The presumption is that if you want to learn to draw, you take classes.  And it would be hard to argue that taking classes would be a bad idea.  But a real artist, whether he takes classes or not, is in a certain definite way an autodidact.  The kind of study that leads to great art, or “serious” art, or whatever we want to call it, means being able to teach yourself.  The alternative to teaching yourself would be to have someone else telling you what makes something great or important.  And if you need to be told, how could you possibly create anything great or important yourself?

An innovative artist, or one who does something with exemplary ability, or one who sees things deeply has to learn to find the meanings of things within himself.  Why?  Because the alternative is an artist who needs someone holding his hand, leading him along, guiding the way — and who could this guardian be?  At what juncture would this dependency end?  Great art, the best art, the most thoroughly explorative art has to be something individual.  It’s a syllogism, really.  Insight abides in a logic that we can feel — that we get through a hunch.  Great art has to be innate.  It will arise from earlier traditions.  But it distinquishes itself by a living element that differs from the tradition.  And that something comes from the artist.

The drawing above was made by a great artist.  I once stood in front of it with a friend who’s an art historian who asked aloud how sure we can be that Van Gogh actually made this drawing.  It’s “very crude” — as indeed, it is.  For this particular drawing, much of the evidence rests with the provenance which is quite strong.  I should add that my art historian friend’s expertise lay in other areas, not in 19th century European drawing.

However, her point was an excellent one.  We now regard Vincent Van Gogh as having been one of the greatest artists of the latter 19th century.  What are we to make of a “weak” drawing by a great master?  How do we find the roots of greatness in an image such as this one?  When did Van Gogh change from an awkward draughtsman working in a period style to a great master who creates a radically idiosyncratic, individual style?  And what do the transitions from one to the other mean?

[Top of the post:  The Zandmennik House, by Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1879/1880
charcoal over graphite on wove paper, overall: 22.8 x 29.4 cm (9 x 11 9/16 in.)
The Armand Hammer Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.]


10 thoughts on “When it’s good to be your own teacher

  1. bonjour Aletha,
    vous exprimez tout a fait ce que je pense.
    L’art est une route solitaire ou on espère trouver le parfait accompagnateur qui nous guidera et conseillera, mais, en fait, je commence a comprendre que nous sommes notre propre guide.

  2. Bonjour Benedicte,
    Je cherche une citation de Van Gogh parmi les lettres qu’il composait à son frere Theo à propos ce subjet. Il a dit qu’il apprendrait dessiner plus fortement à cause de ses difficultés. Si dessiner a été plus facile — si quelqu’un a lui dit: “faites ceci, faites cela” il apprendrait une manniere stereotypique et pas naturel ou vraisemblable.

    Je dois trouver cette citation; c’est tres instructif! (Pas de jeu intentionel ….) [No pun intended.]


  3. oui, encore d’accord.
    Cela ne veut pas dire qu’on reste solitaire. On a besoin d’echanger, comme il le faisait avec Theo, de lire et voir ce que font les autres.
    Est ce que Van Gogh aurait aimé bloguer?

  4. Vincent etait merveilleux etudiant. Il connaissait beaucoup des dessins et estampes des vieux maitres, et puis biensur des tableaux. Il travaillait durment pendant neuf annees. Il avait parmi ses amis beaucoup des peintres-copains.

    Les idees, au fond, sont individuelles. Mais on a des amis. Et on a toute l’histoire de l’art! Et on a la Nature, elle-meme.

  5. I agree with you but it took me some time to understand that you learn by doing something yourself and not by reading, listening or even seeing. But all those do help 😀

  6. Ujwala
    Thank you for commenting. I probably need to revisit my idea for sure because it may be misleading. I am saying that even within a class structure, or when reading, or visiting galleries or museums, etc., one has to be an autodidact. By this I mean that all the sources of information still have to filter confidently through your own judgement. In contrast, one sometimes meets artists who are sure that this or that idea is correct because “so ‘n so” says it is also known as, the “they’re doing it in New York” assurance.

    In my own case I’ve sought out every art information resource I could find: museums foremost to see actual works, books, classes, friendships. When I love an artist’s work, I try to learn everything about that artist I can.

    Once, after surveying my books, I came to the conclusion that I must really, really, really love Matisse because I own more books about him than about anybody else. It was an interesting fact to learn about myself.

    I need to write more about this topic & I need to find a wonderful Van Gogh quote that basically says what I’m trying to say. But VG wrote so much and I cannot at the moment located my much underlined copy of this letters, and a complete edition of the letters would be too daunting to consult in its 3 volumed massiveness!

    Thanks again for your comment. And please visit again.

  7. I think instruction is very beneficial to learn the “craft” of painting/drawing. It is better to start out on the right foot taking from 100s of years of the collective experience of those who came before. The ideas of thin darks, color mixing, composition, etc can be passed on without each person needing to learn from scratch.

    The “art” of painting is something you must learn on your own. A teacher can pick up your brush, use the paint on your palette and produce a work that you can not duplicate. You can not get inside of their mind no matter how many times you ask what colors they mixed. Just suffer with the rest of us.

  8. WR Jones,
    Hello! Since I used to spend lots of time around other artists, usually in classes of one sort or another, I cannot say I didn’t learn rather a lot in the way of craft from what was around me. Certainly I emulated the qualities of the best artists I knew. Those who taught me most were friends rather than teachers in a formal sense, but the fact remains that I learned tons from them.
    I’m not arguing against classes. But only against the “rules.” Or the idea that there can be rules in any meaningful sense. Or unimpeachable authorities, etc. As on your site, your colleague addresses the nonsense that Hockney has spread in the book where he claims the old masters depended upon the camera obscura for their drawing. (I’d love to ask Hockney to explain all the marvelous distortion one sees in the “realistic” drawing of Ingres, for instance … something that Hockney seems not to have even noticed is there, keen observer that he is …. [I digress.])

    Still, I think even 99.9% of the “craft” is hard work not instruction. All the advice in the world guides no one’s hand. Your hand has to go where the line is by itself. That internalized knowledge of the placement of things, that feeling for the tools, all the things that are to painting or drawing what playing is to a musical instrument. You have to practice! And that’s the real route to learning one’s chops.

    Perhaps ours is a disagreement about words? In any case, thank you again for your always insightful comments.


  9. One must, in order to create an original piece of art, in any medium of life, think for oneself. Gorgeous drawings btw.

  10. deldobuss

    Thank you for reminding me that one must “think for oneself.” Some times we get reminders just when we need them! Thank you also for your kind words about the drawings. God bless,


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