For many artists, teaching is an important part of their career. It can provide inspiration, community, and a steady income, but balancing it with one’s own work can be challenging. I asked several prominent painters who teach to share their thoughts about the effects teaching has on their practice as artists.
Sadie Valeri runs a successful atelier in San Francisco, teaches online classes, and has created numerous educational painting videos. She discusses the balance needed in order to pursue her own work: “Every single day I teach, I am reminded of the sense of awe that compels us to create, and I see in my students those moments of a suddenly deeper understanding. But teaching does not provide the solitary time at my easel I need to be able to create at the deepest level of meaning. Teaching takes away from this time, so the balance is important. In order to be the best teacher I’m able to be, I have learned I need to fiercely guard my own solitary space and time to be creative. I’ve learned I need to be conscientious about keeping my focus on my own work. When I teach a class with the glow of a good day of painting, I’m more likely to transfer that flame to my students.”
Lea Wight has a studio in Philadelphia and teaches classes and workshops at Studio Incamminati. She recently published a book on painting, Foundations of Classical Oil Painting. She discusses teaching students the skills that will enable them to use their own voice: “I get a lot of pleasure from teaching. I know how essential it is to become aware of new information and to understand how to use it to advance your ability. It’s really rewarding to see a student in that process. I think personal expression should be a choice and not a compromise due to lack of skill or knowledge. I try to teach skills rather than style. I want students to leave my class or workshop with knowledge that will let them work in their own voice, their own aesthetic. Teaching the essentials results in keeping my skill growing as well. To effectively teach each skill, it has to be broken down and presented in a logical, sequential manner. The problem is I don’t usually work in a clear, sequential fashion. I’m always moving elements around and experimenting with different ways to handle things. I work in a much more chaotic way. I think to teach exactly the way I work would be confusing and counter productive. After a long period of teaching ‘logically,’ it takes me a while to recover and to loosen up again.”
Lea Wight uses her teaching expertise during a breakout session at The Art of the Portrait conference
Jafang Lu is a senior instructor at Studio Incamminati and also teaches at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. She discusses how her interests in her own painting affect her teaching: “For the most part, I find the way I paint or an aspect of painting that I’m intensely curious about in my own work influences the way I teach. For example, I might be interested in painting voluptuous women at one point. I might then be keen on hiring heavier-set models for my class, and when teaching, focus more on how to express volume in painting and drawing. One way teaching has directly influenced my work is that I become more aware of habits that aren’t helpful that I observe in my students and that I know I also have. Impatience and zeroing in on unimportant things too quickly are examples of this. This awareness makes me more conscious of it when I paint.”
Artists who teach will encounter most of the issues mentioned at some point in their career. I have experienced all of these and more over the past fifteen years during the time I’ve taught classes and workshops at Studio Incamminati and Repenning Fine Arts. Teaching makes me feel a constant responsibility to practice the exercises I teach in order to maintain my skills and muscle memory. This requires that I paint from life on a regular basis. The concepts and procedures I’m teaching may be clear to me, but the skill involved in representational drawing and painting is a practice-based skill, and like musicians and athletes, artists must continually work to hone their craft. Teaching portrait and figure painting challenges me to continually strive forward because of what it requires in practice. As my students constantly progress, they challenge me to remain in the race and to run hard.