I have long held a belief about how to learn art. I feel like it’s an obvious belief and I know many of my artist friends feel the same so it’s not revolutionary, yet, many art schools seem to miss it entirely.

Technical skill is super freaking important. Concept is also super freaking important, but I’m am of the firm belief that if you are only taught concept, you will end up frustrated and angry because you won’t be able to produce any of your amazing concepts. I purposely chose a technical based college for my BFA because I am a giant nerd, but also because I wanted to create my ideas. I realized that MFAs were probably better spent on concept because by then I’d have a base of skill I could continue to build while I focused on my concepts.

Today, I grabbed my copy of  The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, flipped it open, and I kid you not, my eyes fell on this passage:

“When you, body and soul, wish to make a certain expression and cannot be distracted from this one desire, then you will be able to make a great use of whatever technical knowledge you have. You will have clairvoyance, you will see uses of the technique you already have, and you will invent more.”

Granted, the previous owner of said book had circled it, but that only furthers my point. Yes, at the end Henri says you will invent more technique, but why wouldn’t you want ALL the tools you could have to start with? If you’re building a cabinet do you really want to waste time inventing a freaking hammer? No. It’s already been invented. Take advantage of the guy’s work who came up with the concept of that freaking hammer.  You’re just making it harder on yourself if you don’t focus on the technical skills. It’s the same with anything. If you learn to play music, you start with the scales because that allows you to play everything else.

The reason it feels serendipitous that I opened straight to that circled passage is because I had a unique opportunity yesterday to ask students who started their art school learning concept and then at the end, they lucked out and got two amazing teachers who feel technical skill is super freaking important.

I’ve been filling in as a model for their life drawing classes for three weeks now and I even had the chance to critique their work from other classes. I decided to ask their thoughts on my theory yesterday even though, after watching and listening and discussing their work with them, I had a feeling I would only hear my thoughts confirmed.

I asked, essentially, what they felt about concept only learning vs technical skill since they had both in their undergrad training. I got the most heartbreaking answers. These baby artists said things like, now that they have had technical training, they felt like they could actually be artists. They said they were thinking of transferring before these teachers came and they felt like they didn’t get anything from their education up to that point.  They were just frustrated and angry and they blamed themselves. They internalized an insufficient education and it made them feel like they didn’t have access to this part of themselves.

It wasn’t their fault. Their school was setting them up for failure. Taking their money and just kicking them out the door. I did break it to them that even my school felt like that and I knew my teachers were amazing and I was learning what I needed to learn to at least create art.

It makes me sad these young women thought they were the problem. I also believe if we only concept is taught and then we send the students out into the art world, they won’t appreciate technical skill and we end up with the contemporary art world we have today.  Not that all contemporary art is bad. I happen to adore some of it.

These students are lucky though. They have two great teachers and their level of technical skill and how fast they have improved is impressive AF. They now have a conceptual base to draw from as well as the beginnings of the technical skills to realize their ideas. It’s nice to have ideas, but if you don’t have the skill to realize them, you’re just going to be angry and frustrated.  These students know what they have in these teachers and now feel like they can be artists. Those teachers gave them something invaluable. They showed them they were artists all along.

*sniff* I’m not crying. You’re crying.

About Elisha

Elisha Dasenbrock is an award winning, international watercolor artist. She paints with a limited palette on claybord. Dasenbrock graduated from the American Academy of Art in 2009 and has been painting professionally ever since.