Advice for the Beginning Art Student

Fifteen suggestions for finding your path as an artist.

art student advice
Sherry Camhy, The Writer’s Hands, graphite on paper.

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawing on any available surface, from the walls of my bedroom to the margins of my math books. When I started at the Art Students League, I was, as they say, a “babe in the woods.” Thinking back on my experiences as a student, instructor, and above all, as an artist, I understand more about the process of learning to draw. I would like to share some of those insights with you.

1. The Art Students League is an exceptional school: it allows each student to choose what classes to take, but what you learn, what you give and get from the experience, is up to you. It is a community of artists of all ages, at all levels of skill, from all over the world. What a great opportunity to get to know and learn from people who also love art.

2. Whether you have never drawn or drawn all of your life, have never taken a class or have studied in many other places, choose to do what you love. Give yourself permission to be an artist.

3. Don’t think you have to wait until you have totally conquered drawing to try painting or sculpture. The three inform each other. Working from observation and from imagination enrich each other as well. Studying abstraction can be incredibly helpful to developing your understanding of values, edges, color, and composition, no matter what approach to art you are considering.

4. Different teachers can have very different concepts of art. Don’t lock yourself in. Explore many. Beware of classes where all of the students’ work looks the same as the instructor’s. Learn what you need to know and move on. Ask yourself continually throughout your education what you want or need to know to create art based on your own vision.

art student advice
Sherry Camhy, Figure Study, five minute sketch, graphite on page of an old French anatomy book.

5. When someone new enters my class and asks, “How should I start?” I usually say, “Just start.” It might be easier for both of us if I simply said, “Do this! With that!” But in the long run, it is more important to understand where you are and then talk about where you would like to go and how to get there.

6. Asking questions is important but so is questioning the answers, even mine. Asking “How?” often only leads to skillful imitation. Asking “Why?” may reveal the information necessary for you to be free to choose your own solution.

7. More practicing does not necessarily make for more progress. Perpetual practice doing short poses is an important, freeing, and positively addictive habit but doing longer poses and attempting to finish an image helps you to get to another level. With more time, details, like hands, feet, and noses can be dealt with and conquered, once and for all. Then, surprisingly, short poses will flow ever faster and with even more confidence.

8. Posing breaks are useful for seeing how much you remember of a pose, how far you can take a drawing on your own. Turn your work upside down. Look at it from a distance. Consider continuing to work on the drawing on your kitchen table.

9. Your drawing should always be yours. Placing tracing paper on an image allows corrections, additions, and alternative ideas to be explored on that surface without you or your instructor altering the original image. If there is something you don’t like, change it. If there is something wrong, fix it. Finish it. Try it again on a different textured, value, or colored surface, or in a different medium. Make it the best it can be. Each time you take the time to do this, your work will take a giant step forward.

art student advice
Sherry Camhy, The Artist’s Eye, graphite on paper.

10. Understanding information about traditional and contemporary concepts of art, line, value, edges, materials, surfaces, composition, and color makes it possible for you, as an artist, not to be limited by what you don’t know but free to decide what you want to do with greater understanding. There are many excellent books on anatomy, drawing, painting, and materials that contain valuable information that even Leonardo da Vinci would have been thrilled to be able to study. If you have an anatomy book, bring it to class. Use it to figure out what this or that form actually is. There are many magazines and books about art freely available in libraries, museums and the ASL library on the 2½ floor.

11. Throughout art history, artists have come to very different answers to the same questions. Raphael painted a world filled with color bathed in light. Caravaggio filled his paintings with the drama of forms cloaked in darkness.

Look at reproductions of old masters and the work of contemporary artists. Try choosing one and copying it the same size as the print you are looking at. Learn from the best. Work directly from the real thing. Slow down and step into the mind of an artist whose work you love as well as those whose work you hate. At the Metropolitan Museum, you can contact their Study Room for Drawings and Prints, make an appointment and copy from a real Leonardo Da Vinci, Degas, Seurat, and many other priceless works of art. It’s free.

12. There are many skills and ideas to be learned from other artists, both from their artwork and sketchbooks as well as from their writings. There are many art books that reveal factual information about subjects such as anatomy and many, many “How to” books. But although studying these is invaluable, it is not enough. A skillful pianist can learn to play all of the notes accurately, but a great musician is one who adds magic to a performance by masterful interpretation of the score through nuanced phrasing and a dynamic, a sensitive touch that comes from within. Similarly, a skilled draughtsman can learn to draw a perfectly accurate rendering, but perfect can be perfectly boring. It is an artist’s unique way of seeing, understanding, feeling, responding, expressing and communicating that adds the timeless magic to an image.

“It is only when what can be taught is working in perfect harmony with what cannot be taught that a work of art results.”  Harold Speed, 1873

13. Art is about looking, seeing, feeling, thinking, learning, and growing. It is about making images that say something that cannot be said in words. There is no absolutely right or wrong way. Dare to do it your way. Finding what you want to say and how you want to say it is what being an artist is about. Enjoy the search. Frederick Franck expressed the frustration, the excitement and the joy of the process when he wrote,

I tried to calculate how many thousands of “nudes” I must have drawn through the years, how
many thrown away, although each one had been done in that exhilaration mixed with despair,
that kind of trance    of seeing Life become flesh … 
it is simply the living eye seeing, the living
hand drawing: Life drawing Life. —
Frederick Franck, Life Drawing Life

14. When is a piece of work finished? It does not necessarily need to be perfect or perfectly rendered or full of details. It is done when you, the artist, feel what needed to be said is said, and you are confident that there is nothing extraneous or distracting from that statement. When you do something you like, date it, take care of it, crop it, frame it, hang it on your wall. Think about sharing what you have learned and what you have to say. Think about exhibiting it and maybe even selling your artwork.

15. Carry a sketchbook. Don’t leave home without one. Draw in the park. Draw on the train. Left your sketchbook at home? Take photos with your phone. Proper use of your own photo reference is not a sin. Neither is drawing on your iPad. Up in the middle of the night? Draw your dreams. Draw, draw, and draw! That is what being an artist is about—it is about being you.

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