(Hat tip to Elizabeth Kaplan, who reminded me of this video this morning!)
On my mind this morning, as I watched lesson two in A Year of Painting with Alena Hennessy – the atmosphere that is best suited for learning (as opposed to atmospheres that are best suited to the creation of sycophants & ‘fans’) is one in which students are encouraged to *emulate*. If you are a teacher, and you don’t encourage your students to copy, but rather, demonstrate your techniques and then insist that people create work that is wildly divergent from your own OR ELSE, then you’re not teaching. You’re creating a kind of artistic paralysis in which the student *yearns* to become as skilled as you are, but can’t because you’ve hobbled them with your rules about ‘no copying’.
I saw this a lot in my early days as a student, and I ran like my hair was on fire from those kinds of teachers.
Teachers will encourage you to copy and emulate until your own voice emerges. We don’t come fully formed to the page with a pre-existing visual lexicon. We come, like babies do, with the *potential for language*, but no language of our own. We begin by babbling the sounds that our parents make. Then we learn that those babbles have meaning. And in time, we speak the common tongue that is spoken around us. We copy, we integrate, we emulate. We may not adopt all of their linguistic idiosyncrasies, but we will adopt a *lot* of them, and in time, we will find our own idiosyncrasies emerging. These differences between the way our parents use language and the way we use language grows over time, but at the base, at the root of our ability to communicate lies our common tongue.
Technique + supplies and how we use them is to art what ‘common tongue’ is to language. None of us start out knowing how to talk OR paint. None of us start out knowing how to use rhetoric OR a gelli plate. We learn, and we learn by copying, at first without understanding the *meaning* behind what we are doing, but in time, as understanding meaning grows in us (as is inevitable), we will begin to put our own spin on things.
This is how your voice will emerge. Babble with paint, marker, pen, pencil. Babble. Don’t worry so much about meaning. Play with shape, colour, composition. Add, bit by bit, to your own lexicon. Steal shamelessly, as do *all* artists. Take what excites you. Flesh it out or pare it down. Play.
If you come across an artist teacher who spends their time talking about how people are stealing from her (and I’m not talking about someone who *literally* puts their name to someone else’s work or copies stroke for stroke and doesn’t give credit – I’m talking about someone who, say, uses that river rock stencil in the same way I do because *I taught you to* or someone who is playing with the fancy arrows I’ve been doing lately), RUN AWAY. They are aren’t teachers. They are looking to be admired and validated. They are not looking to support your emerging. They are there to prop themselves up, to be propped up by you. They want you to gaze longingly upon the work they are creating before your eyes, but they don’t want you to LEARN because if they did, they would encourage you to copy, at first stroke by stroke, like all the masters did, and then, as your voice begins to emerge, they will feel *honoured* by the pieces of themselves they see in your work.
To *real* teachers, student work is like a grandbaby. It’s the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen. We are *proud* to have had a hand in its creation. We love it. We want to feed it chocolate and give it all the really noisy toys. To a teacher, there is nothing more beautiful than watching a student take what we give them and *make something with it*.
Here’s a video that Elizabeth Kaplan reminded me of today in a comment on my “thank you” post to Alena Hennessy for being the kind of teacher who encourages emulation as a part of our journey. It is extremely valuable to any artist of any sort to realize that we are all doing the same things over and over again. There is nothing new under the sun. What makes our art our own is how we put the stolen pieces together in a way that is unique to us.
Go forth and steal like an artist.
Have a beautiful Sunday!