The Upside of Art School

Peter Saul Brush Your Teeth, 160cm x 150cm acrylic on canvas

Art school is an easy and enjoyable target for satire and jokes. Most everyone I know has had some of the kind of experiences that fall into the way art school is usually portrayed -- I've even brought a list of those bad stories to Daniel Clowes and a couple from my wife Linda were in the movie "Art School Confidential." But I also had a lot of good experiences in art school, some caring teachers who shared insights that have had a lasting impact on me.

As an undergrad at UT Austin I had good teachers like Bob Levers, Richard Jordan, Peter Saul, and UT got Robert Storr to come and visit.

Peter Saul Still Life in the Bedroom, 6' x 9,' acrylic on canvas

Peter Saul would try to encourage distasteful moves -- "If you're doing something and it feels right, at least a hundred people have done it already." One day Peter Saul announced to the class 'I'm going to grade this class like the art world -- I'm giving you all 'D's and giving one of you an 'A' at random. After a while those of you with 'D's will start to think the one with the 'A' really IS better!' Probably my favorite Peter Saul quote is -- "There are people who buy art as furniture or interior decoration, what are you doing in your painting to make sure that you're the enemy of those people"

Robert Storr -- "If something has engaged you or bothered you, it's pointed up something that is now your problem."and "It's a fashionable world and even good artists go out of fashion. If you've never really thought about what you're going to do when you go out of fashion because you've never been out of fashion, it's much harder to take than if you've gradually come into your own, gotten through difficult times and know that you can survive.'

I was grateful to be at Yale at a time when William Bailey, Andrew Forge, Richard Ryan, Catherine Murphy, Mel Bochner, John Hull and John Walker were teaching there.


Andrew Forge The Coffee Pot 1 oil on board

Andrew Forge continues to be a role model to me, someone painted themselves nude with butterfly wings and talked about making a personal statement in a crit. Forge said 'I think you're confusing a personal statement, which is rhetorical, with being as involved as you can be, which is the most personal thing that you can do." And another time Forge defined 'Arty' as 'When the aesthetic effect is a consequence of things known beforehand.'

William Bailey Still Life Citta di Castello

William Bailey called me out for using the words 'things represented' because, he said 'it's always a painting'. That tending to the whole painting as painting and its philosophical implications has continued to be of primary importance to me. Conveying the primacy of the inherent qualities of a particular form, like painting or drawing, as opposed to copying well or fetishizing technique was certainly one of the things William Bailey was getting at. William Bailey told both Susan Clark and myself to 'Use colors that have no names.' His example for this in my case was Vermeer's 'Milkmaid.'

Catheine Murphy Blue Blanket Oil on Canvas

Catherine Murphy told me that 'Painting means more now than it did fifty years ago, because now it's a greater act of faith.'

'It's not think, then paint.' - Mel Bochner

Richard Ryan was talking about how Titian would simplify things back down for the sake of the whole painting, you see the same thing in Velasquez, the way he put it was 'Titian painted knowledge out.'

John Walker was always interested in the sculptural qualities of paint and would point up how 'Constable sculpted with paint.' A default criticism of his which he said to me as well as others was to take someone's palette as a critique of their painting-'Look at that palette, there you're really using the paint in a physical way.'


John Hull This Much I Know Acrylic on canvas

John Hull was a tremendous help to me at Yale, one of the most transparently useful things he did was to give me a little pile of color he mixed from the palette he was using for a landscape I had admired. I tried a little bit of it in a similar situation in one of my paintings and it made so much sense that it recalibrated my own palette. John Hull also said 'Abstraction is always in painting, it's either the subject matter, or the mantle for the subject matter.'

I wanted to hear more about positive experiences so I asked the Facebook hive mind about the most helpful and useful advice from art school and got some responses I thought worth sharing. What follows below is a distilled and slightly edited (for repetition and I consolidated some people's comments) version of the responses I got to the question "What's the best, most helpful piece of advice you got in art school?" Thanks to everyone below for their responses!

Laurie Lipton Follow your bliss.
F Scott Hess Marry rich
Cynthia Peterson In grad school, after my 15 hour teacher, mentor & very good friend said "You can afford to show off." I wasn't sure what she meant but it made me feel good.
Amy Blount Lay "Don't rest on your laurels."
Margo Chapman Have an emotional investment in your work, not an emotional attachment.
Jason Franz "You have a Masterpiece syndrome." after which I was told "my nephew could paint that." Both were intended as criticisms. The first inspired one of my grad thesis paintings because I felt all grad students should by definition be making 'master pieces'.
Alan Katz If the legs look too short, make them longer. If the picture seems too dark, lighten it up. If you don't like your work now, keep working.
David Simon When you go to New York bring knee pads.
Natasha Wheat I was intimidated to spend thousands of dollars to have a work manufactured for a museum show and an older art star said to me "well, do you want to have a career or not". It was the first major piece I sold. I think of her at times when I am fretting, and this simple question resolves many problems.
John Seed If you are going to become a painter, keep in mind that someday you are going to have a storage problem.
Hania Rouhani "Start with a broom and end with a needle!" -Marc Trujillo quoting Eugene Delacroix
Jacquelyn McBain Center yourself before starting
Ryan Kapp Having an art career is like running a marathon
Serena Potter "Only one in ten studio art grads continue to create art after graduation. Those that do make sure they always have a space to create in, that does not require cleaning up, even if it is only a corner in the kitchen." I took this to heart. When my husband and I and our two babies were in student housing in England I bought a big old wardrobe from the Salvation Army and turned it into a stow away studio, painting space on the closet side, storage on the shelving side.
Margy Green A piece is finished when another addition or subtraction would not improve the piece.
Micol Hebron "Fuck 'em" -Richard Jackson
"Ask for your money back" -John Baldessari
"Well, you have to kill the father sometime", -Mary Kelly
Matt Dickson small brushes make big mistakes
Susan Clark William Bailey once said in a class that you can't try to save a passage you love in a painting. You love it because the rest of the painting isn't working. Wipe it out.
Craig Cully Stanley Whitney always asked in crits " What is line?" Best advice I ever got even though it took me twenty years to understand what the hell he meant.
Walt Morton "Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one." - William Goldman
"Art has nothing to do with realism" - Harry Carmean. I think Harry said that about realism when a student was asking whether a drawing was "realistic" and Harry just wanted the drawing to "look good." There is some zen koan in there.
On how the artist should function: "Keep one foot in the world you know, and one foot in the world barely guessed at." - Rick Berry
"Painting is built on learning tricks that exploit the paint's core behavior." - Phil Hale. (He means the physical ability of paint to smear, drip, run and be malleable. Also opaque or transparent application, and drying time as well as interactions between the paint and the surface it's going on -- be it smooth or rough, etc.)
Stacey J Diehl It's YOUR responsibility to know what's out there so you don't go around thinking you're doing something that's never been done before, only to be informed by a viewer your work is just like X. Art is your job and ignorance makes you look lazy and stupid. (Paraphrasing)
William Wray I heard most of the best advice in workshops, as the teachers are forced to condense years of learning into a few days. Steve Houston said to make a realistic career trajectory of 5 to 10 years with a end goal clear in your mind. (if it's simply getting into a good gallery it gives you focus and takes the pressure off.) Steve also said when trying to decide if a paintings done, chances are you passed the point where you should have stopped, so go back and take something out. And nobody has mentioned this, but most good teachers touch on a variation of 'See your painting in the simplest abstract shapes in just 3 values before you start details.' Balance your colors with warm and cool. See your painting in terms of simple abstract shapes before your go to detail.
Benedict Cressy John walker (paraphrasing) Painting is a lonely endeavor - you lock yourself in a room and do something that nobody cares about while everyone else is out having fun. It's not like art school.
April Glory Funcke Just having Wayne Thiebaud draw and paint with the beginning painting and figure drawing classes, almost every session. We'd all be working together, mostly in silence. We saw him fail as well as succeed. I've already mentioned one of my favorite quotes from him, "It may be hard to make a living as an artist, but you can make a life in art". At Norfolk (I wish I could remember the faculty member's name) who explained how the geometry of a composition gave meaning to a painting (an annunciation scene from the 16th c I had a postcard of in my cubicle). At Davis all the art faculty had studio offices and most of them worked in them. You could always find someone to talk about art with.
Dan Molnar Don't let philosophy get between you and what you are looking at.
Frank Stockton "If you don't know what you want to do, you'll probably end up doing what other people want you to do, which is fine-- if that's what you want to do." - Phil Hays
Guy Diehl There are no failures in the studio... just discoveries.
Cathy Shepherd "You can't abstract something if you don't know what it looks like. You have to learn to draw realistically first." Mary Ann Currier
Daniel Landerman A couple great bits stand out for me from my time at Art Center:
Kent Williams: "Vary your brushes and vary your marks."
Jeff Smith: "Trap the lights."
Sean Cheetham: "Change temperature before you change value."
Errol Gerson: "Do what you love and love what you do."
Sarah F Burns I always remember what Ben Fenske told me - keep a book by your bed and draw your ideas for paintings. While in school - classical Atelier type schools that is - you can focus so heavily on being technical issues that your ideas get stale - or too heavily influenced by your teachers. Keep your spirit alive while beating yourself senseless with perspective, proportion, values, color, edges etc.
Diane Nelson Gold "We really draw, in order to more fully know our subject." - Howard Warshaw.. "Color is infinite, and relative - the qualities of a color are always influenced by its surrounding colors." - Judith Crook.... "Design with, and paint the shapes of the values, not the shapes of the objects and make those shapes beautiful." - David Gallup
Mike Rauch Professional advice from Joe Adolphe: "If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you shouldn't have come at all." Maybe a touch strong, but definitely useful for a room full of young kids who haven't all learned the value of showing up... both to do their own work and in a professional workplace.
LeRoy Lottmann I was fortunate to have many great practicing instructors. Below are some of the phrases that I have found true over the years.
Big things first- save the details for last.
Great art is a balance of order and chaos.
There are no boring subjects just artists who have not looked long enough.
Make the spaces between the objects as interesting as the objects themselves.
You have more work to do, if you can place your hand over a portion of the composition and the composition is better.
Color depends on value - value does not depend on color.
Let others discuss your style after your dead, for now draw what you see.
Nothing holds more possibility than a new love or a fresh piece of metal (canvas).
Pay attention to the work that makes you say WOW and the work that makes you say YUCK. Learn from them how to make better work and avoid making the mistakes that others have made. If you want to be an artist get a job as a janitor.
Dan van Benthuysen Composition trumps technique every time. Great composition can make up for lousy technique but great technique can never compensate for lousy composition. And one more. This one from Chuck Close:" Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us have to show up for work."
Matt Buckner Do studies then do more studies 'til your blue in the face. Study every aspect of the subject so when you start the main picture the paint will have become a true extension of what's in your mind and in your hand. You won't be afraid to move it around. - Vincent Desiderio
"Skin is only yellow when the model wears a purple shirt." -- Eric Fischl