The Quintessential Problem for High School Art Students

2015-07-08 12.08.13

This summer I’m teaching 5 classes of  Drawing Foundations and Design Foundations in the RISD Pre-College program.  Every year, every class is distinct, and offers a different set of challenges for me. Despite how unique every student is, there is one universal problem that I see across the board in all of my pre-college classes:  when students stop working on their projects too early.  The majority of student artwork I’ve seen in the past few weeks is off to a good start, but is noticeably unresolved because students stepped away from the work prematurely.

This tendency to leave an artwork early is understandable; many art students fear that if they work on their projects for too long, they will ruin it. Their desire to protect the final results in order to ensure a certain degree of success shuts down their willingness to take creative risks.  Consequently, many art student miss out on opportunities that might have arisen if they had just given their project another hour.

Creating an artwork is a roller coaster ride where nothing is guaranteed. Many art students have an unrealistic expectation that an artwork should improve in a linear manner, and that if they hit a rough patch that the apocalypse has arrived and nothing in their project can be salvaged. On the contrary, I’ve witnessed students kill their projects and then resurrect the artwork later. I’ve seen students dig themselves out of seemingly hopeless situations and emerge with outstanding results.

Learning how to bring an artwork to true completion is one of the most important skills to gain as an artist.   If you are running a marathon and drop out at mile 15, it doesn’t matter how far ahead you were at the beginning because you didn’t finish the race.  I tell my students that no matter how flawed or unpleasant their process was, to make sure that they cross the finish line.

I once had a student who struggled enormously with the craftsmanship of a collage project.  He was extremely frustrated and clearly had no experience with the materials:  there was glue everywhere, finger prints, the paper wasn’t cut cleanly, etc. However, his piece fundamentally demonstrated that he developed a strong grasp of composition through the piece, which was one of the primary objectives of the assignment. His composition was dynamic and spacious.  Although this student’s technical execution of the materials was a complete car crash, he still followed through and finished the piece. He was mortified at the critique by his poor technique, and was shocked when I commended him for his efforts. I have tremendous respect for the fact that he kept working on the piece, despite his awareness of how sloppy his technique was. It’s never fun to work on a project that you know isn’t going well, and I commended the fact that he pushed through and finished the race.

The difficulty is that there is no “correct” way to finish an artwork, so how do you know what is truly finished?  To figure this out, I encourage my students to intentionally overwork their pieces. This can be a painful, as you can easily lose good parts of your piece in the process, and the results are not always pretty. I had a RISD student who worked on a charcoal drawing to the point that the surface of the paper started to deteriorate. She was up all night working, and was extremely frustrated that nothing was progressing.  When she brought the drawing in for the group critique that morning, it looked like a a civil war had been waged on her drawing. This was the worst drawing she did all semester, but she told me later that the experience was tremendously valuable. She had pushed the drawing well beyond what she thought was reasonable.  Since she went too far with that drawing, she had a better understanding of where her limits were, and was able to pull herself back for the next assignment. I tell my students to let one of their assignments be a “sacrifice drawing,” where they give up any intention of creating a successful piece, to figure out where their limits are.


If you’re an art student, stay with your pieces. Something amazing might be just around the corner, but you’ll never find it if you get up and leave. Sometimes just 60 minutes is all the difference in the world.

Teaching Preparations

Chipboard Personality Sculptures

I’m not teaching right now, but I’m doing preparatory work for three different programs simultaneously.  RISD Pre-College starts in a week, so I’m getting all of the logistics in place to teach 4 classes of Design Foundations this summer. I put together a large supply order for RISD Project Open Door, which dictated that I also plan the entire year’s curriculum.  Since I’ve taught at both programs before, I have a good system in place, but it still takes time.

The bulk of my preparatory work right now is writing new materials for a course I am teaching this fall called “Drawing I: Visualizing Space”, a drawing class in the RISD Illustration Department for incoming sophomores. The last time I taught this course was in 2009, and my teaching has evolved quite a bit since then. When I revisited my old course materials, I decided that only about 30% of the course is going to stay. With the exception of one homework assignment, all of the homework assignments will be new.

Brainstorming new assignments is tricky. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at this, but you never really know until the students actually come into class with the completed assignment.  I’ve certainly had my fair share of failed assignments, what was I thinking when I assigned a drawing project titled “Explosion/Implosion?” I always give an assignment to two different classes before I give up on it, sometimes assignments get very different results depending on the class.  If I still don’t get results after that, I pitch the assignment.

I aim to create homework assignments that strike a balance between specificity and freedom.  If an assignment is too open, I have found that students tend to get lost and the class loses focus. Too much specificity can suffocate creative possibilities and frequently the projects end up looking too similar.

To test new assignments, I ask myself how I would respond to the assignment. If I can’t come up with at least 3 ideas for the project within 5 minutes, I know that my students will have a tough time.  Last night I was brainstorming a new project titled “Remembered Space”, which asks students to create a drawing based on a space that they visited often during their childhood, but that they no longer visit.  Immediately, 3 spaces came to my mind:  1) my piano teacher’s living room, where my mother would sit while I had my lesson.  I remember the dim light in the room, the earth toned furniture, and all of the odd objects, like an oil and water toy that I found mesmerizing. 2) the tiny grocery store next to my elementary school, where my mother would buy deli meat.  The store was run by 3 or 4 elderly people who my mother always chatted with when she came in. 3) the art room at my elementary school. Starting in fourth grade, art class was my favorite hour of the week at school, and I remember being completely silent during class because I wanted to concentrate on my work.  The space was chaotic, bursting with art supplies, with the walls covered with art history pictures. This assignment idea passed my test, so I’ll be implementing it into my course this fall.

Once I have the basic idea in place, I start writing down requirements for the assignment, such as size and media. The way I write the assignment in the course handouts has changed significantly.  I used to write long, dense paragraphs about the assignment, but through experience I’ve learned that students respond better when the language is plain and straightforward. Now, I intentionally write only 1-3 sentences about the assignment and let the students run with that.

One Simple Purpose

Foamcore Staircase Assignment

Having abandoned my “poisonous checklist“,  I sat down to write a new one.  My intent was for everything on this new checklist to be something that could happen right away, and that is in my control.  I am done waiting around and being disappointed.

When I sat down to write, I was surprised to discover that actually, there is no new checklist.  Instead, I am giving myself one simple purpose:

Enjoy myself.

This is truly the only objective that is entirely my responsibility, and that can happen right now.  If I’m having fun, career advancement and financial return don’t matter. Creating a wonderful experience for myself ensures that everything I do will be worth it.  Unlike most things in life, this is something I can guarantee for myself.

To fuel this goal, I am investing in two primary actions:

1) Make changes.
I’ve decided that if I don’t like the way things are, then I need to take action to change my situation. Over the past few months, I’ve been taking baby steps, and it’s been invigorating. (at this point all I can say is that things are percolating, hopefully I’ll be able to tell you why soon!) If things don’t work out, at least I can say that I tried.

2) Savor little victories.
A few weeks ago, a student wrote to me: “You really respected me to make my own choices and to create my own drawing style. I felt valued and respected being an artist in your class.” Teaching can be tough at times, but gems always manage to emerge that I have to remind myself to hold onto.

My Toxic Habits

Chipboard Personality Sculptures

A few posts back, I talked about my “poisonous checklist.”  While thinking about writing my new checklist, it became clear that in order to do that, I need to eliminate some toxic habits.

I don’t know why it’s so hard to do what you know is good for you, and why destructive behaviors are so incredibly seductive.  For example, I hate thinking about exercising, and every time I know I should go to the gym, I dread going. Yet I have repeated proof that I am guaranteed to feel great after a workout. For me, exercise is the most effective anti-depressant that exists. I am well aware that I shouldn’t wander the Internet aimlessly. I waste time which I feel guilty about later, I lose sleep, and I feel worse about myself.   Inevitably, I end up reading about people who look happier, smarter, richer, and more successful than me.

Below are 3 habits I’m trying to erase.  This list is very specific to my current situation, so this is not applicable to everyone.

1) Stop reading about successful artists.
(I know that there are many, many different definitions of “success.”  In this specific context, I am defining “successful artists” as artists who have achieved the items on my old checklist.)
I believe strongly that it’s critical to look at the works of other artists, this process has been a huge part of my artistic development.  In the best case scenario, looking at other artists is inspirational and you can learn from their work. However, I do think that you can overdose on this, (which I have) and the worst case scenario is that you can become bitter and jealous. Having so much content at your fingertips can be great, but sometimes that colossal quantity of information can consume you. I’m at a point where I need to step away from the noise.

2) Stop checking my phone constantly.
I used to check my phone any time I had an idle moment, or when I was waiting, even if I knew my wait would only be a few minutes. I think for many people, the impulse to check your phone is there because people think they will be bored.  On the contrary, since I’ve been letting myself just stand there, I enjoy the little things I notice: the shape of the shadows on the ground, and the mixture of random sounds I hear. After changing my behavior, I noticed that checking my phone stresses me out, and it’s rare that I’ll see something on my phone that can’t wait for later.

3) Stop telling myself that there are no other options.
I once went to a meeting where one person spent the entire meeting shooting down every idea.  When suggestions were made, they talked about how that would be very difficult, or that it wasn’t possible. They didn’t make a single statement that discussed what we could do, which made for a very unproductive meeting.  For the last few years, I was that person, saying these things to myself.  My old checklist dictated that there was only one way to do things, so when those things didn’t work out, I told myself that there was nothing else I could do. I felt helpless and paralyzed, and my progress would come to a grinding halt. A friend of mine told me that their way of coping with their anxiety was to find an action they could take right away, no matter how small. Now that I’ve shifted my outlook, alternative actions are becoming visible.

Paper Trail


Nice to know that as a former student, I can inspire terror in one of my former professors by digging up historical documents.

Originally posted on Picture It:


Grades. Is there a more difficult and dangerous topic for students? We all know we don’t go to school for grades – we go for an education. Right? Well, easier said than done.

As a professor, I have to give grades, and I take them seriously. Ideally, they should be of no surprise to the student. That’s my goal, anyway. Students should feel, looking at their grade, and reflecting, that they were understood to be working hard -or not, succeeding -or not, and meeting expectations -or not. A tough grade, or a great grade, should expose the truth, and be the final lesson. It isn’t the lasting impression, however. Years later, I don’t remember grades. I remember the person’s character. A grade is all business – it’s not an assessment of the person themselves.


How scary then, to be reminded publicly that ex-students remember those truths – sometimes forever. At Rhode Island School of Design…

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Ask the Art Professor: How Can I Balance Planning and Spontaneity in My Artwork?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at), or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“I paint based on my intuition, and I usually do not know what the message of the painting is until the draft is down. This usually evolves over a few weeks, with new insights and connections happening. I feel rather out of control, and my tutors say I should finalize a plan and then execute it. Instead, I modify during execution. Is there some balance between planning and going on impulse that is ideal? “

The key is to strike a balance so that planning and spontaneity are mutually supportive. You can maximize the benefits of both by organizing your time and fostering work habits that will allow these two approaches to complement each other. I organize my time so that I have periods that are dedicated to loose experimentation that are balanced by periods of executing finished pieces. Managing these periods in this way keeps me focused and provides a well-rounded experience.

The ability to think and work in an unpredictable manner is most useful in the beginning stages of an artwork. This approach significantly expands the range of work you can create, and is especially critical when brainstorming ideas for your artwork. From a practical standpoint, it’s crucial to limit the physical execution of the artwork to small scale sketches. This strategy allows you to quickly make fundamental, sweeping changes without the consequences of wasting expensive art materials or needing to start over a time-consuming piece. You can explore many options without investing large amounts of time.

Chipboard Personality Sculptures

At this early stage, spill everything on paper and entertain every option without passing judgment prematurely. Maintaining flexibility is hugely important; you have to give yourself the freedom to react to anything that arises and then run with it. If you are too fixated and on your first ideas and unwilling to make impromptu changes, you will shut down potential options that might have been great.

An impulsive approach can lead to fresh and exciting ideas that might otherwise not come up. Excessive planning and thinking can sometimes paralyze your creativity. The equivalent would be a baseball player who ruminates about how to hit the ball, when really, no amount of thinking will help when the ball is being thrown at you at 85 mph. I frequently tell my students to turn off their brains and just touch the paper with the charcoal. Start a physical action and then let yourself react to those actions in the moment. This approach will get your creative juices pumping and push your progress forward.

However, you can’t do this forever, and ultimately you have to arrive at a cohesive vision. At a certain point, you will start feeling scattered and overwhelmed. When jumping around becomes detrimental to your process, it’s a signal that it’s time to start making decisions and nailing down what you want to do.

If the preparatory stages of your work was substantial and exhaustive, fabricating the final pieces should be fairly straightforward and smooth. In my own artwork, executing the final pieces always takes much less time than the planning stage. Frequently I spend months, sometimes even up to a year brainstorming and sketching. As a result, I reap many rewards; my preliminary work is comprehensive enough that by the time I’m ready to make the final pieces, I’ve anticipated and ironed out almost all of the problems. I can concentrate exclusively on the technical aspects of interacting with my art materials. This allows me to work without the distraction of troubleshooting unresolved issues.

Keep in mind that fundamental, sweeping changes at the execution stage can be disruptive, expensive, and impractical. You can waste a lot of time and art materials, and end up doing a lot unnecessary backtracking. Once you’ve spent $300 on canvas and paints, and invested 12 hours working on the painting, it can be painful to discover that deep into the process, you want to scrap everything and create a pastel drawing instead. Once in a while, the situation can be so dire that starting over really is the only solution. After all, no one wants to squander their time beating a dead horse. So, be thorough in the brainstorming stage, and avoid this situation if you can.

I’m not saying you can’t make changes while you execute the final work. Inevitably, new challenges emerge that you couldn’t predict, and you have to build in room for adjustments. Modifications made at this point should be minor, so that they enhance the overall work without sabotaging your progress.

Sometimes major changes are just not possible because of a professional commitment you’ve made. When I’ve spent a year creating a body of artwork for a solo exhibition, I cannot make hasty decisions one month before the exhibition opens. Despite a burning desire to investigate a new idea, I’ve had to immediately reject radical changes because it was just too late. Running with a last-minute idea at that point would have been foolish, and I couldn’t risk everything I had accomplished.

Take the initiative to exercise both spontaneous and planned approaches in your work process. If you limit yourself to only one way of working, you’re missing out on everything the other has to offer. Let these methods influence each other in a positive manner, and you’ll begin to achieve a balance that will make your overall studio practice more fluid and coherent.

Related articles:
“How do you keep pushing yourself to get to that next level?”
“Would you improve more if you took art classes than just studying on your own?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get any better?”
“How do you develop patience for learning curves?”
“When do you let go of an idea?”
“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”
“How can I study to become a professional artist on my own?”

“How do you begin to think conceptually as a visual artist?”

My Poisonous Checklist

Since it’s graduation season, there are tons of commencement speech videos circulating right now. My perspective may be cynical and unpopular, but I will admit that I find most commencement speeches irritating because most speeches tell you that the world is your oyster, and that you can do anything!  Frequently, the speeches offer a bullet list of things to do in order to achieve success. What most speeches don’t mention is that things will probably go nowhere before they go somewhere.

What I’d like to talk about today is what to do when you’ve been consistently doing everything on those bullet lists for years, but nothing is happening. I would estimate that artists are more likely to experience this circumstance than phenomenal success.  The truth is that the vast majority of people will not be the top superstars in their field, most of us will not win the Turner prize or a Guggenheim grant.


When I was a graduate student, it was easy to imagine and aspire for the most prestigious professional achievements in my field.  After completing my MFA,  I felt ready to take a serious plunge into the professional art world. Everything seemed possible simply because I hadn’t experienced anything yet. At that time, I made a checklist of long term goals that was very specific:

1.  Win a top artist grant.

2.  Be represented by a respected New York City art gallery.

3.  Get my artwork into major museum collections across the nation.

4.  Become a tenured professor.

It’s been 11 years since I received my MFA, and I have yet to check off a single item on that list. I’m know that 11 years is a drop in the water compared to some other people, but it’s long enough that I don’t feel like I graduated yesterday. In retrospect, it seems like I must have been egotistical and naive to have thought at one point that one, even several of the items on my checklist could be in my future.  I’m not deluded enough to think that I would just wake up one morning to a call from the MacArthur Foundation. I was well aware early on what I had signed up for by choosing to be a professional artist, and certainly, I’ve made some personal choices that determined where my career could go.

Still, it’s tough to have toiled this hard for this long, and not feel disappointed. With every year that passes, I watch the ship sail further away. At this point, becoming an internationally renowned fine artist is just not in the cards for me. Looking at what I’ve done so far, I know that I will never have a solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and that I won’t be representing the United States in the next Venice Biennale.

Over the past few years, I watched my checklist transform from a positive source of inspiration into a toxic distraction. Obsessing over this checklist became extremely unhealthy; I used to torture myself by reading articles about artists who had achieved meteoric success in their 20’s.  I became very resentful and making art wasn’t fun anymore.  What was supposed to be one of my greatest joys in life had mutated into something that just made me miserable.  If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll understand what a truly frightening place this is to be.

Below is an excerpt from a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled “The Small, Happy Life.

“Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, ‘was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.'”

That checklist wasn’t my own; it was a very narrow minded idea of success formulated by other people that I let myself succumb to.  Reading this column reconfirmed that I don’t need to fulfill those items on my checklist to be creatively satisfied.

I’ve moved the aspirations on my old checklist to the back burner. The goals are still simmering quietly, but they are no longer front and center in my mind. Oddly enough, letting myself not care has been remarkably effective, and this is the first time in a while that I have been able to think clearly. This week, I’m going to start writing a new checklist.  Stay tuned!