Yesterday I received an email from my former student Roger Derrick, which jump-started this post in my mind. Roger wanted to show me some new works in progress. I was astonished to see how far he had come since being in my class. The goal of my teaching is to cultivate each student's understanding of the underlying principles that inform the decision-making process, giving them the ability to come up with the appropriate course of action in any situation. This approach allows an artist to continue to develop just the way Roger has, through determination, hard work and applied logic.
Teaching is no different than parenting. When people learn that I am a father, the first thing they ask is, “Are your kids artists?” My reply is always, “No, they’re not me! They get to choose their own paths.”Now, many parents want their children to follow in their footsteps. They want their kids to come back and ask for advice when there are important decisions to make, regardless of their age. Obviously, these parent's intentions are good. They want what’s best for their children, but they base their counseling on their own priorities. It’s only natural to want what's best for your offspring! Right? But natural for whom? I raised my children to think for themselves based on understanding and good judgment. I chose to support their interests rather than imposing my own. As a result, they grew up to be independent thinkers, more than capable of making their own life choices. I couldn't be any prouder or happier of them, regardless of the paths they follow.
My goal as a teacher is the same as my goals as a parent, to allow my students to develop into the best artists they can be, and not a replication of myself. There’s a very famous poem by Dennis Waitley about parenting, entitled “Roots and Wings”. Here's the poem:
If I had two wishes, I know what they would be I'd wish for Roots to cling to, and Wings to set me free;Roots of inner values, like rings within a tree;and Wings of independence to seek my destiny.Roots to hold forever to keep me safe and strong,To let me know you love me, when I've done something wrong;To show me by example, and helps me learn to choose,To take those actions every day to win instead of lose.Just be there when I need you, to tell me it's all right,To face my fear of falling when I test my wings in flight;Don't make my life too easy, it's better if I try,And fail and get back up myself, so I can learn to fly.If I had two wishes, and two were all I had,And they could just be granted, by my Mom and Dad;I wouldn't ask for money or any store-bought things.The greatest gifts I'd ask for are simply Roots and Wings. -Dennis Waitley
When it comes to teaching art there are two basic approaches:
1)You can teach what you do.
2)You can teach the underlying fundamental principles of understanding.
Those who teach what they do have very specific rules regarding not only technique but what to do in every given situation. In other words a strict edict to follow. Unfortunately this results in students whose work strongly mimics that of their teacher. The better the student, the closer the adherence. Everyone turns into a some version of the master!
I choose the fundamental understanding route. If you know why things work then you have choices in every given situation; you do what you do based on your artistic intent and not anyone else’s. That doesn't mean I eschew technique. On the contrary, my teaching is very technical because it's vitally important to have the ability to manifest the choices you're making.
I love it when no apparent stylistic imprint of myself is evident in the work of a former student. It's my understanding that Jean Leon Gerome – the great academic painter of the 19th Century and one of the most revered educators of his time – shared the same philosophy. This enabled him to develop students as diverse as Thomas Eakins and William McGregor Paxton. Each of those artists took what they learned and were able to form their own unique personality and point of view.
I thought about the past week, where I had the great privilege of seeing a new show of paintings by my former student, TM Davy, a series of beautiful unique and innovative paintings of horses at the 11R gallery in New York City. I also saw, on Facebook, two great paintings by former students Billy Norrby and Martin Wittfooth. I received an email from Steve Birmbaum, the Assistant Director of Media at SVA. Steve had interviewed another long ago student, Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS), a highly successful Chelsea gallery artist.
Steve wrote, "The interview went great and Brian had a lot of wonderful things to say about you and your class during his time at SVA." A few weeks ago, I learned another of my past students, Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, was developing, for 20th Century Fox Animation, a feature film based on "The Dam Keeper", his 2015 Academy Award-nominated animated short. The incredible thing about all these artists is that you would never know they all studied with the same teacher. They took their roots and flew to the heavens.
Marvin Mattelson is now conducting his classes and workshops online in Full HD 1080p through his Fine Art Portrait Academy. For further information, or to register for an upcoming offering, please follow this link to his teaching page.