Thursday, February 10, 2011

Good Student — Bad Student: A Teacher’s Observations

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One of my ex-students, Scott Zitta, wrote to me recently after reading through the entries on this blog and tossed out an idea for a new post. I was glad to get his letter because I was actually casting about for new topics to focus on. Scott thought I could help students if I talked a bit about my own observations as a teacher over the years, of things that good students do as opposed to not so good students.

Not that I’ve ever quantified these observances, but I thought it wouldn’t be hard to rattle off at least some kind of list or thoughts on this particular subject. Coupled with those thoughts are also my own memories of being a student (though I don’t really consider myself NOT a student — something I apparently share with almost every artist/instructor I know) and the things that I did do that helped me, and the things I didn’t do that probably would have helped more, etc.

Certainly my thoughts on this may not be a true reflection of the experiences that other teachers have had, and may not be true for all students. But I have seen things that seem to be consistent with students who go on to do top notch work and who continue to grow, not only as artists but as individuals as well.

So, without further ado, I thought it would be fun for this to be an ongoing post. I’ll post on this as often as possible, so stay tuned to this channel.


Teachers get to take credit many times for the great work that some students do. Many of these students (the exceptional ones) would have done great work regardless of who was teaching them. These are the students whose fire is lit and burns extremely bright. They do all the right things. They have incredibly inquisitive minds, they aren’t satisfied with half-measures, are constantly working, churning out piece after piece. They make any teacher look good. It’s fairly self-serving to take any credit for their strides, though one does hope one has made a difference in their lives and in their growth as an artist. It’s gratifying to have those students who will attribute some of their success to one’s teaching. I’ve been lucky to have had many, many students of this caliber.


One thing I’ve always admired about my art buddies is that they’re goofy and funny, irreverent, insecure at times, etc. etc. etc. And yet, when they sit down at a drawing board or an easel they become geniuses. The work that pours out of them is sublime. You would never know this if you met them. Their egos do not ever come into it. Art is just something they do, something they HAVE to do. It’s what they’re all about, but they don’t need to advertise that in person, the work says it all. They just don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lesson there for just about everybody, but especially students who think that everything they touch is the greatest thing since sliced bread.


One thing I have found is that any student worth their salt becomes even more hungry when shown the wonderful work of the Golden Age of illustration. They instantly discover a hunger for traditional skills, wanting to be able to do what those great artists of yesterday did.

As wonderful as the internet is it’s surprising how hard it is to find the work of many of the Golden Age Illustrators. More to the point, if one doesn’t have a name it’s almost impossible to find some artist’s work. The serious student seems to find themselves in the library quite often and has a love of books. They’re forever digging through art books, magazines, etc. and bringing them to class to share their discoveries. They emulate the artist’s works they find and as a result grow faster than their less inquisitive counterparts.


Good students seem to routinely fill up sketchbooks with drawings from life. They’re not just trying to show off in their sketchbooks but working out ideas and quite often doing bad drawings of things that are hard to draw because they’re struggling to get their chops down. It’s not about “check me out” but more about how can I draw better. These same students are the ones that always show up in figure drawing class and rarely take breaks. They draw, draw, draw. It’s a habit that they follow religiously. And well they should because they have found what thousands and thousands have found throughout time: That if you draw ALL the time, you find the love of the act of drawing very quickly. If you only draw when you have an assignment, or only when you’re forced to, then drawing will always be a chore, something to sort of dread, an onerous task. How sad is that?

These same students aren’t happy with everything they do. They always see room for improvement. They also have no problem trying some other way to work that I throw out. They dive in and see what the experience will deliver. They are sometimes frustrated by this, but they keep at it and conquer it, then incorporate it into their oeuvre, their toolkit. They listen to criticism, take it seriously and not as a threat to their ego, and then muddle through it to see if it helps their work.



As a student there are things that one should take into account as a given. I list them here so that you can keep them grouped in your own mind and refer to them later at your own convenience.

This will also be added to as things hit me. Maybe the stuff up above will just be joined to this later? I don’t know. Anyway, enjoy:

1.) You’re in school for a reason. Mostly it’s because you DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING. Indeed, teachers don’t know everything either, but they certainly know more than you do.

2.) You’re in school to LEARN something. Actually many things. So keep an open mind.

3.) Try not to become defensive in critiques. It’s very hard to not take things personal because, after all, it’s your personal work that’s being critiqued. But just understand that what’s being discussed are things that every student has issues with, not just you. If you truly listen to what’s being said and not get defensive, and listen to EVERY critique, you’ll glean information that will enrich your artistic experience greatly. So put the ego on the shelf and open your mind and your ears and be receptive to the things that are going to help you in the long run.

4.) Not all the information will be perfect for you. If information delivery were that simple you wouldn’t need teachers at all, just recordings that could simply be handed to students and be done with it. But a teacher takes into account who they’re speaking with and massages the information to be specific to that student. Even then only YOU know, ultimately, what you believe really will work for you. So you become the arbiter of your own education in the long run. Doesn’t it seem smart to take it all in and then sift through it rather than just chucking information away based on some gut reaction? And just because it’s not applicable to you now, doesn’t mean that you won’t grow into the knowledge at some later time. All the information has the potential to benefit you at some other time. This leads to another note:

5.) Keep a sketchbook! When I was in school sketchbooks were not about impressing anyone. They were more like journals wherein one would jot down thoughts, information, dreams, inspirational material, etc. They were also used for observational drawing and the working out of ideas, compositions, color notes, media experimentation, etc. They were a place to screw up if need be. A place to draw for one’s self without thought of who would see it. This allowed one to drop the defenses and do what really needs to be done to get better. If it becomes a showcase then the onus is there to make every page beautiful and blemish-free. I’ve heard of artists actually keeping a sketchbook for their sketchbooks! What th–? Doesn’t sound very honest to me.

Let the sketchbook be your private place, your own fortress of solitude, if you will. If you want to share it, fine. If not, then don’t. I’ve always felt that it was a rare honor to be able to view an artist’s sketchbook. They’re opening themselves up in an unbelievable way allowing someone to see that side of themselves, their blemishes laid bare. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s a privilege.

6.) Teachers are only as good as their knowledge of a student’s true needs. If I see only a limited amount of work, then that’s what I have to base my thoughts on what I think you need. Makes sense right? Granted, added to this are all the years I’ve been teaching and my knowledge of the craft and execution at creating art. It can be, and is, a powerful combination. But, better would be knowing MORE about the work of the student and their motives, their heroes, where they want to go with the work, what they ultimately want to do with all this, etc. If I have that sort of thing in hand, then the sky’s the limit. So, the more you open up and show the teacher, the better off you’ll be.

7.) No teacher is there to intentionally screw you up and ruin your chances of learning what you need to learn. Granted, there can be bad apples in there, and they can and should be taken care of by the administration. So if there is something going on that’s disruptive, then, certainly, get help. But within reason we’re all there to make sure you get the things you need to make a serious run for the money. But you have to learn to listen and seriously try to engage the information you’re being given. I don’t know how many students I’ve had that don’t listen AT ALL, but I’ve had a few. They know better than their teachers. They continuously ignore criticism, and ignore the strictures of an assignment, and they just do whatever the hell they want. They’re also the ones that complain the most about the school not delivering the things they say their supposed to deliver. You know who I’m talking about because they’re in every school. They’re paying good money to do what they could be doing for free at home, and taking up precious instructor time that would be better spent on someone who actually gives a damn.

8.) Schools can only give you so much. Your school experience, your learning experience, will only be as good as the time and energy of your participation. No school can give you everything. Especially if you’re not in there swinging for the fence. You will get out of it what you put into it. In that way art is one of the greatest return on investments. The more you put in, the more you’ll get back! It’s true.

If you’re hungry and make a habit of flipping over all the rocks to look at the undersides, then you’ll get the most out of your learning experience. If you’re someone who expects a school to just hand you an education, then you’re not going to be very pleased in the end. Ringling is a good school. No doubt. If you just coast you’ll still get a very good education. But, if you work your ass off and participate and push and grab and take what you need, you’ll get a world-class education. This is true of most learning institutions. Some, like Ringling, will reward you more than others for that kind of diligence and nurturing of your own education. So be proactive. At Ringling it seems I have had a greater share of these kinds of students than at any other school I’ve been privileged to teach, with the exception of the Illustration Academy and TAD, which are almost without fail, comprised completely of these kinds of students.

Schooling, education goes beyond what’s in the classes. It’s inextricably linked to the students you associate with, the books you crack, the assignments you do, the number of paintings you paint, the number of pen and inks you crank out, the number of sketchbooks you fill, the number of life drawings you do. There is NO OTHER WAY to be as good as you can possibly be. NO.OTHER.WAY.

A young student came to my studio once in New York, traveling from Georgia, I think, to sit in on my classes at Pratt, which I welcomed. He told me all about how he’d studied with Burt Silverman once and how he didn’t really “get” what Silverman was teaching him at the time. But now he’s older and can understand what Silverman would teach him, so he was going to get back into his classes. I told him to cast his mind back to when he had Silverman (who is, by anyone’s measure an incredible teacher and artist). I asked him if he remembered what Silverman had talked about? He said he did. I asked him if he thought Silverman would tell him anything different at this point? But, he said, I’d be able to understand it better now. I asked him if he did, indeed, understand it better. The information wasn’t going to change. He needed to just think it through and actually engage the information. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with studying with Silverman (that would be a dream). But he’d already had the experience and the wonderful gift of having Burt impart his incredible knowledge of painting to him.

I told him if he wanted to really learn how to paint, then he needed paint! He needed to lay paint down on a canvas and when he was done with that one he needed to do another and another and another, etc. Want to learn to draw? Draw! A lot! Paint? Paint!

You know the drill.

9.) Quit defending your bad work. Be honest with yourself about where you stand and what your work looks like. Seriously. I’ve had students sit and defend crappy work till they’re blue in the face, and to what goal? To try and convince me of what I know is obviously not true, as evidenced by the thing in front of me? Or is it because one feels ashamed and wants to throw up a smoke screen? The ego again. Or to try and convince oneself that the work isn’t as bad as one believes. Only you know how much work was truly invested in the piece. I’m pretty adept at knowing, roughly, how much effort was expended because I know (absolutely KNOW) what it takes to produce work. So there’s nothing being hidden here. You’re not fooling me. Right? We all know what’s truly happened. As one of my teachers used to say on seeing bad, lazy, slipshod work on his wall, “I’d rather you tell me that the dog ate it than to have this on my wall!” SPANK! So, own your shit. Be honest with me and maybe you can be honest with yourself. You just look foolish trying to convince me and the rest of the class that you spent more than an hour or less on something.

10.) Don’t turn off on trying any and everything. I’ve had students tell me that they just don’t do, say, oils. They tried it once when they were a kid and hated it.


Your average student is 19 or 20 years old. There is no way, at your age, to know, without a doubt, that one form of media is not for you. Try everything! Not once. Not twice. Tons of times! Wear it out! That’s the only way to know that something really doesn’t work for you.

I got into my mom’s oil paints when I was a kid. It was a disaster. Oil was everywhere, I had a viscous muddy mess in front of me, and I was covered in oils. I hated it. I was frustrated. I was pissed off. I was hurt. You name it. But I KNEW that I wanted to be a painter. I didn’t try oils for awhile after that, but eventually I got back on that horse. It hadn’t gotten any easier, that’s for sure. But I persevered. And I have news for you — it’s still hard! But I love it. I have to work at it. And that’s good. It means that I respect it.

Interestingly, when I’ve had students get seriously involved in oil painting, or some other media, I invariably hear the groans about how someone hates this or that. Again, they tried it once and didn’t like it because it didn’t work for them. Not surprisingly, when I get them working with it, showing them steps that make it easier to think about and explore, they suddenly fall in love with whatever it is we’re working with. Go figure. :) And, really, it was just because I got them to let their guard down and get the monkey off their backs, to drop their preconceptions just to see what happens. And what happens is they aren’t getting in the way of themselves and they begin to have an honest dialogue with the media.

Not everything is about control. Learn to be a passenger sometimes. This gets back to that “journey is the point” stuff. Let oils, or watercolors or whatever, do what it is supposed to do and you’ll have a happier time of it all. Watercolor is wet and runny. Let it run. You’ll be surprised at the results when you finally give up trying to run the show all the time.

11.) The clique is in your mind. I’ve had students who feel that the good students who have grouped together are some kind of elitist clique. Now, this doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be elitist cliques out there, but in my experience I’ve not seen one. When I told the students who made this assumption that what they needed to do was just get in there with them and do the work, they found they were immediately welcomed into the fold. It wasn’t about how good or bad anyone did, just that they were excited and driven. All were welcome. The cliques I’ve had any connection with have all been about working. Period. They are ALL ABOUT DRAWING AND PAINTING. Period.

12.) Entitlement issues: Students going after an education, and those that demand it. If you want demos, then find a teacher that does them. It’s not a given that teachers will do demos. It’s not part of the job description. I do demos because that’s the way I was taught. Not everyone does that. And there are teachers that will do demos, but there might be media that they won’t use. There’s no reason they should be expected to do that. Be mindful of how you’re requesting that education. Teachers are there for you, but they’re not slaves. The sooner you can respect what a teacher’s about the sooner they can respect you as well. Then it’s easier to open a dialogue about your needs.

13.) The journey’s the thing. Something that comes up constantly when I talk with other artists and instructors, is that the journey is the thing. One must find pleasure in the doing if one is to make a serious go of this and continue to grow. There are students that absolutely LOVE the doing of art. Even when it’s not easy, when the lines are not friendly that day, when color refuses to play nice, the love of the thing is still evident. It’s nice to do good work, certainly, but that’s not the only joy to be had. Revel in the doing. It makes all the other stuff even out.

14.) Shelve the ego and work your ass off. When we were in school my buddies and I never stopped working. We were always hard at work on any number of pieces, most which were not assignments but just our own work. Our talk was ALWAYS about the work, about the artists that we were freaking out about, or other visual artists, say, in film, or whatever. And one thing that was a breath of fresh air was that, for the most part, there was no ego involved in our struggles, our frustrations, our discoveries. If one found something out, it was shared equally with all, so all could grow and enjoy the liberation. I mean, do you really think you invented any of this stuff? Seriously? That the discovery was truly some epiphany that no one else has experienced and put into use for hundreds of years? The beauty is that it just hasn’t been done by you. That’s what makes the discovery special. Now it gets filtered by that unique and singular melange of art and experience in your head.

Did my buddies and I have our petty moments? To be sure. But generally we were really good about just loving up on the trip.

There was always time for fun and pranks. I find this even now. During the Illustration Academy we revel in the prank. It’s a release that lightens the load. No one takes themselves too seriously. There are fart machines firing off and no one is immune —no one. Gary Kelley, Anita Kunz, Chris Payne, Sterling Hundley, Mark English, John English, Jon Foster, Barron Storey, etc. ALL take their lumps and turn into giggling school kids, rolling with the punches. They are serious when they need to be and the work spills out of them on a frequent basis.

Lots of fun is poked at each other’s work, all in good fun, but we take the criticism seriously. One of the funnest things is to watch Gary Kelley and Sterling Hundley square off on drawing night. They start talking major trash with each other and it’s a joy to see and hear. It’s all in good fun.

15.) After reading through the replies I thought this one fits: Ask questions! If you don’t know something SPEAK UP. Seriously. You’re paying big dough for this information (or maybe your parents are), so make sure you fill up on all the stuff you don’t know. If you pretend you know, then why are you in school laying out heavy green? Maybe the money would be better spent in acting school. When someone asks me a question I don’t think they’re stupid. Far from it. They’re smart enough to admit they don’t know something and want to make sure they do get to know it. As I said in the replies, now I know they know and, as a major bonus, I know they’re honest.

That’s up there with the ego stuff again. Why do you care what anyone else thinks about you? Really! When did you give them this kind of power over you? That kind of stuff is usually reserved for people who peaked in high school, where those kinds of games are par for the course. It doesn’t mean it’s not going on beyond high school, usually by the same people, but at least everyone else knows how shallow it is at that point. Time to rise above and move on, getting the info that’s truly worth having.

16.) Don’t be afraid to destroy the things you create. My teacher, Barron
Storey, gave us what seemed to be a fairly regular assignment, to do an illustration on some topic or other. The piece was in color and on paper. We had a week or two to do the finish. One thing about Barron’s class was that you busted your ass for him, you wanted to impress him. So we worked incredibly hard on that assignment. When we put the work up on the wall for the critique Barron took us all to task for the work presented. Again, par for the course. His critiques were always informative and insightful, and he raised more questions than he sometimes answered. But on this day, rather than just take the work down and leave, he had us all come get our work off the wall, then asked us to rip them in half.

There was a stunned silence in the studio that day. Everyone sort of looked around not sure we’d heard correctly. But we had. He urged us to rip them in half. There were many who would not do this. Kent and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and ripped away. It hurt —man did it hurt! But it was also cathartic. “Now,” Barron said, “take each piece, go back into them and make them work independently.” Wow! What started as a simple, fairly regular assignment, had turned totally on its heel and become several lessons in one.

What we learned that day was that one shouldn’t get too precious with the work. Not to get so close to it that you weren’t willing to do whatever it took to make it better — even destroy it. Sometimes an act of seeming destruction opens the path to better creativity. We also learned how to take something to a place that wasn’t the original intention, yet apply the rules of composition, color, value, etc to solve for X. X being whatever wasn’t working.

I constantly tell my students: If you drew it once, you can draw it again, probably better. If you’re constantly sneaking up, tiptoeing through the piece, then chances are you’ll never know what it really takes, or what’s too far. And, more importantly, you’ll never really know what’s too little either.

It’s better to screw up royally, fall flat on your face by going way too far and totally screw the pooch. That’s when you really discover some amazing stuff. The trick, of course, is to be able to remember what you did so you can repeat it. Even if you can’t remember, you’ll still be so damn energized that only good things will come of it. One thing’s for certain, you’ll definitely have a better idea of what’s too far, what’s not enough, and what might be just enough. It goes back to being on the tracks running toward the glare of the oncoming train.

If it was just about making pretty pictures that would make my job a heckuva lot easier. Then I wouldn’t have to teach you how to think, or solve problems, or, better yet, how to create problems, you could just add 2 + 2 and get 4. Every time.


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