Recent Reflections and Reads: Self-Taught Art


On a whim in June, I decided I wanted to make art. It was literally an urge out of nowhere. One moment I had no thoughts whatsoever about wanting to paint or collage, and the next minute, I was very much wanting to paint and collage. I bought some supplies, and painting has been like an obsession or an addiction ever since.

This is not to say that I have any idea what I am doing. Recently, when the same cashier at Michaels rang up yet another round of canvas, he told me that he was still working on the same one oil painting. Meanwhile, there I was rushing through my small canvases.

As a viewer, I have always been drawn to art that gets categorized as folk, self-taught, outsider, visionary. But when it comes to my own creations, I am not so much self-taught as not-taught-at-all (beyond the art classes that were part of my elementary and middle school curriculum, which happened a long time ago).

Like the makeshift spread of acrylic-splattered newspapers on my floor, my position as a not-taught-at-all does not always sit comfortably with me. I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection between my painting without expertise and the broader cloud of anti-expertise that plagues our society. Why does anyone need to actually learn or study anything, if my alternative facts are as good as your facts? If there’s no need, for example, to pay attention to the work and warnings of climate scientists?painting

At the very least, when it comes to producing creative work, don’t you have to know the rules before you can break them?

I know two things: one, that there are endless upon endless techniques that I know I don’t know how to achieve (or, I try them, and then quickly learn that I don’t know how to carry them out). Two, that in the month and a half of putting paint on canvas, I have made a few things that I genuinely like.

Whether I will take a formal class in the near future remains to be seen. Just buying supplies alone is turning out to be enough of a financial investment at the moment. In the meantime, I can go online to read up on techniques, and to contemplate ideas like those in the following articles:

  1. 10 things about being an artist that art teachers don’t tell you by Emily Browne, from the Guardian in 2013. Advice for people who are studying to be artists, mostly regarding the realities of the job market and challenges of making a living from creative work.
  2. And somewhat on the flip side, another 2013 article, this one posted by Ellen Bard on her blog: 9 Things I Learned in Art Class. Bard takes the techniques and advice she learned in her beginner art class, like starting with soft strokes and then going stronger, and applies it to life beyond the sketchpad. [The link was working a day ago, but as I’m finalizing the post on July 31, 2019, it’s giving me an error message.]
  3. What It Means To Be A ‘Self-Taught Genius’ In Art – This 2015 article in the Huffington Post by Priscilla Frank discusses a traveling exhibit composed of works from the American Folk Art Museum, but also delves into the concepts underpinning the compilation of art in the show. And these underpinnings may in fact be difficult to pin down, but curator Shirley Reece-Hughes of the Amon Carter Museum noted a commonality in folk art: “The continuous thread would be the impulse to create….And the impulse to create in a manner that’s unfettered by conventions, whether it’s academic training or the traditional guidelines of art making.”
  4. The Rise of Self-Taught Artists by Sarah Boxer, published in The Atlantic in 2013, argues that outsider art had become “in.” Boxer also grapples with terms and definitions, and writes, “outsider does have a nice little paradox embedded in it: for an artist to be considered an outsider, he or she must first be brought inside the professional art world by an insider.”

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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