In the last month of every semester I begin challenging my students to take more creative ownership of their work. In general, they don’t like it.
My class assignments become looser and less direction is given in what should be drawn or what medium should be used. For instance, I will give them a concept, like “time & motion,” and then tell them to develop it into a finished piece using specific skills we’ve learned. Or I’ll give them a title and their job is to develop a piece for it. I can teach just about anyone the techniques and skills of an artist, provided they are willing to work hard at learning them, but until they apply it to something their own it will only be just another lesson, one that can be discarded once the grades are processed.
We also talk a lot about how artists develop an idea; from the baseline of where ideas come from, all the way through to how to take that idea from an amorphous thought to actualization. We talk about the strengths of specific mediums and techniques and how to choose the appropriate one for what you are trying to express.
These are lessons I found lacking when I went to school and their lack left me frozen for a time after I graduated. I had gotten used to getting direction from my professors and without guidance felt adrift, with little knowledge on how to choose from the overabundance of ideas and develop them outside of the sketchbook into finalized pieces. I think this is a stumbling block for many artists once they leave school and they spend more time than is necessary stumbling around trying to walk on their own. Many artists give up during that time.
It is hard to get this surprisingly abstract lesson across to many of the students. They just want to know what to draw and what I think about their work. They want a good grade. They are afraid of taking the risk that comes along with standing on their own and they have a difficult time telling me what they are doing without asking me what to do. The hardest part for me is always refraining, redirecting the questions back onto them and waiting until the class critiques to challenge them on their decisions. It always feels a bit cruel, but it’s a necessary part of being trained as an artist. The only way they can get better is to try it themselves, even if they fail at the task the first time or two. It is only through failure that an artist truly learns anything.