Teaching the Layman

Clipboard01 I love being part of an art school community, and as a result, almost everyone I encounter is a professional artist, art student, or art professor.  Today, this artistic environment is my day to day life. Having nerdy conversations about topics like chincolle and lithographic crayons is routine for me. One great advantage of being surrounded by artists is that I have many artist friends who I can get feedback from on my work.

However, this time it didn’t make sense to get feedback from my artist friends for this new video series. I would just be preaching to the choir. I realized that I needed to step outside of my art school bubble.  While I’m sure there is a population of art school students who would also benefit from this video series, I am guessing that the majority of my target audience has never been to art school, and never will.

Over the past decade, I’ve become accustomed to teaching students who have passed through a rigorous college admissions process.  By comparison, the idea of teaching the layman is presenting an unprecedented test of my teaching skills. How do I teach gesture drawing to someone who has never even heard of it? How do I explain the critique process? These are incredible challenges that I can’t wait to tackle.

Instead, I asked a friend who is a college professor in an unrelated field.   She’s helped me in the past with general teaching strategies, but she is also the first to admit that she has no clue when it comes to visual art. Talking to her helps me get out of my art school bubble and back into the rest of the world’s reality.

I want this video series to have a broad enough appeal that there will be something for everyone, no matter what level of experience they are at.  It sounds ambitious, but I think that there has to be some way for the series to appeal to the layman, the professional artist, and everyone in between.

Learning Curve


Like all of my other projects, there’s a learning curve with this new video project. I tried to anticipate concerns, but I knew that I wouldn’t see the problems until I had an actual product in front of me that I could critique.

After reviewing my content, I’ve realized that I need to emphasize comparisons between common mistakes with good technique much more. I have to actually demonstrate the bad habits, show the results, explain why those habits are detrimental, and then follow up with good technique.  Seeing the mistakes enhances the rationale for the good technique even further.

Since I teach freshmen at RISD, I spend a significant amount of time getting students to unlearn poor habits. I devote just as much time telling students what not to do, as I do telling them what to do.  This is especially true in the fall semester, when high school was just a few months ago for the students. Unfortunately, it’s common for many high school students to be taught an extremely narrow minded way of drawing.  I had a student once who was shocked to hear that drawing wasn’t just about “making your drawing look like a photograph.” This process of shedding bad habits can be hugely challenging; I’ve had experienced students tell me that they wished they had come into my class with no background at all.

On top of that, common mistakes also occur because students don’t think beyond their first impulse.  If you don’t take the initiative to explore other options, you’ll end up doing things in the most obvious way. Consequently, everyone else has that same first thought, which is what makes something cliche and boring. For the first homework of my RISD freshman drawing class, the vast majority of the class will default to the most obvious response: a stiff drawing with objects placed in the center with blank backgrounds.  The student drawings that stand out are the ones that pushed well beyond that first thought.


I’m guessing that my target audience is in some ways not that different from my students at RISD.  I’m anticipating that they will have the same bad habits too, and hopefully acknowledging those problems will help drive home the good technique.

New elevator graffiti at RISD


There’s never a dull moment when you’re a college professor at an art school. This week I discovered some new graffiti in the elevator at RISD.  Apparently, everything is my fault when students are in my class.  I’ve had students draw my portrait into their homework assignments before, but this is a whole new milestone. Below are some favorite portraits of me, drawn by my students.

Here’s one by Lauryn Welch, along with her personal commentary.


This portrait below I found on drawyourprofessor.com.  I still haven’t figured out who drew it!


Here’s a portrait of what I would look like if I was an otter, drawn by Jackie Ferrentino.


And another of me, with my TA on my right. Drawn by Alina Buevich.


Digging back into the past


Considering that I primarily work in drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, many people are surprised that my undergraduate training was focused on oil painting.  I haven’t picked up a brush since 2006, but this new video project has gotten me to dig way back into my past with oil painting and it’s surprising how deeply ingrained those lessons are.

I started oil painting early as a junior in high school, and it’s appalling how awful my technique was for so long. Despite the fact that I took numerous oil painting classes, it wasn’t until I had been oil painting for 3 years that I finally started to make progress.   My sophomore year at RISD, I was required to take a Painting I course in the Illustration department.  My oil painting background was a fractured mess of failure at that point, and I felt totally lost even though I had taken so many oil painting classes.

My professor Nick Palermo provided clear, concrete instructions that finally made sense to me.  He required us to use very specific supplies and tools, and gave explicit reasons for why he wanted us to use them.   I realized after taking Nick’s painting class that there were SO many technical aspects that I had been doing blatantly wrong for such a long time. For example, I couldn’t believe that no one had introduced me to a silicoil brush cleaning tank before then. Evidently, I was never taught to clean my brushes properly, so consequently my color mixtures were always dirty, which lead to muddy paintings. The second I started to clean my brushes in a competent manner, my paintings become noticeably more vibrant. The brushes sitting in my closet are the same brushes I used in Nick’s class 20 years ago.

Senior year at RISD, I had Tony Janello for a portrait painting class and he revolutionized my painting technique.  Tony forced us to paint with literally 1 white, 1 red, 1 yellow, and 1 blue.  This approach seemed extreme, but I learned more about color mixing than I had in all of the previous years combined. With only 3 colors, I had to work really hard to be innovative with my color mixing.

For this project, it’s been inspiring to think back to every teacher’s unique approach to painting. It’s interesting to think about what methods I’ve kept, what I’ve rejected, and my reasoning for those decisions.  This process has been tremendously helpful in getting me to boil down my techniques.

In the Waterman Gallery


My freshman drawing students this semester currently have an exhibition in the first floor gallery of the Waterman building at RISD. The exhibition features one week homework drawings from the “Texture” assignment I give the second week of class. Read more below.

Originally posted on RISD Foundation Studies:



Clara Lieu

Teaching Assistants
Cj Ormita
Alexandra Alemany
Alex Kiesling
Leyla Margolis-Brooks

This one week homework assignment asked students to choose a single inanimate object. The primary objective of the assignment was to observe and investigate the surface texture of the inanimate object, and then to create a drawing in response to the object’s texture. Students worked with lithographic crayons and lithographic rubbing ink on 48″ x 36″ paper.  These lithographic drawing tools are traditionally used in printmaking to create lithographs, a printmaking process where the lithographic crayon and rubbing ink is drawn directly on the surface of a limestone, and then processed and printed on a press. Students explored the range and unique characteristics of the lithographic supplies, pushing, layering, scraping, and smudging the crayon across the surface of the paper.


View original

From Content to Delivery

Gesture Painting

I am on a tight deadline, working around the clock to create a solid plan for how to format my idea for a video series of fine art demonstrations.  Even though I’m scrambling to get all of the logistics in place, it’s great to be this busy.

The primary challenge I’m facing is how to maintain the depth and complexity of the content, while simultaneously keeping everything understandable to the layman. I want to present basic principles, but also be detail oriented and practical at the same time. Ultimately, I want the content to be approachable enough that someone with no art training could watch my tutorial and be inspired to pick up a paint brush.   Fundamentally, the content I want to deliver is the same as what I teach in my classroom at RISD. However, the format could not be more different, and that’s what is so fascinating to me.

I’m writing down everything that I teach within a few focused topics.   Every trick and strategy that I employ in the classroom is being verbalized. Even within what seems like a very specific topic, I have so much to say.  Once the content is written down, I have to figure out how to present it in an coherent manner. This project is the perfect combination of organization, teaching, writing, documentation, and visual art for me.  I knew this was going to be a big project, and now that I’m deeply immersed in the work, every day is exciting.

My oil paints make a comeback

My oil paints, which I haven’t touched in 9 years emerged from my storage closet today. I was surprised that they were in good shape, basically in the same condition I left them in. You’ll find out why I need these paints in the near future.

My idea for a video series of fine art demonstrations continues to move forward.  I feel like I should be feeling guilty that I haven’t created any artwork for 3 months now. Surprisingly, I don’t feel guilty at all. I have been aching for change in my creative approach, and this new endeavor is the change I’ve been searching for. I’ve also noticed some new but familiar behaviors I’ve developed over the past few weeks.  Although some people might see these behaviors as difficult, to me they are undoubtedly indications that I’m doing the right thing.

1. I’ve been waking up before my alarm goes off.  My mind has been racing with ideas, and once I’m awake, I can’t wait to get started.

2. I am very excited, but also incredibly anxious. I’m torn because part of me wants to indulge in the optimism while I can,  but then there’s a palpable anxiety that the project could die tomorrow. The further I get, the harder I’m going to fall if things don’t work out. In some ways, progress can hurt more than an early rejection.

3. My creative fears are more intense than they have been in a long time.  When I experience fear, I know it means that I am taking a major risk.  As scary as it is, fear is the most concrete signal that I’m headed in the right direction. This project might be the biggest risk of my career so far.

4.  I am not in this alone. (for now)  In my artwork I’ve always tried to do it all, beginning to end.  This can be empowering because you don’t need anyone’s approval.  However, it’s also draining, and there are limits to what you can accomplish by yourself. Working with other people has the potential to significantly expand what’s possible.

5.  I am forgetting to eat and drink while I work.  I cherish these moments, when I’m so deeply immersed in my work that the world around me disappears. For a long time, I’ve been yearning to feel this way again,  and it’s simply wonderful to have this back.