January 19, 2013

Succeed To Be Machines, Fail To Be Humans

The Joy of Painting

Yesterday one of my students suddenly left my class 20 minutes before class ended, escorted by his father. Story really started like this:

This 10 year-old kid had tremendous difficulty on painting watercolor. Despite I taught him (like to everybody else) the basic technique of watercolor, demonstrated the first part of painting, he still could not deal with it. One of reasons he had such difficulty was that he believed - like many other kids - that he must paint everything just exactly identical as sample painting. Of course, during the course of teaching I repeatedly told them that there is no need and it's almost impossible for them to make a  exact copy of original painting, but still, this kid is still always in big trouble whenever he knew he could not make it exactly like what he saw. With each tinny step, he would just stop there, and waiting for my instruction. Then I told him (many times) that he should try by himself, even he knew he would fail, he should still try. I told him that it is better to make many mistakes and learn from them, than to make all perfections by the help of teacher and still cannot do it by his own.

Obviously, this slow process drew his father's attention. He stepped out from side of classroom and realized his son did not make any progress since last couple of sessions. Also he probably heard what I told his son, and profoundly disagreed. So what he did was standing right beside his son, told him exactly what to do. His son followed everything he told him, with extremely unhappy/embarrassed expression on his face. I mentioned to the father that this is not a good way to teach art, but he openly opposed my idea, saying if I don't teach, of course his son wouldn't know. Then we had mild argument for a little while before I left both of them alone. However, just in about another 10 minuets, while I was helping other students, I suddenly heard the father declared: "sorry, we are leaving". I turned around and tried to check out what happened, I found the son already left his seat with painting on his hand, and his father told me seriously (but not angrily): "We are leaving. He is not going to paint this anymore".

I did not see how the painting looked like, but I was certain that it didn't turn out as his father wished, otherwise, he would not "order" his son to stop and leave. This proved to me that his teaching method did not succeed either.

Teaching art is so much different from teaching math, or science. In latter case, as long the theories were thoroughly explained and understood, students can usually solve the problems within no time, but in the case of teaching art, after the basic technique was explained and demonstrated, students still need lots of time to practice on their own, in order to master the technique. And it is not my belief that technique of painting should be detailed into each subject, such as how to paint trees, how to paint water. There are time to time students asked me these questions, I always told them that I only teach "how to paint", not "how to paint specifically one thing". If a student learned how to paint "a tree", she/he may not know how to paint "many trees"; if she/he learned how to paint water in small ripples, she/he cannot paint water big waves. "How to paint" on the other hand, simply involves some basic color theory and how to use painting materials, and how to build layers on painting surface, etc. Also, for realistic painting, understanding perspective, proportions and shading principle might be utmost important. So, by my understanding, as long as students understanding these issue, they should be able to deal with different different subjects without too much difficulty. And how exactly they will paint each subjects, I think it's better I leave that alone, because that's the fun part and also the exactly from where students' own styles will develop.

Yes, there are some artists out there teach people how to paint trees, or mountains, such as Bob Ross, but after lessons students would all know how to paint like Bob Ross, not how to paint their own art. I know many parents expected me teaching like that, unfortunately it is just not my way. Most parents understood my "theory" after I explained to them, but some of them don't, like this one, I would call him "tiger father". He has tremendous energy and working very hard all his life, and now he has been make sure his sons following the same path. Since very earlier age, his sons worked hard on everything possible: piano, art, math, science, etc. Both his sons came to my studio about 3 years ago, when the younger one was only about 7. Both of them didn't seem to be healthy and energetic as their father, and both were extremely quiet, extremely good at following "orders". I soon notice, the younger one had serious anxiety when he made mistakes. Once I asked him to change something, he hold the eraser, repeatedly erased the same spot with anger, even made some sort of sound which drew attention of classmates. About half years later "tiger father" suddenly canceled their art learning due to his elder son's chronic health issue. He also expressed tremendous embarrassment, which I did not know what for.

And over a year later, younger son came back to me. I still notice he has psychological issue whenever he does paintings. He can handle drawing better, probably because there are more rules to follow, such as proportion, perspective, etc., but painting, where I encourage my students to be more creative, he just could not handle it at all.

I have my reason to believe, that his energetic father trained his two son like machine. Whenever I saw his younger son made mistakes, I literally saw "fear" in his eyes, as if the unspeakable punishment would come. Another day "tiger father" told me that his elder son was accepted by Yale University, I congratulated him. But honestly, if I had kids, would I envy him? My answer is a big "NO", because I think humans are much more admirable than "machine".
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  1. Yun Yi, I totally agree with your approach to teaching art. Yes, it is far better to make mistakes and learn from them than try to be perfect. I believe the father’s approach was not the right one at all, although I realize he probably did it out of overly-protective instincts for his son. Yes, that would be terribly embarrassing to have his father do that in front of his classmates. I think there are too many “tiger” parents out there.

    I’m not a teacher but I love art and I can clearly see how teaching art would be much different than teaching math or science. What if Van Gogh had an art teacher demanding that he follow every step? Well, we’d never have his brilliant artistic masterpieces today. The way he mixed his own colors and his particular sweeping brushstrokes are what define his work, what sets him apart even from the other artists of his time. Excellent post!

  2. I never had formal art lessons; I just sort of watched and learned how to paint from my father. Like you, he thought that cultivating individual style was much more important than exact replication. In my opinion, that's the only way to become a true artist. Otherwise, you're not really channeling your own creativity, you're just copy-catting the work of someone else. Your students are very fortunate to have such a gifted teacher, Yunyi.

  3. @jersey lil, yes, Van Gogh had one teacher who tried to let him do still life sketch but Van Gogh rebelled. Van Gogh found a way to express himself almost right at the beginning of his creative life.
    Thanks for commenting! I agree with what you said about perfection.

    @kris, thanks! I am also very lucky to have many students who are very understanding.

  4. Yunyi, my wife was an art teacher for several years and had the same philosophy as you. After all, art is not reproduction, but discovery, it's an interplay between the materials of art and the sensibility of the artist. Your students are lucky to have a teacher who encourages them to cultivate their individuality rather than fit into some pre-fabricated mold. The parent you spoke of obviously measures success in purely material terms, whereas the true rewards of art are mostly emotional and spiritual.

  5. Yun Yi,

    This is an excellent article, art is something that needs to be felt, and a robot can not feel such things.

    The fathers approach to treating art like math is a failed one, it is sad some people are so detached from their creative side they do not realize it needs personal freedom in order to grow.

  6. That must be deeply frustrating Yunyi, not only calling into question your professional expertise but also challenging the very idea of what art is. I believe that all art is beautiful, but not all that is beautiful is art. If this wasn't true, it would be possible to program a robot to produce great art. How often have you seen photographs of the charge distribution on a complex molecule described as "art"? Beautiful? Yes. Art? No.

    Unfortunately, your tiger dad's idea of art is all too common, and I would suggest that most people think that a good painting must be an exact replica of its subject. How to challenge such conceptions is a near impossible task.

  7. @PBSScott, thanks! You are right. This father is very stubborn on his belief in art, which he really know nothing about.

    @dennis, yes, this is a question about what is art. It is a sad truth that many people don't have some basic understanding of art. I don't know if this is a evolution phenomenon - that we human is losing some our primitive sense, or just some people are "blunt" by nature.