Monday, 27 March 2017

Ready to learn

A couple of Sundays ago our minister preached his sermon on the subject of my printmaking workshops. No he did, really. Yes I know he said it was about 'discipleship' but it was really about my workshops. I could tell. He talked about the notion of apprenticeship and how we seem to have lost the idea that some things take time to perfect and learn. We expect to be able to get things right first time and get frustrated, even feel like failures, when that doesn't happen.

He mentioned the example of a specialist glass blower who is seeking an apprentice in anticipation of his own retirement in ten years time, because it will take that long to train someone to replace him, and I was reminded of the long apprenticeships served by moku hanga printmakers in Japan. His words made me think of those TV talent show contestants who, when interviewed before their chance-in-a-lifetime audition, tell us that their preparation has consisted of dreaming of this day and visualising success. Rarely do they mention practising, or tuition, or starting at the bottom of the business and putting in hours. Some even confess that their only prior audience has been their bedroom mirror. They have no comprehension that the apparent effortlessness of their favourite performers comes from hours and hours of practice, and when it turns out that 'putting their heart and soul into it' isn't enough, they are crushed.

When did we start losing the concept of learning? Why do people expect to be able to do things immediately? Such unrealistic expectations can bring only disappointment and they are also insulting to those who have developed their skills through application and hard work. TV 'reality' shows (which are anything but reality) must of course must take some responsibility. Within the leisure publishing market, the art books, DVDs and magazines which promise you can 'Learn Portrait Painting in a Day' or 'Master Watercolour in Five Easy Lessons' don't half make it hard for art tutors to manage their students' expectations!

I completely understand the wish to have an exquisite masterpiece to take home at the end of a workshop, but too often it seems that people see a day class as a one off event, during which they will tick another skill off their list, rather than the start of a learning process. A few years ago two women booked onto one of my intermediate watercolour still life workshops having never previously picked up a paintbrush. On arrival they breezily announced they hadn't bothered with the introduction classes because 'it can't be that hard'. Perhaps you can imagine how my heart sank at that point. We soldiered on, and they got lots of careful attention (what a good thing I keep my class sizes so small). Finally as the day wore on, one of the two pointed at one of my own paintings and demanded "I've done everything you told me, so why doesn't mine look like THAT?". Thinking she was joking, I laughed. Then the look of thunder on her face told me she meant it. I stopped laughing and replied "Because I've been doing it for thirty years". She was not happy. Clearly my tuition was at fault and I had withheld vital information. She had been tricked. There could be no other explanation for her failure to replicate the work of an experienced professional artist within five hours of her first encounter with watercolour.

Now that of course was an extreme example and mercifully most students arrive with more realistic ideas. At printmaking workshops it is perfectly normal for people to overestimate what can be achieved in a day or weekend simply because they don't know how long it takes to carve a plate, but some tactful counselling at the beginning of the day usually results in an achievable project being chosen and all ends well. There is no shame in that; there is no harm having ambition and how could you be expected to  know how long it will take if you've never tried? The important thing is getting your head round the idea that a class is the starting block, not the finish line. It doesn't matter if you don't produce an exhibition standard piece on your first day; that is not the goal. What does matter is that by the end of the day you are nearer to being a printmaker than you were when you started.

I hope that the majority of people who come to my classes see them as the start of a long term discovery of a skill which will grow with practice. There will be mistakes and duds because that is how we learn. The torn up print is not a failure; it is a necessary stage in the process. In the words of our minister's sermon, being ready for this journey means being in a place where the question is not 'will I get it right?' but 'am I willing to learn?'.

If you think you are in that place you can find out about my workshops by clicking the tab above or on the link in the sidebar.

You can read some feedback from my students by clicking here

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