How to Select an Art Teacher - Ten Things To Consider

By | 9:21 AM

Choosing the right art teacher is one of the most important decisions an artist makes whether just starting out or trying to build upon their current knowledge. Although the responsibility to learn falls on the shoulders of the student, the true accountability of the student's success is dependent upon the art teacher's instruction. The student of a poorly suited instructor will often assume fault with themselves, thinking that they do not possess enough natural artistic talent.
Simplon Pass: The Lesson  By: John Singer Sargent
Simplon Pass: The Lesson By: John Singer Sargent

Beyond the scope of students being "herded" into classes which adhere to a quantity over quality kind of learning environment, there are the teachers that leave the students to figure it all out for themselves.  An example would be a teacher who asks students to draw random things, and then critiques once or twice yet not really giving any advice. Drawing and painting classes like this are taught entirely with the irresponsible method of "if it feels good go with it."  Unfortunately not everyone can "feel" their way into learning how to capture light, drawing proportionally, the use of color theory, etc.  Sadly it is an overly common scenario where a teacher employs a passive form of teaching which leaves the students frustrated and grasping in the dark. 

With literally thousands of art instruction classes available, how should you choose an art instructor that will teach properly? In regards to choosing an art teacher here are a few pointers on what to look for. I hope this will help guide you in your search for a good art instructor.
Man Painting the Letter A  By: Pop Ink - CSA Images
Man Painting the Letter A 

1. How do you feel about the teachers work?

It's important to like or at least respect what your teacher does. No matter how objective they are, the teacher will only be able to teach you what he or she knows - which will be reflected in the artwork they produce. On the other hand, do not let this be your only basis of judgement of the prospective instructor. Teaching is not the same as creating and some teachers make great art but are sadly lacking as instructors. Some teachers are burnt out and lack the degree of intention necessary to help students through the rough spots. More than the knowledge and talent to merit teaching art, it is more important that they make it a top priority that you learn from their class.

2. Does the syllabus begin with the fundamentals?

A gradual approach is basic to teaching. You start with the most basic fundamentals and continue along the learning path. Too many times a teacher makes the assumption that a student already possesses complete knowledge of the fundamentals, or worse, the instructor is not familiar with them enough or patient enough to teach them.  Sometimes this is just a matter of the teacher having been involved in arts for such a long period of time that the use of the arts fundamentals is automatic, in this case they tend to no longer be aware of them. This type of scenario is a terrible failure on the teacher's behalf - but it does happen.

3. Are you actually improving?

If you are enrolled then you should look at the results you have thus far.  Your teacher should definitely be guiding you on proper technique, teaching you about theory and giving you a solid foundation. Are you learning how to draw when you are in class or are you just drawing? If your work is getting better that is a pretty good indicator that you have found the right instructor.

4. Are you being treated as an individual?

We all have different strengths and weaknesses. The good art instructor will realize this and treat each art student as an individual. A poor teacher treats everyone exactly the same or has a few favorite students. If this is occurring, find a new art instructor.

5. Is the class overcrowded?

Typically you do not want to be in a class with more than ten students to one instructor. Since everyone is different in regards to ability and art awareness there has to be a way for you as a student to receive one-on-one instruction with the instructor. Being in an overcrowded art class run by a mediocre teacher is enough to curb the enthusiasm of any eager art student. Simply demonstrating the basics of drawing and painting as a one-size-fits all approach without interactive discussion obstructs from learning. When this happens, as it tends to do in overly large groups, it promotes a sense that drawing and painting is just too difficult to learn.

6. Are you training with people you like?

It helps to learn in an environment with people who encourage and support one another, admire each other’s efforts, and are genuinely pleased to see other's progress. It is very beneficial to have classmates with whom you can also discuss art with. Companionship within the arts spurs growth in the artist.

7. Are you being made to compete against others?

Some teachers feel that competition is needed among students is necessary to inspire them, and it is not so. Perhaps this scenario is more interesting for the teacher but it does nothing for students in the arts. You should only be competing against your own limitations.  Arts are not clear-cut enough to allow objective judgement in comparisons of execution in expression in this manner.  This is why, for instance, a physical art such as large scale sculpture is not a sport, it is an art.

8. Is the learning environment one in which you feel safe and comfortable?

You must feel safe and secure in your classroom.This is especially true when learning an art form where the stakes are so high and the intimidation factor can be so great. If you feel intimidated in any way when you go to class, it's probably the teachers fault, even if it stems from other students. A competent art instructor is in control of the students and is responsible for how they interact in the classroom. Some instructors intimidate students with an overbearing manner.This often happens when the teacher sets themselves up as a major authority on the subject of art or an unattainable example of artistic talent.

9. Is the criticism in class not helpful?

An overly critical teacher can make you give up. No, this is not just the way art teachers teach, although there are those that almost exclusively use critique as their method. Do not underestimate the significance of a good critique. However, there are great artists that cannot communicate well enough to give constructive criticism. Instead of continually pointing out what is wrong with what you are doing, a good teacher should also give you tasks which will guide you on how to improveIf your instructor just walks around and then gives input, the input should be informative and helpful. Ask yourself if you feel better since you started the class - better about your ability as an artist and your confidence in achieving your goals. If not, change teachers.

10. Are you getting individual help?

Maybe there is a concept or technique you don't quite comprehend or just can't put into application. Does the teacher take the time to help you? Are they also patient with handling your question or problem? Can the instructor get to the root of what you are having a problem with and help you figure it out? If not you are wasting time and money.

A good art teacher should cover fundamental skills one-by-one, ensuring mastery by the students before going to the next, to improve their pupils' skills. If this is not happening something is wrong with the instruction. A good instructor must have the ability to break down required skills into steps simple enough for you to learn successfully. If you aren't improving and enjoying your learning experience in the arts, your instructor is failing on one or more of these points.

The Supreme Art of the Teacher
The Supreme Art of the Teacher 

Review these ten tips to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. If you find that you cannot fix it by speaking with your instructor, you should move on to a new teacher. Art can seem very difficult to a beginner. You may think you cannot do it or feel you do not have enough talent, but a good instructor knows that you can and will show you how. It is one thing to know how to do something, in this case art vs teaching. Being able to teach effectively, is an art in its own right. Not all artists are teachers, just like not all teachers are artists.

What do you feel makes a good art teacher?  What positive experience have you had? Have you had a teacher that failed you? How did you respond?  Please share your experiences and observations by commenting below. Also let me know if there are any important points I missed, thanks.

Key reference source: Larry Gluck, artist and educator 
© Rebecca H Knight, images are © their respective owners. All rights reserved.

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