One of the themes running through this blog is probably going to involve my struggle to breach the wall that sometimes rises up around artists with intensive or exclusive training in academic realism. To survive three or four years of full time atelier study means, at best, feeling like you're in drawing and painting boot camp or, at worst, like you're being indoctrinated into a cult. When you leave that bubble (and thanks to social media, you can unfortunately cocoon yourself in it for a very long time), you realize that many people may see your beautifully executed work as quite boring. (Trust me, "this looks just like a photograph" is a compliment that rarely leads to sales unless you unintentionally painted someone else's favorite toy or food.) In other words, you're on the way to mastering a craft, but you've mislaid your creative soul along the way.
I've recently been trying to find my way back to creativity and self-expression by playing around with cold wax medium. My goal is to set aside a few hours each week and experiment with small, abstract studies on Arches oil paper using few colors, no brushes, some weird scraping and rolling tools and a short amount of time to complete. In spite of quite a few easily tossed, obvious fails, I've been amazed at how emotionally engaging the process can be. Sometimes I've produced something that captures how I feel before I am aware I am feeling it. The piece above, "Black Rain," seems to be exactly how I was feeling about the pandemic; watching helplessly as a firestorm seems to rage out of control. That certainly wasn't consciously in my mind as I was playing with my wax and paint, but I realized it as soon as the first stroke of "rain" appeared. Even when one of these is a fail and I don't wind up with any emotional connection to it beyond disgust, it acts like an attitude cleanser that gets me back to my regular work. I wind up glad I can draw realistically because I clearly don't have a career in abstraction!
There are realist artists who have incorporated cold wax into their work and perhaps I will do that someday. In the meantime, I am hoping that I am at least taking the first steps on a journey to find my own artistic voice.
Happy New Year! Or maybe we should just say Better New Year!; the bar is so low after 2020.
In an effort to impose some discipline on myself with regard to maintaining my website and other online presences, and also to return to an activity which I always enjoy - writing - my new year resolution is to make some regular blog posts here during 2021. Diving right in, some thoughts on art education and some advice on how to navigate the world of online art education which is something like the wild west right now.
First off, I am wondering what will be the fate of community art education. For many people, including me, my first exposure to making art since middle school was a weekly watercolor class at the local art center. It was a refuge from both my jobs (parent and attorney) and it set off a quest to find my own voice as an artist while mastering the tools and techniques needed to express that voice. After I finished my Atelier training, I taught at a couple of community art centers and at the Atelier. The experience really helped me to cement my understanding of what I had been taught. For many artists, community art center teaching is the financial lifeline that makes their own artwork possible. Many centers provide opportunities to show work which are hard to come by with so many galleries closing. With these schools and centers shuttered, I wonder where beginner artists will be able to find the nurturing environment to learn to create and also wonder how teaching artists will solidify their skills or even survive. Independent non-profits will need to compete for funding with so many other worthy causes, and taxpayer supported community education centers may simply be axed from cash starved municipal budgets.
If you are an aspiring art student, a dedicated hobbyist, a person wanting to return to art, or even a "serious" artist (more about that in another post someday) you may have ventured into an online search for art classes, or you may already be bombarded by offers of online workshops, demos and mentorships. Individual artists, and some independent art centers and schools, are desperately trying to stay afloat by moving into the digital age. Needless to say, the quality of these offerings, as well as the expense involved, varies tremendously, So rather than signing up for an overcrowded Zoom with some artist whose paintings you may have seen once and liked, here is some advice for choosing the right online content.
No matter what your level of experience, do your research. Look for "free samples" on the internet by watching YouTube videos, following artists you like on FB who may be doing FB Live demos, or searching for short free courses being offered by art centers or individual artists you admire. When you watch these, make sure that the instructor is more than merely comfortable with technology, but that they also know how to exploit its unique advantages FOR TEACHING. Unfortunately, some of the priciest content is often just a low quality recording of a sometimes shy and inarticulate master moving his brush around. Great art, zero education.
Second, carefully think about your needs and intentions. Be honest about your own level of experience, the time you have to commit to practicing the skills being taught, whether you have the work space and materials to follow along with the class. For people without a great deal of time or resources, many artists teach via Patreon and you can choose what to follow and when for a very reasonable fee. If you are a serious beginner, find online schools or ateliers with well-developed, progressive educational content with at least the option of regular feedback on completed lessons and assignments. If you simply want to try out new materials or produce a project for you wall - sort of the wine and paint approach - you can find events like these via EventBrite. Just be very suspicious of someone who tells you you can learn everything you need to know about ______ in just six short hours. You might have one nice picture, but that will be the end. It's also perfectly fine to admit that you are isolated and stuck and just need regular contact with a group of human beings who are making art. In fact, right now, that feels like a path to sanity for many of us.
If you are an experienced artist, you can spend some time analyzing your work and figuring out your weak areas and targeting courses that will address them. But any teacher worth his salt may very well make you take several steps backward and struggle with some initially stupid seeming exercises in order to address those skills. Do not resist. The hard work will pay off in the next painting. You may also want to consider a mentorship. This is the most expensive type of learning, and really the one that most depends upon your research and the relationship you are able to create with the individual instructor as well as your commitment to following his or her advice.
I've sampled a number of online courses since the pandemic lockdown began: free samples from art academies, Zoom workshops, formal online courses, a couple of Patreon accounts and more. Many were excellent, even if they were not a perfect fit for my needs. If you have an interest in academic realism and are looking for some recommendations, please get in touch.
I wish you all the best in your search for human connection and sanity in these hopefully waning months of the pandemic.
ps. I have set up an online shop through my membership in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association. I hope to regularly add more small works to that site and the wizards of NEMAA have made it very easy for you to purchase and me to ship these works. Check it out at https://shop.nemaa.org/artists/jan-wagner-jan-m-wagner-fine-art/
All images copyright Jan M. Wagner Fine Art.