Blog reader Paul VonZimmerman told me he has been thinking about the concept of tacit knowledge and how it relates to art instruction. He asks, "What are your thoughts on this as someone who has created a variety of instructional material?"
Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowing that is hard to put into words, such as kneading bread dough. The opposite is explicit knowledge, which can be easily transmitted verbally, such as the names and placement of colors on the color wheel.
Even an expert practitioner may not be able to consciously explain their tacit knowledge. Therefore it may be difficult for them to pass it on to the student through writing, lecturing, or diagrams.
A lot of people use the example of riding a bicycle. People who master the skill often don't know why they turn the handlebars right or left to balance and turn; they just "get" it. Riding a unicycle is a lot like bicycle riding, but in addition you have to apply pressure on the pedals to balance in the forward/backward dimension.
In the case of art instruction, I agree that there are topics that can be transmitted more easily through writing or explanation. Those topics, such as perspective, principles of lighting, theories of color, and strategies of composition, can be taught naturally in a book or a classroom setting. They lend themselves to being analyzed and explained in words and therefore they're suited to transmitting reading or watching a lecture. I focused more on those topics in my books Color and Light and Imaginative Realism.
Learning to paint involves a lot of practical skills that many artists find hard to explain. These skills include color mixing, paint application and stretching a canvas. These topics apply naturally to workshops or videos where you can watch someone doing the action, hear them explain why they're doing it, and then practice it yourself until it starts to become automatic.
One reason I love producing instructional videos is that I can film the whole process as I create a painting, and then in the voiceover, I can verbalize my thinking at each stage. I have done live demos where I explain what I'm doing in real time, but unless I'm demonstrating the same skill over and over, I feel I sometimes have to compromise either the explanation or the painting.
To answer your question, Paul, I don't really like the idea of dividing knowledge into fixed categories of explicit or tacit. The problem with the theory of tacit knowledge as I understand it is the presumption that some skills can't be verbalized. I believe any skill can be explained, especially if it is broken down into steps. Moreover, it must be verbalized, especially at the beginning, if the teacher is really doing their job.
Sometimes teachers verbalize surreal images that help students learn a skill. I heard an equestrian instructor tell her students to imagine a beam of light coming out of their belly buttons and shooting forward between the horse's ears. I suppose it worked better than saying "Sit up straight!"
I learned to ride a unicycle by reading a book. I didn't have a teacher and I didn't know anyone else who rode one. The book broke down the process into a series of steps that I could master one by one until I "had it."
|Copying from classic illustrators is a great way to turn appreciation into practice.|
These are my copies of Sundblom, Cornwell, Leyendecker and Rockwell.
When it came to learning art, I never had a formal painting teacher, nor did I watch any art videos when I was first learning. Until I was in college I didn't know any other artists. I learned everything on my own through reading and practice starting in elementary school, so I'm a great believer in the power of the written word.
Rather than conceiving of the universe of learning as divided into two groups of knowledge, tacit and explicit, I think it's more useful to look at learning—especially "motor" or muscle-based learning—as a process of internalization. New studies of the brain have shown how conscious knowledge is gradually made automatic as the neural pathways shift from the outer cerebral cortex to deeper networks in the brain. The theory of motor learning is a rich subject, but let's save it for another post.
In the comments, I would love to hear from art teachers about how you teach various kinds of art knowledge, and from students about what what kinds of teaching has helped you the most in learning to draw and paint.
Tacit knowledge (link to Wikipedia)
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