Roots and Wings: The Tao of Teaching


Yesterday I received an email from my former student Roger Derrick, which jump-started this post in my mind. Roger wanted to show me some new works in progress. I was astonished to see how far he had come since being in my class. The goal of my teaching is to cultivate each student’s understanding of the underlying principles that inform the decision-making process, giving them the ability to come up with the appropriate course of action in any situation. This approach allows an artist to continue to develop just the way Roger has, through determination, hard work and applied logic.

Teaching is no different than parenting. When people learn that I am a father, the first thing they ask is, “Are your kids artists?” My reply is always, “No, they’re not me! They get to choose their own paths.”

Now, many parents want their children to follow in their footsteps. They want their kids to come back and ask for advice when there are important decisions to make, regardless of their age. Obviously, these parent’s intentions are good. They want what’s best for their children, but they base their counseling on their own priorities. It’s only natural to want what’s best for your offspring! Right? But natural for whom? I raised my children to think for themselves based on understanding and good judgment. I chose to support their interests rather than imposing my own. As a result, they grew up to be independent thinkers, more than capable of making their own life choices. I couldn’t be any prouder or happier of them, regardless of the paths they follow.

My goal as a teacher is the same as my goals as a parent, to allow my students to develop into the best artists they can be, and not a replication of myself. There’s a very famous poem by Dennis Waitley about parenting, entitled “Roots and Wings”. Here’s the poem:

If I had two wishes, I know what they would be
I’d wish for Roots to cling to, and Wings to set me free;
Roots of inner values, like rings within a tree;
and Wings of independence to seek my destiny.
Roots to hold forever to keep me safe and strong,
To let me know you love me, when I’ve done something wrong;
To show me by example, and helps me learn to choose,
To take those actions every day to win instead of lose.
Just be there when I need you, to tell me it’s all right,
To face my fear of falling when I test my wings in flight;
Don’t make my life too easy, it’s better if I try,
And fail and get back up myself, so I can learn to fly.
If I had two wishes, and two were all I had,
And they could just be granted, by my Mom and Dad;
I wouldn’t ask for money or any store-bought things.
The greatest gifts I’d ask for are simply Roots and Wings.

When it comes to teaching art there are two basic approaches:

1)You can teach what you do.

2)You can teach the underlying fundamental principles of understanding.

Those who teach what they do have very specific rules regarding not only technique but what to do in every given situation. In other words a strict edict to follow. Unfortunately this results in students whose work strongly mimics that of their teacher. The better the student, the closer the adherence. Everyone turns into a some version of the master!

I choose the fundamental understanding route. If you know why things work then you have choices in every given situation; you do what you do based on your artistic intent and not anyone else’s. That doesn’t mean I eschew technique. On the contrary, my teaching is very technical because it’s vitally important to have the ability to manifest the choices you’re making.

I love it when no apparent stylistic imprint of myself is evident in the work of a former student. It’s my understanding that Jean Leon Gerome – the great academic painter of the 19th Century and one of the most revered educators of his time – shared the same philosophy. This enabled him to develop students as diverse as Thomas Eakins and William McGregor Paxton. Each of those artists took what they learned and were able to form their own unique personality and point of view.

I thought about the past week, where I had the great privilege of seeing a new show of paintings by my former student, TM Davy, a series of beautiful unique and innovative paintings of horses at the 11R gallery in New York City. I also saw, on Facebook, two great paintings by former students Billy Norrby and Martin Wittfooth. I received an email from Steve Birmbaum, the Assistant Director of Media at SVA. Steve had interviewed another long ago student, Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS), a highly successful Chelsea gallery artist. Steve wrote, “The interview went great and Brian had a lot of wonderful things to say about you and your class during his time at SVA.” A few weeks ago, I learned another of my past students, Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, was developing, for 20th Century Fox Animation, a feature film based on “The Dam Keeper”, his 2015 Academy Award-nominated animated short. The incredible thing about all these artists is that you would never know they all studied with the same teacher. They took their roots and flew to the heavens.

This week my new continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts will be starting. It’s a perfect opportunity to self-reflect and ask yourself, “Do I follow in someone else’s footsteps or do I want to grow roots and wings?”

Portrait Painting: The Real Deal • Fridays
12:00PM – 6:00PM  • Jan 27 – Apr 21 • 12 Sessions
Register online now for the Friday class or call 212.592.2200.

Portrait Painting: The Real Deal • Saturdays
10:00AM – 4:00PM  • Jan 28 – April 29 • 12 Sessions
Register online now for the Saturday class or call 212.592.2200.

For more information please call the Department of Continuing Education at 212.592.2050 or go to this page on my website.

These classes may also be taken for undergraduate credit. Please call the registrar at 212.592.2200 to register or to find out more information.

A special bonus field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view and analyze some of greatest portraits in the collection will take place on a Sunday afternoon.

 

How To Be A Better Artist in 2013

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A commenter, responding to my recent post On The Quest For Excellence, said their New Year’s resolution was to be a better artist. They cited the following quote:

That which we persist in doing becomes easier – not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I know Emerson was a brilliant guy but, big picture in mind, I think he missed the mark. Yes, it’s true, you will get better through repetition, but if you do something badly and you practice and practice, you’ll get better at doing it badly. Which begs the question: how do you to learn to do it well?

If you’re being objective (a huge part in the quest for success, IMO) you first identify the problem and then come up with the solution. However, it’s easier said than done, because, had you had that knowledge, there wouldn’t a problem in the first place. Therefore, you need to look outside yourself to expand your capabilities. This where a good teacher comes in.

At the height of my illustration career (Time Magazine covers, movie posters, national ad campaigns, etc.) I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my paintings; I spent the next ten years studying, one day a week, with John Frederick Murray, a former student of the legendary Frank Reilly. Everyone thought I was crazy because I was “so good” but I wanted to be so much better. Reilly’s teachings allowed me to fill in many gaps in my approach. Having been self-taught, up to that point, I was amazed to discover that Reilly’s methodology synced perfectly with mine.

My former student Martin Wittfooth, one of today’s hottest young painters, was mentioned last week in People Magazine. Comedic actress Kaley Cuoco stated that she had recently purchased a large painting of Marty’s. When he first came to study with me, he was having modest success with his gallery work, but he too wanted more. He signed up for my Friday class and came every week for three years. Above you can see a recent painting of his and below, you can read what he had to say about his experience.

Marvin Mattelson’s technique and teaching philosophy have been an invaluable asset to my own understanding of painting. A tremendous amount of the knowledge and experience that I have acquired in this class greatly informs the way that I paint in my own time as a full time professional artist, regardless of what subject matter I choose to depict. Everything from the best choice of materials, to a thorough understanding of color, to the handling and application of paint and the achievement of compelling realism is covered in Marvin’s method, and in a manner that is extremely easy to absorb and process. The method allows for immense personal development for an artist at any stage in the game. In the various classes I have attended throughout my studies and my career, I have never witnessed such great strides of advancement in well-rounded skills as in the students in Marvin’s class. I am grateful to count myself among them.

It really has been a hugely transformative experience for me, and I wish that more aspiring artists who had the chops to progress with their painting discovered his class. I do make a point to tell anyone asking about my portraits or just painting-advancement to consider signing up.

Martin Wittfooth

I’ll be teaching two continuing education classes for upcoming winter/spring semester at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. These classes are open to everyone, not just full-time students. Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting, Fridays from noon to 6pm, starting Feb. 1, and Classical Portrait Painting, Saturdays from 10am to 4pm beginning Feb. 2.

On Tuesday September 15 there will be a Continuing Education Information Session for students interested in learning more about available courses at SVA. I’ll be in attendance, so if you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by and say hello. This information session will be held at 209 East 23rd Street, room 311, 3rd floor. Seating is given on a first-come, first-served basis. Session begins promptly at 6:30 PM.

You can read more about my portrait painting and figure painting classes and workshops here.