I was a freshman in Oil Painting 101, taught by Sheila Cherni at Sheridan College in 1988. Most of us were beginners, and a few experienced artists were auditing the class.
Right from the start, an older student was clearly our “class artist.” We were in awe of the ease with which she could accomplish what the teacher was asking. The funny thing was, I soon realized, she didn’t actually do anything the teacher asked. When we were encouraged to stand so we could back away from the painting and check its progress often, this woman said, “I’ve never stood; I always sit.” If asked to use a certain color, she might say, “I don’t like that color, I always use this one instead.” Whether it was brushes, ranges or techniques to render light or shadow, she refused to stray from her own methods.
I started to wonder why she was taking the class if she wasn’t interested in trying anything new, but I got into learning and forgot she was sitting there, doing her own thing week after week.
During the months that followed, most of us heeded our instructor’s advice as we accomplished several still life paintings. Every new lesson opened a door to further learning and ideas, transforming us from a class of individuals to a community. With practice, we improved as painters, but the woman whose work was so admired at the beginning of the class did not improve. Her paintings, in comparison to the rest of the class members’, seemed less and less remarkable as the semester passed. Her strict adherence to her own way of doing things left her work stagnant.
The older I get, the more I see how easy it is to get complacent in our habits, but being receptive to new methods and advice keeps me growing as an artist. I didn’t finish college or even take Oil Painting 102, but I’ve continued learning. Whether through a class or workshop, or by simply talking with fellow artists, those lessons help me every time I stand at an easel.
Alice Fuller taught me many things, but I think the most important are to use my imagination and enjoy the process of art-making. Dean States advised me to always purchase the best art supplies I could afford. Kathy Sabine taught me to really see what I’m looking at, and that “interesting is better than accurate.” I learned about reflected light and colors from Nancy Buening.
Guido Frick taught me about fat over lean. Mike Beeman showed me that color is secondary to value. As a very young substitute high school art teacher, Maryke Nel told us never to give up on a painting. Mark Ritchie told me not to be afraid to be a freak, that my art doesn’t have to conform. Mike Ontiedt introduced me to colors I’d never used before, which became my favorites. Phil Starke taught me about color harmony, broken color and simplification.
Mara Schasteen showed me the beauty and importance of a thought out, well-placed stroke of color. Joel Ostlind told me how important value was years before I began to understand it. Carmella McCafferty showed me new ways to problem-solve color, temperature and mood elements in my paintings. My favorite lesson from Jim Lawson is that I don’t require a degree to make it as an artist.
I could go on for pages listing people and what they’ve taught me. Sometimes years pass between hearing the message and gaining the skills to really understand or apply it, but their advice and counsel always helps me become a better artist. Be open to suggestions. No matter our level of expertise, there is always more to learn, or a different way to approach it. Accept and remember those nuggets of guidance, and you can pass them on to others when the time comes.