Thursday, July 08, 2010

10 Steps to Getting the BEST Art Education Ever!

Hadleigh Castle, John Constable, 1819-20, watercolor sketch Jan Blencowe 2010

Hadleigh Castle, John Constable, 1819-20 Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

Ploughing Scene in Suffolk, John Constable, 1824, watercolor pencil sketch Jan Blencowe, 2010

Landscape Ploughing Scene in Suffolk, A Summerland 1824 John Constable

How to get the best art education ever? Spend time at a museum!

To every artist, art lover and collector I'd like to say...spend time at museums. There is absolutely no substitute (not books, not prints, not the internet) for actually standing in the presence of an original master art work. This is the way art is meant to be seen, in person, with your own eyes, and heart. It is also the best way to get a top flight art education directly from the masters themselves (even if they're dead!)

Connecticut isn't a very big state, but even I have choices when it comes to museums. So even if you don't live near a major museum you probably have choices too. Be on the look out for special shows and exhibits that make their way to smaller museums near you which give you the opportunity to view works you might otherwise never get a chance too see. I had such an experience recently when I went to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford to see a small show, Rembrandt's People. There were only about 20 Rembrandt portraits in the show, but his self- portrait which was the centerpiece of the show was absolutely stunning. It could only be called a spiritual experience. So intense and emotion laden was this work that when I looked into the eyes of the portrait it was like looking in to a living person's eyes. It was a very un-real, yet profoundly real experience. I think I stood for a full 20 minutes just gazing at the portrait, which looks unassuming reproduced below:

10 Steps to Getting the Best Art Education Ever

  1. Get to know your local museums. Decide which ones have collections you will benefit the most from viewing, studying and copying .
  2. Purchase a museum membership and commit to visiting at least once a month, (once a week puts you on the fast track!)
  3. Get a notebook. I like the Great Moments in Art, Museum Journal but anything compact will do.
  4. Get a small sketchbook, a pen and a watercolor pencil, a sharpener w/ a lid to catch the shavings.
  5. Check the museum's policy regarding sketching, note taking, and photographing in the galleries.
  6. Choose an artist, a movement, or a series of related works to study. Ideally these should inform your own work in some manner.
  7. Decide what these works have to teach you, value structure, color, composition, or something else.
  8. Choose 1-3 works and spend about 10 minutes on each viewing and studying. Also make sure you read the information card next to the piece.
  9. Photograph the works, (if permissible) along w/ detail shots and write in your journal/notebook about the work. Express your general feelings towards the work, why you like it, what draws you to it, what you think is its strongest quality.  Then deconstruct and analyze the piece. Consider overall patterns of value, take notes on use of color, do a small sketch to reproduce a simplified version of the composition, analyze brushwork and mark making, note the use of perspective or lack of it, compare and contrast it to other works you are familiar with. Write until you can't think of anything else to say.
  10. Finally, get out your sketchbook and copy the piece. I like to work small no larger than 6x8 and I will either use a pen (if permitted) or a watercolor pencil, to which I can add a water wash later on. You will be simplifying since you are downsizing a large work to a small sketch. Plan on spending at least 30 min. per sketch. Analyze, work slowly and keep in mind your main point of interest, value, composition or color, etc.  If color is your thing you may want to bring a set of water soluble colored pencils or pastel pencils.
Nota Bene:

Repeat steps 6-10 on a regular basis.
Repeat step 2 once a year 
Repeat steps 3-5 as necessary.

A few things to keep in mind. First, these sketches are learning tools they are not works of art per se. Do not judge them, simply do them and learn as you are doing. 

Second, wear comfy shoes and clothes, and be prepared to be exhausted at the end. This is hard work. Make sure you take short breaks to walk around to stretch your legs and clear your mind. Reward yourself with a trip to the gift shop, coffee shop or both after-wards.

Most museums have seating in the galleries, however seating may not be available in front of what you want to sketch. Some museums provide portable stools for people who are sketching, ask at the information desk. You can also call ahead and if they don't have portable stools find out if it is alright to bring your own. I have a Walk Stool I like very much.

Finally, some museums have certain days and times available for sketching that is monitored. For example here in CT The New Britain Museum of American Art has Sketching with the Masters every Friday from 10:30-12 noon, all skill levels are welcome and Museum educator Heather Whitehouse will gently guide you to sketching exercises in the Museum's galleries.

Next post will be on advanced techniques for Getting the BEST Art Education Ever at your local museum! Stay Tuned!


AutumnLeaves said...

What an absolutely wonderful post, Jan. I really need to follow your advice. Now...where is my energy? Where is some spare change? Where to find such shows? I am hoping to head to Chicago though, hopefully to see the art museum for a full day of self-involved fun!

Pattie Wall said...

Great advise, Jan. Especially the helpful reminders to pay attention to those elements of the painting or artwork. There are some art museums I have not been to in a long time, now I have them on my list of "things to do".

A.Decker said...

Great info! This is a really good guide. Nicely done.

I like your "after the Master" sketches, too.