I was never a particularly exemplary student—at art or any school, for that matter. But I flatter myself thinking that I did try, and for me trying meant swallowing everything the teacher said, hook, line and sinker.
Now that the jaded ol’ jillamonster has seen a bit of mileage, I now know that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’, what some of those well-meaning (I hope) maestros once told me.
And as a former art teacher myself (if I may make so bold as to call myself that), I never wanted to (for lack of a better word) impose anything on my students that I knew was more of a personal preference than a hard-and-fast rule. Plus certain things that I knew they had to figure out for themselves (for which all I could do really was to do my best to guide them towards whatever those were).
So why am I sharing six things my own teachers told me that I found to be not quite as black-and-white as they made out to be? It’s not because of some anarchist, rebellious, question authority x down with the status quo whatever or anything. Far from it.
It’s because I want you to know, if you’ve just started getting into art or taking classes or trying to find yourself artistically or something—that some things in art aren’t governed by what your teacher says. You need to find your own path, your own way of doing things, and that path is what makes what you create truly your own. Sounds pretty darn obvious, but there you go.
Lie No. 1: You shouldn’t use black.
Okay, I’m pretty sure I used to tell my own students this one, too. (Not a very promising start, for this list, is it?) Back when I used to teach smaller kids how to paint, my fellow teachers and I used to take the black away because ‘a little can go a long way’ and things can get messy real fast and not in a good way.
But now that I think about it I’m fairly sure I was told this during the first formal, not-at-school art lessons I took at an art gallery when I was about 12 or so. I have a very hazy memory of who the teacher who told me this was but it was either one of the resident artists or this lady from that other famous art school (the one I didn’t go to, lol).
Anyway, this teacher said that black was very heavy on the eyes, and that if you used it, it kind of just sucked the viewer’s attention to it and sort of drowned out everything else. Kind of like an attention magnet. So don’t use it. And that ‘advice’ followed me all throughout my drawing and painting years until I went to art school proper.
And until an aunt gave me this ‘how to paint in watercolour’ book (because watercolour is my primary ‘thing’), and lo and behold, people in it were using black. And it looked okay to me.
And then I felt stupid for all those years I was ‘mixing fake black’, i.e. that thing you do when you mix brown and blue and it’s so dark it might as well be black but it isn’t. (So you don’t feel guilty you used it, LOL.)
I guess I’m glad I ‘grew up mixing fake black’ because (and I don’t know if I’m just saying this now) that kind of opened up my own personal colour horizons. But now I really rather resent being told this lie in such a way as to imply ‘don’t use black because if you do your work will suck’.
I’m glad some of my older students either weren’t paying attention or ignored me and used black in their pieces. (Although some of them really shouldn’t have because it did do that thing that teacher said when I was 12, i.e. it looked too heavy.)
Because then they were ‘seeing for themselves’ instead of just taking my word for it (which is what I, in my ‘trying to be a good student’ thing, did). So I say good for them, go ahead, and use black.
Lie No. 2: You shouldn’t paint individual grass.
Okay, I wasn’t told this, but this incredibly gifted painter on Instagram was. She said that her high school art teacher, Mrs So-and-so told her that they shouldn’t paint individual grass, but as you can see, that’s not necessarily etched in stone. (That’s a relief for me but as you can see above, I can’t do it quite so well as Miss Bourne.)
As a sort of ‘related aside’, I remember when I was around 12 or so I actually made it a point to paint individual leaves on account of my attempts to move on from drawing ‘cloud trees’. Nobody told me not to do it then, and if anything, that same art gallery that told me to not use black actually encouraged it. Go figure.
Lie No. 3: Implied texture is better than actual.
This one was I told in art school proper, by a teacher who was a prize-winning, highly respected artist who actually was very good, technically. His insane good looks, however, weren’t quite enough to convince me of the veracity of this lie.
I guess, since art was my second degree (which meant I was older and I had already been taking painting classes elsewhere for some time at the time) I’d already gotten a taste of how fun rendering actual texture is. So I guess I took what this teacher said with a grain of salt. I mean what does ‘better’ mean, anyway?
I mean I guess I understand what he meant? In the context of the realistic, super smooth, super strokeless flawless style he was master of, the abrasive, highly textured style of painting I was already deeply enamoured of just didn’t have any place in his universe.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I still respect his work (as do many collectors and critics), but that doesn’t mean I have to take what he said as gospel truth. (Which is probably why my work isn’t as celebrated now LOL.) (But at least it’s ‘really mine’.)
Lie No. 4: You need to draw 1,000 hands every day.
This was another one I was told in art school proper by this professor who gamely admitted he didn’t have that much talent—but what he did have going for him was his propensity to work. (I actually whacked that same professor in the backside with the wet end of a mop once—it was an accident, I promise. But I reckon he may not have thought so.)
Anyway, you know how some people have problems drawing hands (like they end up looking like flippers or whatever)? This professor says if you reeeally want to get good at drawing hands, you had to draw 1,000 of them every day. (Or was it 10,000? It certainly wasn’t 100. It was 20 years ago or so so I forget.)
Okay—the guy had a point. You want to get good at something, practise makes perfect. I remember finding it odd, the way he said the ‘joineries’ of the fingers, instead of ‘joints’. (Maybe he was Geppetto in a past life, lol.) In any case, I got the impression (mistaken?) that if you didn’t do this, your drawings were gonna suck.
A ‘lie’ parallel to this one was told me by this other guy at an artist’s workshop. This other guy (whom I also respect) told me a bunch of other things which have, shall we say, informed many of the major decisions I’ve made throughout what passes for my career. One of them was, if you wanted to make it as an artist, you had to draw at least 100 things a day.
So…do 100 hands count? So that then I’d only have 900 hands to go—for the day? Again, I get it, about the constant practise. And I do agree; after all, you don’t use it, you lose it, right? And I guess… you have to put a fixed or definite number on these things because it sounds more actionable than ‘draw a bunch of hands’ or ‘draw several things’.
It’s just I’ve seen some people who drew very well, and… well who knows. Maybe they really did draw a thousand things a day (a hundred of which were hands, too) and I just wasn’t aware of it.
Lie No. 5: You need to pee on your hands.
Yes, you read that right. That same 1,000 hands professor told us about how you could avoid getting pasma while working was to pee on your hands—and leave the pee on them for a number of minutes before you washed it off.
Now pasma is a, shall we say, pseudo-medical phenomenon that happens (only where I’m from, it seems) when you expose muscles that have gotten all warmed up from physical exertion to sudden cold. So say your hands get all warm and sweaty while painting and you go wash your hands in cold water—pasma is your hands getting all trembly after you wash.
Now, if that professor of mine is to be believed, urinating on your hands is supposed to prevent that. Well, remember what I said at the beginning of this post? About me ‘trying’ to be a good student by swallowing everything my teachers told me?
Well…it wasn’t so much the the actual act of peeing on one’s hands (which, as a girl I found rather difficult), but the leaving the pee on there. I don’t now recall how many minutes you had to leave it there, but I remember not being able to hold out during the entire recommended period, and washing it off ‘too soon’.
Needless to say, this practice did nothing for my artistic prowess; apparently, doing this was supposed to have been effective due to the uric acid or something like that in the pee. I remember one of my classmates saying her mom was a nurse who said what the professor said was absolutely untrue. Just as needless to say, I felt like a complete idiot afterwards.
I will own, however, that I much preferred to not wash my hands with cold water while I was working. (So I used rubbing alcohol instead.) This was mainly because my hands did get all warm (and sometimes sweaty if the weather was on the muggy side) while working and I didn’t want my hands to get all shaky and stuff.
Now there are those who say pasma is an old wives’ tale, and oddly enough, it was my grandmother (God rest her) who told me there was no such thing as pasma. And me being the disrespectful whippersnapper I still am, I didn’t believe her (because my hands did get all shaky and stuff, sometimes while working).
(But who knows, maybe it wasn’t because I washed my hands with coldish water too soon.)
Lie No. 6: You need to stay inside the lines when you colour things.
This one I remember from when I was about, what. Five? I was with a couple of cousins, both girls, both older than me, and we were working on a colouring book. And the older cousin (who went on to become the head of some creative department for a greeting card company, if I remember correctly) told me not to go outside the lines. I had to colour it neatly for it to look ‘nice’.
I mean, I get it, and all. There were these ‘art schools’ for kids, not too long ago, I remember, that taught kids to colour in colouring book-type things and I remember they put up examples on the walls. The neatly (rather anemically, if you ask me) coloured sheets had a big ✔️on them, while the ‘messily’ coloured ones (where the crayons went outside the lines), had a big ❌.
I get it, I really do. Honest. And it does look nice and neat, doesn’t it? When you stay inside the lines? All the same—I now, in my jaded old age having spent years ‘colouring messily’—consider this a big, fat lie.
Just because you don’t stay inside the lines, doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ or ‘no good’. And sure, it might look messy. But for me, ‘messy’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘bad’. Now I’m not dissing those ‘art schools’—there are many ways to teach kids art and I guess we all want to do the best we can. It’s just not my way, that’s all.
And just like the premise of Lie No. 3 where I question the apparent definition of ‘better’—what’s ‘nice’, anyway, right? If ‘nice’ means being forever nice and neat, colouring things in ‘not too hard’ and in one direction alone—then maybe I don’t want to make nice things, after all.
In any case, I don’t think any of these lies were told out of malice, and maybe whoever told them really, truly didn’t think they were lying (whether it involved pee or not).
I guess, regardless of whether they teach at a university, at an art gallery or someone’s backyard, art teachers are under a certain kind of pressure to make sure their students create ‘nice things’. After all, the work of the student reflects on the skill of the teacher, and parents aren’t paying you to teach their kids to paint ‘ugly’ things.
It’s just, for me, art teachers aren’t just responsible for making sure their students know that red + yellow = orange and that you should keep your knives and brushes clean. They’re meant to be guides on your path towards finding yourself artistically.
I’m not saying a student is never going to develop his own style if a teacher plies him with ‘rules’ for what colours or tools he ‘must’ use and so on. It’s just that the road to self-discovery might turn out to be longer or, for me, unnecessarily bumpy, blocked or winding. (Although travelling a winding road can sometimes be fun, too.)
Maybe you have stories to share about things your art teachers told you. Or maybe you’re stuck trying to figure out something presented to you as an ‘art commandment’. Or maybe you think one of the lies above is not a lie at all. If it helps, you can tell me. And hopefully, it’s not Lie No. 5.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.