Art Supplies that Change Your Life

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When you’re an artist, the tools and materials you choose to work with are so critical that they can make or break your experience creating an artwork. You would think that choosing what tools to use would be obvious, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not. Often times, the only way to really know if a tool is going to work or not is to buy it and try it out.   I’ve gone months and years banging my head against the wall trying to accomplish a very specific task, because I had no idea a particular tool existed that would have made all of my problems go away in a heart beat.

I was really interested in casting with plaster my freshman year at RISD, but I never got to take a class that focused specific on those techniques. Consequently, when I did create a plaster piece, I was constantly doing things wrong simply because I had the wrong tool. When you work with plaster, inevitably there will be some bump or surface in the piece that you need to get rid of.  I tried everything I could think of to smooth out those bumps on my plaster pieces: all different grits and types of sand paper, drywall sanding screens, a surform shaver, and more. Every tool I used was either not strong enough and took forever to get the right surface, or it was too coarse and could end up creating dents and marks in the plaster that messed up the smooth surface I needed.

It wasn’t until I went to graduate school 10 years later that one of my friends introduced me to metal rifflers, which are these tools that have curved ends that have a coarse surface.  Rifflers are absolutely perfect for shaving down the bumps on a plaster piece.  The curved ends of a riffler fit perfectly on the organic surface of of a plaster sculpture.  The coarse surface of that curved end does much more than sand paper, but isn’t so coarse that it digs too deep into the plaster.

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TEN years to figure this out. If only there had been a resource where I could have asked a team of professionals what would be best tool for this particular purpose, or an art supply glossary where I could have looked this type of thing up…. Hint:  if a resource that like would help you too, then subscribe to my email list today, and an announcement will arrive in your inbox in a few weeks that may solve this problem.


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


ART DARES
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.

Less is More

Accordion Bookbinding Project

When you teach, it’s one thing to know your material, and another to know how to translate that material into a digestible format that actually sticks.  Over the past few years, I’ve learned that less is always more when it comes to teaching.  The natural reaction for many teachers is to provide as much information as possible.  This is especially true when you’re teaching an introductory course because there’s so much that needs to be covered. When you have a lot of expertise in your field, it’s easy to forget how overwhelming even the most simple concept can be at first glance. I’ve found that students can quickly drown in information, and that it’s much more effective to offer small morsels that are given at incremental stages.

The other day, I was digging through some old syllabi from when I first started teaching, and I was startled by how different they were than the syllabi I use today. I used to explain every possible scenario that could happen in a syllabus, but I’ve discovered that once the syllabus is longer than two pages, students won’t bother reading the syllabus at all. So I have the option of having 1) a short syllabus that students will actually read, or 2) a syllabus that explains everything, but that doesn’t get read.  Take a wild guess which option I use today.  Certainly, there’s a compromise because a shorter syllabus limits your content, but if that’s the difference between being read or not, that’s a compromise I’m willing to make.

Despite my experience with less is more, I always struggle with balancing content when I teach. Part of me always wants to add more content, but I’ve seen that students are quickly overwhelmed by large quantities of content. I think for many teachers, adding more content is in some ways a kind of insurance policy.  We worry that if we cut back on content that our students will miss the point, so we pad our content with supplementary information that isn’t critical.

I’ve seen concrete evidence with this project that small bites that are succinct and straightforward can have a tremendous impact.  If a small bite piques a student’s curiosity and stimulates a craving for more, that in itself is much more valuable than having every fact crammed down your throat.  If you bombard students with too much content all at once, not only will they not retain that content, but they won’t come back for more. I think about those first bites as appetizers in a meal.  A good appetizer stimulates your senses, doesn’t fill you up and spoil your appetite for the entrees, and makes you hunger for more.  Once you get your students to crave that information,  it opens all kinds of doors where you provide those details that you initially suppressed.


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


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


ART DARES
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.”


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages to learn visual arts in a vibrant art community. Imagine all of the resources here on our blog, except exponentially bigger, in greater quantity, and in more detail. Our Kickstarter campaign hit its $30k goal on July 19!  Get info on our future launch by subscribing to our email list.

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Ask the Art Prof Live is a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.


Video Critique Program
I offer 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for aspiring/professional artists working on a body of artwork, and for students working on an art portfolio for college admission. Watch sample video critiques and get more info here.

I’ve become the absent-minded professor

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

When I first started teaching at the college level in 2005, I remember staunchly pledging to myself that I was going to eternally remember and appreciate every single student I ever had.  Nothing bothered me more as a student than when professors didn’t take the time to get to know each student as a unique individual.

Now it’s ten years later, and I find myself walking around the RISD campus, bumping into students who wave and call out my name.  Once in a while I remember a student’s name, but more often than not, I have to wave back and just say “Hello” without a name.  All I can think to myself is: “I totally know you were my student, but I can’t remember your name, or what semester I had you.”

Obviously, that pledge I initially made is long gone. When I contemplate the sheer number of students I’ve taught in one decade, the numbers are dizzying. The other day I was looking at my grade archives, and I’ve now taught 25 classes of Freshman Drawing at RISD, (20 students per class) and that’s not counting all the other courses I’ve taught in the Illustration Department, the Printmaking Department, and the three other schools I taught at before.  I’m at the point now where I’ve had so many students that if you’re not in my class right now, it’s pretty much guaranteed I won’t remember your name. (and if you shave your head and/or dye your hair, there’s no chance)

I casually told this to a student once, and so he asked me how he could get me to remember him.  I told him that he would have to pull some totally outrageous stunt in class, or, be extraordinarily amazing or terrible in some manner. That semester, he put himself on a personal mission to cement himself into my brain.

Final Crit

He succeeded, and I will never, ever forget him.  He performed the most precise impersonation of my critiquing style for the entire class one day to hysterical laughter from the other students.  I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard in my entire life. He had all of my physical mannerisms, hand movements, the right phrases and vocabulary, the correct intonation of my voice, and the facial expressions down to an exact science. (apparently, there’s a point in crits where he says that I “go in for the kill” by bending my knees, lunging my body forward, and pointing my finger at the drawing) Let’s just say that I learned things about my physical movements that I never knew before. Teaching certainly does expose you to a high level of scrutiny in a way that other professions do not!


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How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation From Your Professor

Gesture Drawing

College admissions season has already started with early decision application deadlines coming up next month.  I’m already getting my first flood of requests for letters of recommendation from students.  On average, I write about 20 letters of recommendation a year. That may not sound like that many letters to write, but I devote a lot of time to each letter so that I can best articulate each student’s unique strengths to support their application. I can imagine from the Admissions office perspective,  many letters of recommendation probably all start to sound the same after a while, so I work hard to make my letters distinctive.

Because I get so many requests, I require my students to follow specific guidelines in order to get a letter from me. I’m sure each professor has their own requirements, so check with each of your professors and see what they require. Here are my policies:

1) Achieve a certain grade or higher in my course.
When I write a letter of recommendation, I have to feel that I can enthusiastically rant and rave about how incredible the student is, in terms of both their character and academic accomplishments. I won’t say here exactly which grade is the cut off point, but it’s pretty high up there.

2) Ask politely and don’t make assumptions. 
You might think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised how many students are not polite when asking for a letter. It’s important to know what’s good practice when asking, because this is definitely a process you’ll have to do repeatedly throughout your career.

I’ve had students email me, stating that they listed me as a reference on a job application without ever asking my permission. That alone is presumptuous enough that I will tell the student to remove me from their reference list. One student asked for a letter and in the same email, told me that they had already sent the school my email and that I should be expecting an email where I could upload my letter. I had a student who asked me to write them a letter for a grant application that didn’t exist yet, and then continued to pester me about it even after I said no twice. It got to the point where I had to tell them, point blank, that I wouldn’t write letters for them in the future. Ask politely, and wait to hear my response before you do anything.

3) Provide 2-3 months advance notice of your earliest deadline. Even if the student got an A in my course, if they ask 2 weeks before their deadline, I won’t write the letter. My schedule is so densely packed that I simply can’t take on last minute requests. I am sure that this is also the case for all other professors.

4) Correspond with me promptly throughout the process.
Asking for a letter is just the beginning of a mutual effort between myself and the student. Don’t disappear after I’ve agreed to write the letter, you have to be involved every step of the way. There are so many little details that have to be followed up on, and when students don’t provide information I need promptly it makes everything unnecessarily complicated.

5) Say thank you. 
This is a mandatory habit to establish for the future. I’m appalled at how few people do this, especially when it’s so easy to do, and takes so little time.  I’ve had several instances where students emailed me asking for help with something, I took the time to write them a lengthy email with advice, and then never heard from them again. I guess they got what they needed from me, but I find it rude to not even reply with a quick “thank you.”  It bothers me enough that I have a list in my head of who didn’t say “thank you.” Sometimes that’s the difference between whether I recommend someone for a job or not. A few weeks ago, I got an email from a lawyer I had never met in person before, thanking me for referring one of my students to them.  That email made a difference; that lawyer is now cemented in my head as someone who is polite and professional.

Gesture Painting

Writing letters of recommendation are part and parcel of being a teacher, and I am always happy to help my students however I can. Plus, when you have phenomenal students, the letters practically write themselves. If you’re a student, be prepared to put in effort on your end, I can guarantee that your professors will appreciate it!


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


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


ART DARES
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.

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.


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


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


ART DARES
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.

Student Progress Reports

Final Crit

This week I’m writing student progress reports for my freshman students at RISD.   I always write the reports within a week after final reviews; if I wait any longer, my thoughts aren’t quite as crisp and I have a harder time being specific in the reports.

I had 40 students this semester, so writing these reports is very time consuming. I can’t write the reports in one sitting either, I have to spread out the writing over several days so I can come back and revise the reports with a fresh eye.  I try to be succinct, but once I start writing, I find that there is so much to say.  This approach takes more time, but I think it’s important to explain things thoroughly to make sure that the report is coherent.

I also understand how meaningful these reports are for the students.  I know this because I was a RISD student once, and I vividly remember the tremendous impact these reports had on me.  Reading the reports cemented my progress, and provided a sense of accomplishment that made all of the late nights worth it.

Today I unearthed my own student progress reports from when I was a student at RISD. The reports shown below were written by Fred Lynch, Alba Corrado, and Fritz Drury, all of whom are now my colleagues.

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I was petrified of Alba Corrado when I met her the spring semester of my freshman year in 1995. Her teaching methods and assignments were vastly different than what I had experienced in my 3D class in the previous semester. I was terribly worried that I wasn’t equipped with the technical skills and thinking strategies necessary to surviving in her class. Alba revolutionized my thought process and understanding of 3D concepts. Eventually, I discovered that she was a brilliant teacher who was also a lovely person.

img441 - Copy

When I took Fred Lynch’s class over Wintersession in 1996, I was a complete wreck. I had a miserable experience in the fall semester of my sophomore year, and decided to switch into the Illustration department. Fred’s class was the one requirement that I had to make up in order to change majors.  I had no idea what to expect, and at the time, I didn’t even really know what illustration was. I didn’t feel confident about switching majors either.  A friend of mine switched and I followed him because I didn’t know what else to do. Fred’s class turned out to be a pivotal moment in my time at RISD.  His class was refreshing, exciting and highly stimulating.  I didn’t know that group crits could be so challenging, and yet have me laughing throughout.  I couldn’t have asked for a smoother, more inspiring transition into the Illustration department.

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Fritz Drury’s class was my first drawing class in the Illustration department in the spring semester of my sophomore year. After taking Fred Lynch’s class over Wintersession, I was all revved up and ready to go.  Fritz’s class fulfilled every creative craving I had.  I couldn’t wait to get started on my homework assignments, and class sessions fostered a new level of engagement with my work. I knew then that I was finally in the right place.


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


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


ART DARES
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.