Friday, July 22, 2011

On being "self-taught".

Ever heard of a "self-taught" artist? I have. Ever seen a "self-taught" artist? I haven't. I hear the term used often and I've even heard it applied to myself but I am quick to correct anyone that I* am not self-taught. At best, the term "self-taught" is a misunderstanding or mis-appropriation of credit and at worst is ignorance and arrogance.

I have only a rough idea as to the history of representational painting. What I do know, is that there have been many points along the way where one man took what everyone was doing, built on it, and then everyone did things a little different (until the next innovator came along). Here we are now, hundreds of years later, and we have the benefit of all of this knowledge automatically and without even needing to be aware of how we got here. We have any number of thousands of resources to discover anatomy, for example, which at one point had to be discovered. The first man who cut open a cadaver to look at muscles was the self-taught man. Now, all we do is crack open an anatomy book and the knowledge which took him a lifetime is ours in a matter of dollars and minutes.

Look how late in the painting game impressionism came onto the scene. Vivid color! And now we have the benefit of all of that knowledge by simply typing in a search on google and looking at hundreds or thousands of impressionist paintings. Artists didn't always know that there was color in the shadows. Just look at paintings from hundreds of years before impressionism. Figures emerging from black voids. Was the past filled with black voids? I think not. Artists didn't know that color is everywhere!

And here we are now with supposed "self-taught" masters running around with the knowledge that somehow took thousands of artists hundreds of years to collectively learn and pass along. How is this even possible? If anyone is honest, it's not. What I am NOT suggesting is that it's easy to get the skills we have now. I'm also not saying that these "self-taught" artists haven't worked hard. They have. But they've had the benefit of hundreds of years of knowledge laid at their feet in the form of any painting they have ever looked at in person, on the internet, or in a book/print.

The real self-taught artist would be the one who's work is indistinguishable from that of an infant. How long do you think it takes to be able to teach yourself to see properly? To visually measure distances, perceive perspective, create any sort of atmospheric depth, and understand value, let alone formulate, mix, and tube your own paint would take one man a hundred thousand lifetimes (since, at my rough estimation, it has taken tens of thousands of men hundreds of lifetimes **). Any self-taught artist would need to discover all of these things himself. Since we can see how many lifetimes it has taken some of the greatest artistic minds to make even the smallest headway on a single facet of the diamond of things we now know it is safe to assume that a single "self-taught" artist would have so very little to actually bring to the table that their entire life would be spent in discovery of things we've long surpassed centuries ago. And all I've mentioned are the technical aspects of painting.

Pictured: The work of a "self-taught" artist.

What would be the point anyway? To go through the entire attempt at being "self-taught"? If many artists have spent entire lifetimes discovering useful knowledge, why set it aside only to arrive at the same destination after many (wasted) years? Arrogance? I don't understand why anyone would willfully cast aside something brilliant and useful, just to claim that they "discovered" it themselves. Just because nobody can be the first to summit Everest doesn't make it much less of an achievement. How many climbers get to the top and then walk around thumping their chest at having been the first ones to get there? Only Hillary and Tenzing, who acknowledged their ascent as a team effort.

This doesn't mean we can't learn anything on our own. To the contrary, I think with so much information readily available it's become as easy as it ever has been to learn new things on your own. It's difficult to learn something by taking a crumb of information and attempting to understand and apply it. Incredibly difficult. We're still getting the information from somewhere (most of the time).

I'm also not suggesting that we worship the past or hold as ideal the works of the masters. Our goal should be to surpass what they have done. We should be a generation of artists who all paint better than Richard Schmid or any other "master" (another future blog post "The Illusion of Mastery" Coming soon!). We've got the benefit of everything he knew and a lifetime of our own to improve on it.

All this blog post is meant to suggest is that we stop throwing around the term "self-taught" as if it actually means something really important and special. Maybe it means somebody sat around in a basement for 10 years copying other people's drawings and never went to art school. That doesn't mean that they were so isolated that they somehow discovered, without any help, all of the things we already know (and even if they had, we already know them, big deal). The reality is that it doesn't really matter if somebody is self taught, learns on their own, goes to a prestigious school, or not. All that really matters is the end result they're able to produce and anyone who can produce a worthwhile result has had many teachers. Being "self-taught" is hardly ideal and I would suggest that it's not even real. This isn't to diminish the accomplishments of artists working in the here and now but to put in proper context that the heights we can fly to now are possible because of the artists who came before us and that we should take the very best of what they have to offer and build upon it ourselves.

*I studied at the Art Institute of Seattle for 2 years, Watts Atelier in San Diego for 1.5 years, and Studio Second Street in San Diego for 1.5 years. I also read a few art books, look at a lot of art from masters present and past, and watch a few instructional DVDs by Richard Schmid, Yim Mau Kun, and Scott Christensen. I am a long way from self-taught, though I am currently developing my skills on my own.

**Any mathematical errors are indeed wrong and accidental. I went to art school.


  1. 10 years of study with master painters is good. then 10 years to season as a painter, then you will be able to begin something.

  2. At least, begin something of significance. Trouble is, figuring out how to live in the first 20 years! Ha!