Monday, January 28, 2008

Inner and Outer Growth

When a tree grows each year, it adds some twigs and branches, but it also increases the girth of its trunk.

As artists we grow the same way. Our outer growth includes the practical skills of the hand: things like smooth calligraphy, accurate drawing, efficient color mixing, or an intuitive digital interface. We develop these skills from daily practice.

Our inner growth as artists has more to do with what we’re doing when we’re not actually painting. It includes our art historical awareness, our scientific understanding, our observational sensitivity, and our aesthetic taste.

That inner growth—the trunk of the tree—takes a lifetime to develop. If our roots are drawing inspiration throughout our lives, we can add a growth ring to our inner artistic selves, even if we are not practicing art daily.

This is encouraging news for people who are out of the habit with daily skills. You can keep growing as an artist even if you’re a busy parent with your art supplies languishing in the closet or a college student wrapped up in other concerns for a few years. As long as we keep seeing and thinking as artists every day, the trunk of the tree keeps growing.

On May 28, 2007, The New Yorker published the following about playwright Tennessee Williams:

"When, in late 1948, his play 'Summer and Smoke' failed on Broadway, Williams’ confidence dipped still further; he felt, he said, like a 'discredited old conjurer.' To his champion Brook Atkinson, the drama critic of the Times, he wrote in June 1949:

'The trouble is that you can’t make any real philosophical progress in a couple of years. The scope of understanding enlarges quite slowly, if it enlarges at all, and the scope of interest seems to wait upon understanding. . . . All artists who work from the inside out have all the same problem: they cannot make sudden, arbitrary changes of matter and treatment until the inner man is ripe for it.'"
All of which leads to a philosophical question that I’d like to pose to those of you who are teachers or students of art: What can or should an art school nurture? The inner or outer artist? Is it possible for a school to nurture both?

Painting above by Peder Mork Monsted (1859-1941), Link.
Thanks for the quote, Dave S.

Tomorrow: Stroke Module


Anonymous said...

Definately the outer artist. To stay with the tree analogy; when a treelet is planted, it will have a pole for support, but when the roots are firmly established, the supportpole is removed. Why? Because in order to grow and strengthen its core, it has to strain against the elements. If you don't remove this pole and let it grow on itself (and this is really true) the tree would be weaker for it.
You can't *give* pupils self-esteem, nor should one want to (what is self-esteem except the notion that you are somehow the bees knees - the person filled with self-esteem will be full of self-importance and will fall very, very hard on his face when faced with the real world)
You can't *give* pupils self-respect either because self-respect is something which grows out of respect for others. Teach the artist skills. Teach him how to look at things. Give him the opportunity to enrich himself with the brilliance of others and when he responds his 'inner artist' will grow accordingly.

Marion from The Netherlands

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, a school of art is primarily concerned with the teaching of new techniques or improving already present skills, so nurturing the outer artist (at least that's how it was at my school) but a certain amount of art history and techniques of the past masters is indispensable, as is the habit of going out and studying life and the world, feeding the inner artist, so to speak. I figure a good school can offer its students all of the above through field trips and history lessons, setting tasks involving research and information processing along with all the examples and practical projects.
The thing is, the school only has an influence for a limited amount of time, so it's important to teach the students also to be self-sufficient in their improvement and to stay interested in their world and history. This part depends a lot on the student, but it helps if the school can make the learning fun, a mark of any good teaching institution.

Adam Paquette said...

You have posed a fantastic and relevant question - let me try to answer from my own limited perspective;

I think that an art SCHOOL can only profess to be of assistance in growing the outer artist. This is as a result of the ratio of teachers to students. With generally 10-30 students per teacher, there is a natural deficit, which makes it NECESSARY for the teacher/institution to find a COMMON DENOMINATOR upon which to base instruction. In other words, they need to teach something every student can learn.

In a 1:1 apprenticeship/mentorship situation, a much deeper friendship can be fostered and the mentor is able to assist in the growth of the inner artist by communicating on a more personal level, their knowledge and experiences as relative to the student. Interestingly, I feel this is one of the advantages of internet communities, and even blogs such as yours - the ability to communicate educational material without institutional red tape or curricula.

So you have a situation where the teacher is limited in the amount of extracurricular development they are able to encourage in the student. And i believe this is where we come across 'those teachers' in school who we adore. Because their passion and enthusiasm for their craft allows them to 'overcome the odds' of that situation and offer more to their student than their job description entails. I don't believe we will reach a point where mainstream education will prioritize the personal or emotional development of their students, through no fault of anyone in particular, but only because it is not something that can be benchmarked and regulated. I see education (particularly voluntarily) across the internet to be an acute solution to this shortcoming, above and beyond the occasional inspirational teacher we may be lucky to find.

I think a further mention is deserved of your second point - which is that, as artists, we continue to improve even when we aren't painting. For me, this comes down to a shared humanity and a passion for life itself. Art imitates life - and more specifically, the life and perception of the specific artist. Not only should we fall back on the 'trunk theory' in times of artistic limitation, but also embrace our growth every day by unplugging from the computer, engaging with the world and connecting with other human beings. In this way we can be quite content with the fertilizer of formalized education, and can spend less time griping about homogenization, due to a renewed confidence and self assuredness that we are engaged in the business of living life. May we all grow tall together.

You owe me two cents :)

Brine Blank said...

As a teacher I feel it is important that both areas are taken care of. The best artists tend not to be just those with technical skills...but also those that can 'think'. I tell them they need to learn to be 'students of life' have a curiosity about the things around want to 'pull things apart' whether theories or physical items to see how they do or don't work. They need to learn to physically see but they also need to learn how to 'see' philosophically, emotionally, and intelligently. Unfortunately this seems to be what is lacking the most in students I run across today ...students that do have technical abilities often have a hard time using them in a 'meaningful' way with regards to problem solving and producing quality work on a consistent basis.

Erik Bongers said...

Rather than give my opinion, an anecdote :
I remember this fellow student that was extremely gifted at drawing.
And 'gifted' is the word to use here : he didn't practice very much, wasn't really ambitious, but he could draw 'with his eyes closed', so to speak.
I actually felt very intimidated by this.
I once mentioned his talent to our teacher, but to my suprise he didn't react with much enthousiasm. His reply was something like : "Yes, talented...but he doesn't have a vision.".
And indeed, twenty years later I haven't heard of him (yet).

So, I guess you could say that his 'outer' couldn't have been improved much in school, and the teacher sort of gave up on the 'inner' artist.

Anonymous said...

Erik Bongers, do you think that if the teacher hadn't 'given up' on that talented student, that student would've grown into a brilliant artist? Personally, I doubt it. One can be talented as all git out, but if you're too lazy to practice, if you care so little about your art that you can't be bothered to practice, no matter how talented, you'll never make an artist worth spit.
Take ballet. You could be talented like Nureyev, but if you don't do your daily plies and if you don't care enough about your art to eat, drink and dream ballet, you'll never be a dancer. Why should art be any different?

Michael Damboldt said...

Wow, that's a difficult question.

I went to a school that attempted both, and it seemed to vary between classes. The beginning classes focused on technique and the latter tried to balance internalized themes with outer technique.

Our "Senior Project" was somewhat of a mentorship program where a student chose a board of three faculty that gave them advice and whatever was necessary for them to develop their goals for the project.

I'm not sure. I've seen students who can internalize a theme but can't seem to successfully execute it. I've seen others who can execute but can't seem to internalize. Then there is the rest of us who were in the tension of both, which is maybe how it should be.

Don't we all go through that though? The tension of concept and execution?

Kactiguy said...

With my students I try to teach both. I think it is important to have a balance in all aspects of their education.

Nathan Fowkes said...

Excellent question. When I was at Art Center, the illustration program leaned toward teaching how to take ideas and portray them visually to the greatest effect. The fineart program tended to do the opposite, favoring high concept ideas portrayed in an original way. Traditional technical abilities were considered "already been done". A few of those fineart classes were tremendously insightful, filled with art films, field trips around the city and reviews of what current fine artists were up to. However, the classes that attempted to be philosophical often felt dogmatic to me, like a thinly veiled political point of view being promulgated. Ironically, my rendering class let me freely portray whatever subject I wanted and my fineart classes rewarded certain kinds of thinking.

In the classes I currently teach, I trust the students to come up with their own ideas and insights. Then we study drawing, the rendering of light and shadow, color and composition to portray those ideas to best effect.

James Gurney said...

These are all profound thoughts about the mystery of making and teaching art. Thanks to all of you. I can't add much, except to say that you are all very modest. Readers should know that these commentators happen to be some of the finest artists and art teachers out there. Click on their links!

colin said...

Well, I expect many of your readers will come out of the woodwork to offer an opinion on this one. Like me for example. *Blinks in the unaccustomed light.*

Anyway, it seems to me this question is relevant, and often pondered, for many crafts and professions. In order to be good at something you need the technicals skills and the inner growth to put those skills to the best use. Can a school teach you the inner part?

My (completely unsupported) opinion is that it is much, much easier to create a curriculum that teaches the skills and techniques, the outer part. The inner part is much more difficult to nurture and attempting to do so institutionally can lead to the "dogmatic" feeling that Mr. Fowkes mentioned, among other problems.

That said, I do think schools can be invaluable for the inner part. Or perhaps not so much the schools, but the teachers (and even the other students). Exposure to other artists and other ways of thinking are the best (in my opinion) ways to grow that inner artist.

I should add that I'm not a student myself, or a teacher, but basically a dabbler. I try to help my inner artist grow by exposing him to a variety of different influences, like this blog, for example. I can only hope it's working.

Frank Dormer said...

I teach a program called Choice-Based Art. I, as the teacher, give a brief overview of a technique, skill, or artist, for the first five minutes of class. Then I allow my students to explore the art materials in the room. The room is set up with centers for various explorations. Collage, printmaking, drawing, painting, weaving, are just a few of the centers. This allows the student to have a true art experience. By practicing at their own art using the art room, they are feeding the inner artist. I submit that the inner artist is important one to be fed. The outer artist is a by product. If anyone is interested in learning more about Choice-Based Art, you can visit, and click on Choice Based Art.

art teacher
grade 1-4

Anonymous said...

I believe it is possible to nurse ones interior and exterior artist at the same time.
I teach art basics to children. One of the tools that I use is something I refer to as E.Y.E. (Examine Your Environment). What I do is I cut a six inch square out of the center of a 20” X 20” illustration board. I have them lay the board on the ground outside and then I have them examine everything they see in the square. After this I have them draw what it is they spotted in the cutout. The “Frame” allows them to concentrate on just what is in the cutout. It works on other locations as well, like the beach or woods, even cityscapes.

After they draw their images I have them think about the way the world works within the cutout and how they can portray it in their artwork.
This exercise works on both their interior and exterior artistic selves. It allows them to witness, be a part of and portray their world, and ultimately it acts to allow them to look at their surroundings without the cutout around. I have had them place their frames in many positions and it is incredible what children can see that adults take for granted.

I suppose that is one reason why I work with mostly children. They are open to new things where an adult thinks they already know how the world works.

The adventures inside the cutouts have been translated using paper and pen, acrylics, clay as well as numerous other materials. One student portrayed her cutout with ceramic tiles.
While they are looking at the world with artistic eyes then it is fairly easy to teach them materials and techniques.

I hope this answered your question, at least a little bit.


Erik Bongers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Bongers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Bongers said...

To Marion :
The question you ask is EXACTLY why I didn't want to give my opinion.
I have absolutely no idea whether the teacher failed in his task towards this student or not.
In fact, I think it would be out of place for me to give my judgement : only that student could do that.

So I stick to raising the questions that this little story raised for me.

For myself : my personal experience with (belgian) art schools is that they are (were) too inner-focused : they failed to give me proper technical training.
I can imagine that in The Far West training may be a bit too outer focused : providing new hollywood soldiers for pixar and the like.

Hey, it's never going to be a perfect world, right.

Unknown said...

I think I've learned the most about my inner astist from reading the writings of the masters or looking at their work. It seems such a personal thing, a one on one thing, so I agree with Adam on that, it's hard to have that sort of relationship with a teacher in a large class. I have to say though, that I appreciated it when a good teacher stretched beyond the technical into the deeper aspects of creativity. It's an important insight to share.

Stephen James. said...

There's so much that can be said.

In all honesty I kind of find "some" of my views lining up with the Art Renenwal center. I say some because while I may feel that Fred Ross is a bit dogmatic in some of his views, I find that the core principles of a returning emphasis to the study of nature, life drawing, and hard core work ethic are keys to solid art education. That way even when the student branches off into other more abstracted work they have a solid foundation.

Another thing that needs to be done away with is the contempt some in the "proper" art world have for the public. But that's not here or there.

Oh well that's it for now.

Matthew A said...

Letting the outer artist develop in response to the inner artist results in works like non-objective formalism; abstract art, things of that nature. The consequence is insubstantial works of art heralded as masterpieces due to their 'philosophical' nature, and ignoring the ineptitude.