RISD Pre-College, Drawing Foundations course, Summer 2016


Clara Lieu teaching her Drawing Foundations course at the RISD Pre-College Program

by Clara Lieu

RISD Pre-College ended a week and a half ago, and already, the program feels so far away. Teaching RISD Pre-College is like stepping into a time warp which exists in a different universe than the rest of my life.  During the school year, I generally teach at RISD only 1-2 days a week, whereas for RISD Pre-College I teach studio classes 5 days a week. The schedule is really intense, especially since I commute 1 hour each way from Boston, but I always find the program to be incredibly rewarding.  I attended RISD Pre-College in 1993, and it was a life changing experience that still continues to impact my life today.  You wouldn’t think that a 6 week program could affect your life so deeply, but the intensity of the experience and tremendous growth one experiences is simply remarkable.

Now that I’m a teacher, I experience the program from a completely different point of view: the 6 week length of the program is challenging because it’s so short compared to a usual college semester. For each Pre-College studio class, I only see each class six times, which is nowhere near enough time to truly master any technique. (during the school year, I see students for 12 times-double the length of a Pre-College course) Since I know there are limits to what I can teach in just six weeks, I focus my efforts on getting students to grasp fundamental ideas that they can then further apply in any future context. I remind students that they have the rest of their lives to learn how to handle a brush well, and that ultimately, what I’m most concerned about is to teach them how to think about their artwork.

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Most students who attend RISD Pre-College are not prepared for the rigorous work load and the mental challenges that come with brainstorming and thinking through the complex stages of each project. It’s a huge adjustment during the first few weeks which is tough for everyone. However, in the third and fourth week, you begin to see some fundamental concepts start to really sink in.  By the last week, it’s amazing to see those concepts take root in the students’minds and flourish.

Speaking to one of the students the last week, they told me that the most important lesson they learned at Pre-College was that every action they take in their artwork should have intent. This student explained to me that before coming to Pre-College, they never took the time to think the art making process as being a series of deliberate decisions.  Generally speaking, they didn’t think at all while creating their artwork, it was almost a mindless technical exercise. Most of the process was random and had no specific motivation or rationale behind it. Knowing that this student grasped this concept, I knew I had done my job.

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The close bonds I develop with my classes and students is very poignant. The first week of class, you are complete strangers who work quietly in the same room.  The last day of class, you’re hugging, laughing hysterically, taking silly selfies, drooling over hot celebrities together, and bawling your eyes out.  The emotions as just as intense for me as they are for the students. I have never found it easy to say goodbye the last week.  As a teacher, I feel that I am just starting to really know the students in that 6th week, and then all of the sudden, we’re gone. We leave campus and return to our “normal” lives.

Thank you 2016 RISD Pre-College students, for keeping my life exciting and fun, and for inspiring me with your tremendous passion and energy!  I miss all of you and will treasure those precious weeks we spent going to hell and back together.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


An Email that Could Have Been Written by My 16 Year Old Self

Gesture Drawings in Ink

I get emails daily from my blog readers on a diverse range of topics. Everything from questions about what drawing supplies to buy, advice on MFA programs, and concerns about careers in the visual arts.  You name it, I’ve gotten an email about it.

Once in a while, I get an email that is much more than questions.  I recently received an email that I found to be particularly poignant and moving.  I was riveted by this email because I felt that it could have been written by my 16 year old self.   While I admit that my memories of trying to study visual arts in high school still make me boil,  it’s very rewarding to hear that I am filling that same void I experienced 20 years ago for someone today. I always say that no matter how difficult a class I teach is, if I can just reach one person, then that makes it all worth it.   I’m delighted to know that I’d a meaningful impact on one of you in this way.

Here’s the email I received:

“Firstly, I would like to thank you for your blog. It has given me great insight and joy to read about your perspective on art school, teaching, and being a practicing visual artist. Your blog has also given me amazing tips that have helped me build my portfolio. I feel I owe a great deal of my confidence in my work to your writing, so thank you so much.

Secondly, I would like to share my experience in high school art classes. I am much like you described yourself in your blog post. I am withdrawn, shy, and lack confidence. Although I have always excelled in academics, I always have felt like I don’t belong in my school. Since I was little, I could not stop thinking of things to make. I loved every art class I took; I would finish a project and beg to know what the next one would be in order to think of what to make.

As I started my freshman year in high school, I saw that most people thought of artistic people as outsiders, so I felt I shouldn’t do anything artistic anymore. Although I felt I left part of myself behind, I hoped that it might lead to friends or to popularity, but it obviously was not the case. As sophomore year began, I met my Art I and AP Art History teacher. She was a wacky painter that would push you both academically and creatively to the extremes. Because of her, I rediscovered my passion for art and fell in love with the history and study of art. I have been enrolled in her class since junior year, and it has been my escape from everything that makes me anxious or sad.

This summer, I attended the RISD Pre-College program and was inspired by my peers to push my technique and pursue ideas that are outside of the norm. I thank two of my favourite teachers there for believing in my vision, but more importantly, teaching me how to believe in it myself. I have seen a resurrection in my creative process.

 I think the greatest problem in my school is ignominy that comes with being an artist. Because it is a private school in a country outside of the US, most student’s parents are politicians, economists, etc. so creative fields are completely alien to them. I see people every day that are amazingly creative and tremendously talented, but they say that they could never dedicate themselves to a creative field because they want to “have their lives matter.” I find this not only deeply troubling, but also the reason why schools all over the world don’t emphasize the arts so much; because the students don’t take advantage of creative opportunities.

At the high school level, I think an individual’s responsibility is to find what they love and explore it to the best of their abilities, but the reason why people that could be artists don’t pursue it is that the school system does not push the arts. A school should give students the opportunity to study their artistic passions and should promote the development of visual language throughout the curriculum, not only isolated art classes.”

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Supplies for Charcoal Drawing


Charcoal is an effective material for developing various approaches to drawing because of its versatility and flexibility. Charcoal is a relatively fast drawing material, and encourages students to draw in a bolder, more aggressive manner.   The range of contrast you can achieve in charcoal is unrivaled, and there is no limit to the kinds of marks you can make. There’s a strength and body to charcoal that will never be present in pencil, which as a medium is inherently more grey and weaker in tone.


Below are my supply recommendations for drawing with charcoal.  I’ve spent over a decade troubleshooting various brands in my drawing classes at RISD, and these are the most effective supplies I’ve come up with.

This charcoal drawing tutorial shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal using the techniques described below. (see the tutorial playlist below)

Charcoal paper

I recommend Strathmore 500 Series Charcoal paper pads. You can buy a roll of Strathmore drawing paper if you want to work on a larger scale.  Charcoal paper has a slight texture to it, which allows the powder of the the charcoal to grip the surface of the paper more effectively. Since charcoal is so powdery, it will not adhere to the smooth surface of regular drawing paper very well. With charcoal paper, your drawings will have a slight texture to them which I think is quite beautiful.

Vine charcoal

I recommend buying Bob’s Fine Vine Charcoal pack.  The sticks in this pack are very soft with all different sizes of sticks, with some sticks that are very large and wide. When you need to cover a large area of your drawing, the large sticks make this task very quick and efficient.  Some of the other brands have vine charcoal sticks that are way too skinny, making this task difficult and time consuming.

Vine charcoal is an excellent charcoal material for the initial stages of a drawing because it is very soft and easy to erase.  Therefore, it’s a great tool when you are in the very beginning of a drawing, and you want to be able to sketch lightly and make many changes to your drawing quickly.  If you draw lightly enough, you can erase the vine charcoal with just a wipe of your hand which is very convenient.  In that way, vine charcoal is very forgiving and easy to get rid of.

However, I don’t recommend using vine charcoal beyond the first 20% of your drawing.  Ultimately, the majority of your drawing should be made of compressed charcoal. Once you establish the fundamental composition of a drawing with vine charcoal, move on to compressed charcoal and don’t add any more vine charcoal at that point. One of the major drawbacks of vine charcoal is that it is an incredibly fragile material; even the slightest touch of a finger will mess up an area of vine charcoal. There is also a limit to how dark vine charcoal can get, no matter how hard you press, vine charcoal will never compete with compressed charcoal in terms of achieving a deep, black tone. I find that most students limit themselves to drawing exclusively vine charcoal, and consequently, their drawings are too grey and lack the permanence a drawing with compressed charcoal has.


I like to start my charcoal drawings by toning my entire paper with vine charcoal. (see above image) Get a giant stick of vine charcoal and color the whole paper in, and then finish it off by wiping your hand over the entire sheet of paper to create a smooth, even tone of grey. This middle grey tone creates a foundation from which you can add charcoal or remove charcoal to create highlights with erasers. Because the grey tone is already present before you start drawing, the drawing will develop much faster than if you started with a white sheet of paper.

This toned paper technique gets students over their fear of the white paper. Since the paper is already full of vine charcoal, students don’t feel that they can make noticeable blunders, and if they do, mistakes are very easy to get rid of with a quick wipe of your hand.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how to tone your paper with vine charcoal:

Below is a torso drawing by one of my RISD freshman drawing students that was started by toning the paper grey with vine charcoal, the drawing has a very loose, painterly appearance.


After toning the paper all grey, you can do a line sketch on top of the grey tone with vine charcoal.  Because the paper is toned grey, you can easily wipe away the line sketch with your hand, and the line sketch will quickly disappear into the grey tone.  I encourage my students to keep wiping away at their initial sketch until they’re satisfied, most of my students will wipe out their initial sketch at least 7 or 8 times.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how to do an initial line sketch with vine charcoal:

Compressed charcoal

There are many brands of compressed charcoal, and I find that most of them are far too stiff. Read the packaging carefully and don’t buy black “soft pastels”, these are not the same thing and will not provide good results.  I recommend Art Alternatives Charcoal Drawing Sticks.   These sticks are strong and dark, but also soft enough that when you draw with them, the sticks can create a soft powder.

Many students are afraid of compressed charcoal, it is a very dark, powerful piece of charcoal that is blunt and permanent. You can definitely lighten an area of compressed charcoal with an eraser, but only to a degree.  Once the paper has been touched with compressed charcoal, you can never go back to the perfect white of the paper. While drawing with compressed charcoal is certainly a bigger commitment, the advantages of compressed charcoal are huge.  Compressed charcoal has a wonderful strength and body to it, and there is nothing more dramatically black than an area of deep compressed charcoal.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to lay out the fundamentals of a drawing with vine charcoal first.  When you feel confident about that initial sketch, you will want to transition to compressed charcoal, and stop using the vine charcoal altogether at that point. Many students run into problems because they refuse to transition to the compressed charcoal, resulting in grey drawings that are dull with low contrast. Ultimately, your drawing should be about 20% vine charcoal for the beginning stages, with the compressed charcoal being used for the last 80% of the drawing.

Break your compressed charcoal stick so that it is is about 1″ long; this will allow you to draw with the side of the compressed charcoal.  Drawing with the side of the charcoal allows you to block in areas of tone.  Most students limit themselves to drawing with only the tip of the compressed charcoal, which is slow and will make your drawings flat and too reliant on outlines. When blocking out areas of tone, exert very little pressure with your hand and build up the darkness of the compressed charcoal slowly. If you start by adding pure blacks everywhere, you’ll have to do a lot of backtracking later with your erasers.

Charcoal pencil

Charcoal pencils come in a range of hardness, but I can say that I have never enjoyed using the hard pencils. The soft pencils are so much more flexible and easy to work with. I recommend General’s charcoal pencils.

To sharpen a charcoal pencil, do not put the pencil in an electric or manual pencil sharpener.  The charcoal inside the pencil is so fragile that it will always break. Instead, use a utility knife or razor blade to sharpen the charcoal pencil by hand. Position your thumb behind the knife or blade, and push it upwards on the pencil to slice off shavings of the pencil.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how the charcoal pencil can be used in the context of a drawing:

Charcoal pencils should be reserved for the final stages of a drawing, when you need to articulate small areas and details.  Frequently, I see students starting with charcoal pencil far too early, and they start working on details before the fundamentals of the drawing have been established. Charcoal pencils can also be effective for cross-hatching techniques, which can be layered and embedded on top of tonal areas. The portrait below has a significant amount of cross-hatching which has been done with charcoal pencil over a layer of vine charcoal tone.



Most people think of erasers as tools whose sole purpose is to remove mistakes from their drawings. Instead, see your erasers as drawing tools, commanding just as important a role as your sticks of charcoal. If you tone your paper entirely with vine charcoal (as mentioned above), you can use your erasers to block out dramatic highlights out of the grey tone of the paper. This approach really makes you feel like you are drawing with white paint because the eraser marks are so visible in the toned paper.

Many students draw white chalk into their charcoal drawings in order to create bright highlights. I don’t recommend this approach, because the white of the chalk never matches the white of the paper.  Inevitably, either the paper or the chalk always looks more yellow than the other, and having two different whites in your charcoal drawing looks sloppy and inconsistent. The white chalk is too noticeable and looks like you’re trying to clean up mistakes in the drawing.

If you really want a very bright, luminous area of white in your drawing, plan in advance which areas of your drawing you want to remain the white of the page, and leave those areas completely untouched by the charcoal. Remember, once the vine or compressed charcoal touch the paper, you will never ever get the paper back to it’s original brightness.  Planning in advance is a win-win situation; if you ultimately decide you don’t need those areas to be so bright, it’s easy to cover them with charcoal.

White plastic eraser

I recommend Staedtler Mars white plastic eraser, don’t use the Pink Pearl erasers which are awful for charcoal drawing.

A white plastic eraser is terrific in the beginning stages of a charcoal drawing when you are trying to block out dramatic areas of highlight. These erasers are very strong and can create bold passages of light in the vine charcoal tone. If you tone your paper grey with vine charcoal, you do have to put a lot of muscle when removing from the vine charcoal tone with the white plastic eraser.  Without fail, at every drawing class, there is always one student who complains that their white plastic eraser doesn’t work for removing the vine charcoal tone. Actually, it means that the student is being wimpy and not putting enough pressure into the eraser.


Kneaded eraser

I recommend Sanford Design Kneaded Rubber Art Eraser, although I have rarely encountered a kneaded eraser that was ineffective.  When you buy a new kneaded eraser, remove the packaging, and then stretch it out several times as if it were a piece of gum. After you use the kneaded eraser, it will appear to have tons of charcoal in it.  The eraser will absorb the charcoal and clean itself if you simply stretch it out a few times. Eventually, the eraser will absorb so much charcoal that it won’t self clean anymore, and it will look like a big black ball of gum.  At that point, purchase a new eraser.

Kneaded erasers are great to use once you’ve blocked out the brightest highlights with the white plastic eraser.  A kneaded eraser is not as strong and stiff as a white plastic eraser, so it is better when you want to make more subtle changes in the tones of your drawing.  Because you can mold the kneaded eraser into any shape, it is also very versatile in terms of the variety of marks it can make.

Many students over smudge their charcoal drawings with their fingers.  While smudging with your fingers can sometimes be effective, I find most students rely on smudging as a crutch.  Students often times end up buffing their drawing to death and everything in the drawing ends up looking too smooth, giving the drawing a fake, artificial look. Smooth areas are not inherently better, in fact, creating a variety of textures in drawing is just as important. Employ your kneaded eraser to do most of the work, smudge with your fingers in moderation. With the kneaded eraser, you’ll have much more control over your marks, and your marks will have more energy and tension. The kneaded eraser can help you move the charcoal across the surface of the paper.

Eraser stick

I recommend Papermate “Tuff Stuff” eraser stick, this is by far the best eraser stick I have encountered. Some of the other eraser sticks are no good because the tip is too wide and you won’t be able to get thin enough lines. You can even buy refills for the Papermate eraser stick, although the stick does last for a while.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how the eraser stick can be used in the context of a drawing:

The eraser stick is a great tool when you are putting the finishing touches on your drawing.  I don’t recommend using an eraser stick too early in a drawing, it will cause you to tighten up and focus on details before you’re ready. The cross-hatching marks in this drawing below were done entirely with a charcoal pencil and eraser stick. The multiple layers of cross-hatching give the drawing a rich, substantial look.



There are two kinds of fixative: there is workable fixative which allows you to go back in and work on the drawing even after spraying it.  There is permanent fixative, which you cannot work back into.

Charcoal drawings are very fragile, and thus are susceptible to damage. Even a slight smudge of a finger can ruin a carefully drawn area. One option is to use fixative, a material you can spray over the surface of a charcoal drawing to make the charcoal adhere more permanently to the paper.  Always spray fixative on your drawings outdoors, the fixatives have chemicals that are dangerous to breathe. Some people use hairspray instead of fixative, which I do not recommend.  If you are at all concerned about your drawing lasting long term, hairspray is a bad choice because it is not an archival material.

I personally have never been a fan of fixatives; while they do make charcoal drawings more resistant to damage, you will notice that your charcoal drawings will darken slightly after spraying it with fixative. The darkening is not that dramatic, but it’s enough that I definitely notice the difference in my drawings. A compromise is to gently place a sheet of newsprint of tracing paper over your charcoal drawing when you store it, and know that you might have to do some last minute touch ups before displaying the work.

Layering & Mixing tools

Finally, the two most crucial principles in charcoal drawing are 1) layering and 2) thoroughly mixing all of the above tools together into a cohesive whole. The chronic problem I see in students is when students limit themselves to only using 1-2 charcoal supplies.  If you are failing to see the importance of one of the above listed supplies, then you need to start experimenting with that supply and figure out what it’s good for. In this drawing below, the student only used vine charcoal and did not take any initiative to add compressed charcoal or engage with the erasers.  Consequently, the drawing has a very thin, washed out look because the range of tones is so limited.


Another common issue is students isolating each supply into one area of the drawing. For example, in this portrait drawing below, it’s evident that the student only used charcoal pencil in the hair, and used a lot of smudging of compressed charcoal in the face. These two areas are drawn so differently from each other, that they fail to integrate within the drawing, giving the drawing a fractured appearance.


Layering is critical in a charcoal drawing, most students only do 1 layer of charcoal in their drawings and stop working prematurely. For a charcoal drawing to demonstrate a significant sense of depth, texture, and substance, a minimum of 4-5 layers of charcoal marks on top of each other is necessary. In a charcoal drawing, you’ll remove and add to each area repeatedly, this builds a visual history for your drawing that will show a rich feeling of depth in the marks.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates to refine your drawing by layering different tools together.

Get more information on art supplies in our Art Supply Encyclopedia!

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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Preparing an Art Portfolio for College Admission

Class Photo

I finished up teaching RISD Pre-College last Friday, and as usual I’m collecting my thoughts after a packed 6 weeks of teaching. In the final week, I was particularly struck by how unprepared most of the Pre-College students were in terms of their portfolios for art school admission.

On the last day of class, I gave the Pre-College students the option to have individual appointments with me to review their portfolios.  Out of the approximately 50 student portfolios I reviewed, I didn’t see a single student whose portfolio was ready. In fact, the students weren’t even close in terms of the level of quality that is required to gain admission into a rigorous undergraduate art program.

Out of the hundreds of student artworks in portfolios that I reviewed last week, I can count on one hand the number of drawings that were drawn from direct observation. Almost every drawing I saw was a tight pencil drawing copied from a photograph with the subject in the dead center of the composition, with a blank white background. I’ve never understood the exclusive use of pencil as a drawing medium in high school students, when you consider the amazing range of wonderful drawing materials that are readily available.  Students told me left and right that they were instructed to do pencil drawings only from photographs by their art teachers, to use a grid method to draw, to strive to make their pencil drawings as photo realistic as possible, as well as other terrible drawing methods.   On top of that, every student told me that they were basically building their portfolios on their own, with no help or advice from anyone.  I told pretty much every student that they had to start over.

Chipboard Sculptures

I discussed strategies with the Pre-College students about what they should do to improve their portfolios, as well as what to avoid for their portfolios. However, it seems that the problem goes far deeper than that. From my experience, the root of the problem is that the vast majority of high school art students have no idea what makes for a good quality artwork. In athletics, it is obvious who scored the most points to win the game, or who ran the fastest.

Visual arts is challenging because what defines a compelling artwork is subjective, what is “good” to one person may well be “bad” to someone else.  In this particular context, I’m not trying to label artworks as “bad” and “good.”  I’m talking about simply weeding out the artwork that is total garbage (most of what you see on the Internet), which apparently is all the Pre-College students are looking at for inspiration.  When I asked the Pre-College students who their favorite artists were, they either said they didn’t know any artists, or showed me an amateur’s work on Tumblr. Not one student named an artist who would be in any standard art history textbook. If these students don’t even have an understanding of what is good quality artwork is to begin with, it makes sense that they would not know where to begin with their own art.

Foamcore Staircase Assignment

I don’t know any other field where at the high school level, most students don’t understand what they should be striving for, have no options for rigorous training, and are taught faulty methods.  It’s the equivalent of a soccer player not understanding that to win you have to score more goals than the other team, and then on top of that, having a coach they see once a week for one hour, who trains them to kick the ball only with their heels. Sounds ridiculous?  Well, from what I heard from my Pre-College students this summer, that pretty much sums up how many high school students experience visual arts.

As an art professor, it upsets me that my Pre-College students were left to navigate their portfolios on their own, and that there was no one to steer them in the right direction. It is no fault of theirs that they didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. One thing I am sure of is that you cannot train to be an artist on your own.  Like any other field, you need a continuous support system of established mentors, competitive peers, and rigorous programs behind you.  And yet in visual arts in high school, most students are left sitting on a mountain in isolation, being forced to reinvent the wheel by themselves.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

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.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

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.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

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.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

RISD Pre-College Summer Program, 1993

Student Artwork, Drawing Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

Returning to teach for the RISD Pre-College program this summer has me reminiscing about my own experience as a pre-college student, way back in the summer of 1993. Despite the many years I’ve worked as a professional artist and professor, I still look back on those 6 weeks as the most pivotal moment in my career as an artist.

High school was a dreadful, humiliating experience for me. I was intensely angry and depressed, with no outlet in sight.  I was told by many adults that high school would be the “time of my life,” which was more salt to the wound.  If the “time of my life” meant having a hideously low self-esteem, being emotionally manipulated by my friends, and overwhelming feelings of isolation, what could I possibly have to look forward to? Today, whenever I teach high school students, the one message I always make sure to leave my students with is “it gets better.”

RISD's beach in spring(1)

The public high school I went to worshiped students who excelled in athletics and academics. If you didn’t fit into these two categories, you basically didn’t matter.  The art classes at my high school were pathetic.  Most of the students who enrolled in the art classes were just looking for easy course credit. On top of that, the head of the art department was extremely adversarial towards me. My senior year,  I volunteered to organize a major student art exhibition, (which had never been done before) only to have it killed by the head of the art department.  The following year, after I had graduated, guess who organized a student art exhibition? I was livid when I found out.

Design Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

Then, the summer of my junior year my parents let me attend the RISD Pre-College program. Suddenly, I was plunged into this extraordinary artistic community and environment.  I was in complete disbelief that a place like RISD could exist in the world. I saw my own passion for art in the other students, and fostered friendships, many which remain today.  I treasured every minute of my classes, and worked on my homework assignments with feverish enthusiasm.  The teachers I had took me seriously and treated me with respect and understanding.  I remember the first thing my design teacher said to me was “You work with such conviction!” For the first time in my life, I wasn’t a freak anymore.

That’s not to say that the program was a cake walk.  I hated my painting teacher for the first 4 weeks of the program because he didn’t automatically shower me with praise. (we eventually bonded in the last 2 weeks) There were many late nights working in the studio. I will admit to being jealous of other students’ abilities and having to confront the cold, hard fact that I was no longer “the best.” Despite all of these challenges, the bottom line was that the program had fundamentally changed my life forever.

Drawing Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

When the program ended, I was devastated. My friends and I spent the last night crying. I couldn’t accept that I had to return to high school. When I came back to high school, I was still angry and frustrated, but I was also different. RISD Pre-College had given me a glimpse of what my life could be like. I held onto that glimpse, and it gave me the strength to get through that final year of high school. I stopped caring about what other people thought, kept in close contact with my pre-college friends, and went full speed ahead with my artwork. In January of 1994, I was accepted into the RISD undergraduate program, and the rest is history.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

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Ask the Art Prof: How Do I Help My Daughter Reach Her Potential in Art?

Gesture Painting

“My daughter is 14 and has not had any training but we think she has talent. What advice would you give for helping guide us to help her reach her potential in art?”

I started to demonstrate artistic promise from a very young age. According to my mother, I could draw before I could talk. My parents felt that I had potential, but they knew absolutely nothing about visual art. Despite their lack of knowledge, they did two things for me that were critical to helping me develop as a young artist: (1) they let me take art classes outside of school; and (2) they bought me all of the art supplies that I wanted.

I had art class in my public school curriculum, but my parents also supplemented this experience with Saturday morning classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I studied for a number of years. By taking a class, I had the opportunity to build relationships with peers who shared the same interest in art. I learned just as much from my peers as I did from the teacher. Having the chance to see how other students dealt with the same assignment and art materials opened my eyes to an incredible range of artistic approaches. In addition, most of the instructors for these courses were working artists themselves. Working with these teachers was significant because they made the idea of being an artist real. You can read all you want about artists from textbooks, but nothing will substitute being able to meet and work with a professional artist when you are still young.


If you have the resources, send your daughter to a pre-college program at an art school when she’s a sophomore or junior in high school. I still look back on my experience at the RISD Pre-College program as one of the most formative experiences in my career. It was just a six week program, but it profoundly transformed my life. Being on a college campus working in professional artist studios and facilities was exhilarating. I was taught by teachers who took me seriously and understood where I was coming from. Most importantly of all, I was with literally hundreds of other students who shared the same passion and interest in visual art. Coming from a public school where I was the only art “freak,” it seemed like a dream come true to have all of these people in one place.

Provide your daughter with all of the high quality art supplies that she wants. When I was ten years old, my mother once gave me a professional artist portfolio case and a stretched canvas for Christmas. Those art supplies felt so real and professional, and I cherished them. Professional art supplies are more costly than student grade supplies, but they are vital to having a positive experience. Many student grade brands, especially paints and brushes, are so poorly made that they can actually be a hindrance, making a simple task difficult. Instead of ordering online, be sure to take your daughter with you to the art store to purchase the supplies. Some of my best memories as a child was going to the art store to pick out new art supplies.

Already, you’ve taken the most important first step by providing your daughter the moral support to make her art. By giving her the opportunities and means to create art, she will be able to determine on her own whether this is a path she would like to pursue.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

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