Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!
learning by doing"We learn best by doing." I've been thinking about this very basic and essential principle lately as I gear up for my upcoming cold wax workshop at Cullowhee Mountain Arts later this month, and several more to follow in Italy and Ireland. While its application for students is obvious, the idea also applies to those teaching them. I've spent the last seven years as a workshop instructor, teaching nearly 100 cold wax classes and around 800 students. Although the basics of teaching are second nature by now, I'm still learning by doing--always tweaking the content of my classes, seeing ways to improve, making new power points, revising handouts. The basis for making changes is that something isn't working as well as it could--I never feel that things are all nailed down and perfect. Writing the cold wax book with Jerry McLaughlin (Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, Squeegee Press 2017) was another huge exercise in learning by doing, as will be the upcoming video to be released next year. Such projects are daunting at first, yet fueled by vision and motivation they unfold.
photo by Phyllis Lasche
My friend Phyllis likes to remind me of a time in 2010 when someone in a class she was taking asked me how long I'd been teaching workshops. When I answered that it was my second time, people gasped. I'm not sure if they were impressed or horrified! I'm not advocating going into teaching without a solid grasp of the material, but we all do have to start someplace. In the beginning of learning a new thing, we never fully grasp the enormity of what we are taking on, which is helpful in protecting us from wanting to give up before we even begin. There will always be frustrations, impatience, and inner struggles. But from a perspective of having mastered something, we can look back and see that all of that was part of the process. It could not have been rushed. Learning by doing has a way of unfolding at the right pace--we try things, decide what works, and begin to build our solid base. For students, understanding that the process of learning by doing is long and often frustrating is crucial. But it seems to be one of the most difficult ideas to accept. Many people struggle with an inner need to come up with successful work in an introductory class in just the short time that a workshop lasts. Three or four days into class, they expect they will conquer the material and make it work. Sometimes frustration sets in almost immediately. Yet how can it not take time to take in all of the new techniques, ideas and approaches that are being taught? I sometimes picture the air in the workshop studio filled with the negative self-talk of people not meeting their own unrealistic expectations. Even in more advanced classes, expectations can run high. There is still a lot of new input and stimulation--otherwise, why take the class? It all takes time to process. Of course, there are always some good paintings that emerge in the group by the end of the class. But even if things do fall into place for an artist on a painting or two, it does not mean that true understanding has happened. It can actually be harder for the artist when there is success in class--the illusion of a level of mastery can lead to huge frustration once the workshop is over. I've known students whose path forward was made very hard by a painting that was admired in class. They want to immediately do more like it, while not really understanding how it came about in the first place. Instead, it's best to view any successful painting (at any stage of the journey, really!) as a portal to ideas that will be revealed over time. The solid understanding of a medium and approach, the development of personal voice, the knowledge of true intentions--all of this can take years to develop, and it's a slow, sometimes arduous process of learning by doing.
A workshop is a time to simply take in as much as possible, to play (in the best sense of the word) and to stay in the moment. Even when good results do happen, the paintings done in workshops are best thought of as experimental...as note-taking...as explorations. When students say thing like "I used the wrong colors" or "I shouldn't have worked on this while it was still wet" what they are really describing are not failures, but the process of learning by doing. Every time something doesn't work as we want it to is a small step to understanding what does work. Saying "I'm not sure what to do next--I'm afraid of messing up" is the biggest obstacle to learning and growth. My advice is always to go ahead and try something different, and see what happens. (In fact, Jerry and say this so often when teaching that it has become the tagline for our business. "Squeegee Press...see what happens.")