You never forget your first time. I was nervous, cleaned up a bit beforehand, even going so far as to put on a clean shirt. The moment finally arrived, awkward greetings were exchanged and soon enough, we found ourselves in my studio.
This is the first time I would teach a painting class.
“No matter how little you may think you know, you know a million more things than the person coming to you asking you for help”-former studiomate Rita
Weeks earlier, I was convinced by my studiomate Rita to start teaching. She had been teaching metalworking and jewelry making for years, and seemed to be making a pretty good go of things. “If you really hate it, just stop doing it, but for now, you should just do it”, she told me, knowing my precarious financial situation in my relatively new digs in Austin.
I hastily set up a loose schedule, faked my way through creating a page on my burgeoning website, and waited. I waited and waited until I finally got an email about my classes. After I called the woman back and set a time, I nervously waited for the day to arrive. That morning, all of the joy, confusion, uncertainty, nerves, and bravado of figuring out what to do during the first painting class built through the day.
The first ninety minutes are always the longest
I met Marilyn in the parking lot outside my studio, which was then located in a then lesser developed part of Austin that scared a lot of white people from driving into, especially at night. Around the same age as my mom, she was married and had grown up kids my age. We exchanged awkward introductions and walked back to my studio space.
It was there that I had her pull out some of her finished work that she said she had. Armed with some painting experience and some bad class experiences, I prepared my best poker face before looking at her work. Landscapes with pastels, and thick, acrylic brushmarks. I remember a beach scene with a stone wall about an inch and a half above the bottom of the canvas, with perhaps a column in there as well. Perhaps it was Greece. I never saw acrylic paint look so plastic before this moment. As I looked at her works on my easels, she gave me three directives, explicitly stated in this order:
“One. I don’t want to stop using a palette knife.-my first student, at our first class
Two. I will not change what I paint.
Three. I like my colors and won’t change them at all.”
Baffled. I wasn’t quite sure how to react to that, but I was confident yelling, ‘Then why the hell are you taking painting lessons?’ wasn’t the correct thing to offer in this moment.
So I looked at her work and let her talk about it. I listened. I listened some more. She complained how other teachers wanted her to change everything about her work. I listened more, trying to figure out something to say about her work. More importantly, I wondered about the $80 check. Was she going to ask for it back? What would I do without those eighty bucks?
Like any bad date or breakup, you always want to smooth things with a few positives. Sprinkle in something nice to say, throw in a breezy compliment to break the silence. I realized I needed to find something in her paintings to grab a hold of and discuss. You can’t bullshit though. Pick out a strength, positive, or at least acknowledge a tendency or commitment.
So my first painting class officially began when I stared at her canvas filled with an inhumanly thick impasto of pastel pallete knife marks, and told her she had no fear of using paint. She half smiled and nodded, happy to see I noticed her markmaking.
We began to talk about her marks, the unvarying consistency of them, which led into her colors, which were washed out pastels with too much white. I offered some soft suggestions, pulling out a drawing pad and began to explain space across a canvas to her. I started pointing out how other artists use markmaking, expressing my own love of and belief in the importance of thick paint. Soon, time was flying by and I hadn’t scared her off.
I sent her home at the end of class with her head filled with how other artists use space and markmaking. I never told her she needed to add depth to her flattened out works, but I did show her how some small changes to composition would change things. She seemed excited and responded to bits of knowledge I was able to convey to her. After she pulled away from the parking lot, I closed up my studio and went out for a drink. Many drinks. I somehow arrived home sometime after three.
What happened next
She returned to my studio the next week excited, gladly pulling out her paintings with adjustments made. She already began to see fundamental changes in her own work. Excited to see progress, we dug a bit deeper into her work and concepts of color, paint mixing, composition. Later on we talked about themes, reasons behind painting, life, good art, bad art. All along, her paintings continued to get better. I started getting a couple of other students, and my new little side career started to grow.
After a few months, I started to explain all of this to my friend and fellow painter Chris. He was blown away at what was happening and what I was teaching and how it was going over. He memorably punctuated our conversation with this sentence:
“Holy Shit! Do you know what you’ve done? It’s like you’ve just taught art to our moms!-fellow painter Chris
My first painting class taught me lots of things, not the least of which is ‘fake it until you make it’. Patience and listening are two great skills. Being able to listen to the students is just as important as it is to get the students comfortable about verbalizing their work. Most new students will usually question how I can be so patient, and I tell them things just take time and practice, so why hurry?
When Rita told me I would know a million more things than my students, that’s factually true. That doesn’t make a good teacher though. Lord knows I had enough arrogant know-it-all shitheads in high school who were just awful teachers. What matters is being able to disseminate that knowledge in ways your student can understand it. It’s on the teacher to also, especially in the arts, to be able to explain simple and complex concepts a variety of ways, because people learn differently. Some people need demonstrated examples, some people need step by step directions.
My first class was sixteen years ago. I’ve taught hundreds of adults and children. Kids are fearless, adults have been told ‘no’ so many times in their life they’re usually very tepid learning or re-learning to paint. Everything about my life and career is absurd, so it feels good to be able to help out a few normal folks with something they’ve always wanted to do.
- My first student has done great. She’s worked on commissions for people over the years, written artist statements, participated in group shows and even has shown during EAST! Her style has developed, her colors changed, and she has confidence in her work, which has become abstract. She clearly enjoys painting, and I hope I helped her in a small way. It’s also evident that she also freely uses paint brushes. (thumbs up!)
- I linked to Ghostbusters’ first call way up there, and that entire scene of their first call, faking their way through, nervous and slightly confused, is what starting a business feels like. And it’s delivered with the perfect pitch and levels of absurdity that these actions exist in.
- Not only did I really not know much about webdesign or websites in general in 2003, I was using an already obsolete version of frontpage to create my website, and looking back, realized I was still using a very unprofessional email that was a pun featuring a Cork word that my Mom wouldn’t appreciate me writing here.
- You can read some reviews from some of my recent students. Apparently, I’m at least decent at teaching art.
- Here’s a link to my painting and drawing classes. I still teach adults and children.