!