It may be Japanese, but at least it’s not Math

More, More, More, Ceramic with hand-sewn vinyl
More, More, More, Ceramic with hand-sewn vinyl

Tell anyone you’d like to learn to speak and write in Japanese, and they’ll say “wow, that is so challenging”. You would agree of course, but if you truly want to learn something difficult, you expect to work hard and rise to the challenge. Not so with Art. The reaction of a friend would be different, perhaps they’d be happy for you, perhaps they’d be jealous, and some may tell say you are wasting your time.

Chances are, you would not approach the art class with steely resolve to rise to the challenge of hard work in the face of difficult subject matter. There is a commonly held perception that Art is easy.

I’ve been musing on this lately because it happens so frequently with students who are new to a particular technique in art. Contrary to many popularly held beliefs, art is not easy.

The techniques we utilize to make artwork need to be learned, practiced, and internalized until they can be used fluently. It is just like learning a challenging new language. We must train our eyes to see subtleties in an artwork just as we must train our ears to hear subtleties in a language. We must train our bodies and hands to perform new skills in art just as we must train our lips to make new sounds in language.

We must train our brains to notice different structures in foreign sentences as well as while analyzing a work of art.

And this takes practice. Just as you would expect yourself to practice saying Japanese words and phrases over and over before being successful, techniques in art need to be practiced over and over.

And here’s the biggest newsflash of them all. Just as you would not expect yourself to write a work of exquisite poetry in Japanese on the first day of Japanese class, you should not expect yourself to create a masterpiece on first day of art class. You should not expect it on the second day either.

This surprises people. Often frustration ensues; sometimes people give up as a result. This has nothing to do with the ability of the student artist, or the quality of the teacher or the materials. This has everything to do with commonly held misconceptions about art.

The misconception is not so much that art is easy, but that it should be. I’ve met students who think that if masterpieces don’t start flowing out of them right away, it is an indication they are “not artistic” or worse “not creative”. I have heard “I do not have an artistic bone in my body” many times. Art is not a bone. Creativity is not a bone, it is a muscle. If your work it, it will become stronger. And, yes, we all have that muscle.

Artmaking is, for many of us, a lifelong pursuit. I can be for the student as well, but it doesn’t have to be. I think that both short term and long term growth for any individual can be achieved through studying something new, really putting an effort forth, for any length of time. Come to class when you can, expect to be challenged, expect to be humbled, expect to grow.

My father was a math teacher. He would say to me “you are so lucky to be teaching art, on the first day of Math class my students are already looking at me with contempt in their eyes, they hate math so much already.” Many of Pa’s students were in math class because it was required. Hardly anyone takes Math as an elective.

Art, on the other hand, is often an elective. Students are excited on the first day of class. Even Drawing 101, a required class for many Art and Design majors, is not quite as reviled as Math. For the instructor, Drawing 101 can be challenging. As a requirement, students often feel resentful for being forced to take it, especially those students who have drawing skills. Especially the ones who are sure they are already really good at drawing. Even so, with students of different skill levels on the first day of Drawing 101 I ask “how many of you loved to draw as a child?” Every hand goes up, every single one. We all laugh. Then I assure them, despite the many tedious exercises I will force them to do, despite the many times we will try something new and challenging, we will rediscover that love.