Moody, Minimalist Landscape Painting

Posts tagged “teaching with compassion

Teaching: Creating Community and Fostering Independence

Lately I have been musing about how, as teacher and mentor, my ongoing job is to instruct and support, while my long-term goal is to nurture the confidence that leads to independence. The ability to solve one’s own creative problems springs from having the integrated information, skill set, and resoluteness to do so.  By facilitating all of this, the teacher’s job is to work one’s self out of a job.



Most teaching is done in a group setting, and then camaraderie, cross-pollination, and sometimes competition enter into the learning process. The group dynamic is both a draw and a distraction.

Artists most often work in the solitude of their studios, which can be a major adjustment for those new to the process who are struggling with issues of a steep learning curve, motivation, and self-confidence. Most of my students and mentees are fiercely drawn to art-making, but then wonder why they have a hard time getting into and spending time with their studio practice. This leads to the undermining fear that if they were the real deal, true artists, they would be consistently highly motivated. Or at least have the discipline to get on in there, no matter how they feel.

Drawn from conversation with many dozens of artists over the years, my observation is that a perceived lack of motivation is most often internal resistance that stems from very common fears: fear of failure, fear of success, and most of all, fear of meeting one’s self. And therein lies the importance of the solitary activity — meeting one’s self is the life work of an artist or thinker, and will rarely be accomplished in a group setting.

The habit of the studio lies, therefore, in the discipline. There are various ways to get yourself over the resistance, something that I discuss with students and mentees. And once you’ve done this a few hundred times, the resistance fades. For many years now, my studio positively beckons, but I do remember being in my 20s and having to summon willpower to leave my apartment and walk to my studio in Union Square in NYC, as happy as I was each and every time when I got there.

The downside to being alone in the studio is that artists are working in isolation to the point where they can get locked up inside their own heads, losing track of the commonality of our problems, aspirations, and fears. That is when the group camaraderie is needed — some honesty, some laughs, communication and idea-sharing on the subject that we hold dear.

What is too much solitary exploration, and what is too little?

This comes down to the varying needs and goals of the individual. Some students aspire to great heights of skill and originality; others might be engaged in open exploration of the path, seeing what evolves; and still others are in it simply for the process. These mindsets can also change over time. In all cases, progressing in skill and understanding is the process over the long term, and is the common denominator.

But how we, as teachers, deal with the differing needs of our students is key. It is all too easy to be problem-solver-in-chief. It is much harder to assess where each artist is in their process — a moving target — and provide what is needed, when it is needed.

This might be a lot or a little, perhaps just planting a small seed and encouraging the student to grow it. As the soup of information thickens for a particular artist, they need less advice and more reminders of what they already know, and sometimes a question in answer to their question is most productive.

Some folks do need more reassurance than others —i t is hard, for instance, to absorb information while in the throes of anxiety. And I have often had students who enter my workshops with plenty of ability and a healthy awareness of it, who are coming to me to kind of top off their information. There are always many variables.

Teaching in any form is as much about the student as it is about the subject matter, but the subject matter is the vehicle. An experienced tracker and tracking teacher once told me that his students arrive in the woods looking for transformation, but he focuses on the tracking and lets the transformation take care of itself. This tends to be my approach, especially with painting, which, as an activity, is a challenging and rich world of its own.

That said, my next blog post is going to be on a topic that comes up frequently with my students — how easy it is to get locked into a mental loop of running yourself down. My first yoga teacher used to call this the “crap tape”, a litany that we start reciting in our heads when the mood slides downward. So there are times when I am fully prepared to step aside from the subject at hand — painting or art career — and talk about this emotionally treacherous habit that undermines any endeavor.

Artists need to follow a quiet, solitary, ignore-distractions path when they set to work, even when they are in a group setting. Sometimes we can get into the zone more than others — no guilt or self-blame (avoiding the crap tape). But distractions are increasingly a way of life, and can become a habit that destroys focus, the fertile underpinning of creativity.

“‘All of humanity’s problems,” the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654“stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Three centuries later, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky shared his single most urgent piece of advice to the young: learn to enjoy your own company. And yet today, in the golden age of solo living, Pascal’s words ring all the more urgently true and Tarkovsky’s counsel seems all the more unattainable. The age of Social Everything makes the art of solitude appear increasingly difficult to attain, even terrifying.”

~Maria Popova, Brain Pickings



Emersion in our chosen practice is what we need to ground ourselves so that ideas can flow.  Following a creative thread takes time, thought, trial and error; the slow-food method of art-making. Through instruction and group learning, students can cultivate and enhance the habit of concentration. From needing substantial help from their teacher, they can progress to consulting their own thoughts and problem-solving toolkits.

We are ethically, as teachers, responsible not for creating a scenario where the student needs us forever and always, but for nurturing and informing each student according to their needs until they can, ideally, work independently.

It is bittersweet to see our students leave us to go it on their own. But we should be proud of that moment, the moment when, for a particular student, we have done our job well and made ourselves obsolete.

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See my blog post on creativity and happiness for more:

Painting, Teaching, and the Emotive Self

Having spent a summer tracking more closely than usual my own emotional currents, I have a fuller awareness of mood during the process of painting.

A few days ago I was working in my studio, sharing the time and space with my student Sara. Often I speak up during painting sessions or workshops when something in my process seems relevant or instructive, so I did that when I noticed my own emotional response to the piece I had on the easel, just brushing in the first layer. I had started with the most obvious elements, dark buildings and street in a sunset moment in Boston’s South End, with streetlights and headlights and a large vertical expanse of sky above.

I work back and forth on adjoining shapes rather than drawing lines to establish the composition of a piece, a process which feels exploratory and almost sculptural. I was working away on the angles at the top of the row houses, switching back to the sky color every so often to work the edge from the other side. Before long, I started to work upward into the fabulous clouds, wading into the sky itself, and as I did so I noticed that my chest opened up and I felt noticeably more buoyant—and excited.

I hadn’t even realized that working the tight angles of the buildings was making me feel a little tightly wound myself until I moved into a highly interpretive area. A sky needs to look “right”, but that could be any number of ways, whereas (in my style of painting, at least) a building needs to have right angles and perspective—no getting around it.

So I learned something by tracking emotions that sometimes, in my habit of  attending closely to my purpose, I have not been bringing into my conscious mind. A small thing—to deliberately work broadly back and forth when I have a more restrictive element on my canvas (usually man-made) along with more interpretive areas—to mix up the harder work with the pure fun. A contribution, though, this realization, to my process.

Being aware of these currents relates closely to my ability to identify with the frustrations and satisfactions of my students. Particularly in a workshop, with hours every day spent in a kind of hothouse environment, mood can swing back and forth, with subtle permutations, a number of times every day.

I appreciate living in an age where people are often very open and self-aware, never perceiving it as “TMI” when my students share their fears, frustration, and sometimes even a certain desolation when the piece is not working out. While we all have adult perspective—this is just s painting!—we are also submerging ourselves in a process that we hope is going to be rich and complex, with beautiful visual feedback. So, when a student finds herself wrestling with something ugly, boring, or out-of-control (in her own opinion), the mood can plummet.

As teacher, I can only do a few things, but they are important. One is to validate the emotion. Not only is it valid because they are experiencing it, but it is also universal to have these feelings—at times—while making art.

Next, to trouble-shoot the painting, moving away from emotion and into the practical/visual realm. The discussion begins with any elements or aspects to the student’s painting that I can identify that are quite interesting or beautiful. I have to honor the opinion of the student if she disagrees with me and can’t see the good of those areas, but just the fact that I see something I like shifts the mood a bit. The conversation then moves on to what’s next, either to resolve the painting in question, or to begin a new one—a new direction or new beginnings inspiring hope and a sense of purpose.

Since I teach the technique of working in layers, I sometimes have to push a bit to encourage a student to go a little further in tweaking the first layer, advocating for moving past the first emotional edge of wanting to be done with it. This is usually well-received, since I know well what can and should be accomplished in the first layer (composition established, shapes and edges scrutinized and adjusted, color laid in) so there is good reason to forge ahead. I always try to not be lazy, to not leave shape and drawing details for the second layer, to solve everything possible in the first. I encourage students to do the same, but understand and accept it if they decide that they just really need to put this one aside and move on to a new piece, honoring their own feelings. Then, they can return to the piece after it has dried with fresh energy.

This points to a well-understood phenomenon of mood—that moving ahead with purpose on a task that is in the plan is often the best way to mitigate or shift negative feelings.

It also points to a basic conundrum of life—that feeling good is everything, our interior life being where we truly live; and yet, if we dwell on that emotional stew, we will often not feel good. Action invigorates, soothes, creates memory and builds synapses. It is not just a distraction.

This dance between the physical present—your painting and its demands—and the interior reality of feelings is a big part of painting and teaching both —being able to move back and forth between the two exigencies.