How to Be a Student

I’ve been a student of art since 2008 and in that time, I’ve learned that not only to you must learn how to paint, you also must learn how to learn. I’ve learned many of these lessons the hard way especially in the earlier days when learning can be the most challenging to our sensitivities. Others I’ve learned later after many years of teaching myself and letting go of my ego which can come more with maturity and success oddly enough. So, I wanted to share with you some of my top recommendations on how to be a student because if you apply these, I believe you will speed up your growth and progress and eliminate years of frustration.

A photo of a hallway at the art instruction school Scottsdale Artists School in Scottsdale Arizona

1. Ask Questions

I know this sounds self-evident, but if you’re like me you’ve probably found yourself in a class or workshop being afraid to ask questions. When the teacher comes around ask her or him questions. If you’re struggling with an area or are confused about something- speak up. Regardless of all our human advancements we still can’t telepathically communicate. Thank God! So, speak up, ask, look the teacher in the eye, be vulnerable and you’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn.

2. Stop Painting

You heard me right. Stop painting. When you get stumped stop painting, stand back, take a break, walk around the room and check out what others are doing. Often, you’re going to see what you couldn’t see before by just maniacally moving around your brush.

3. Don’t Wait for The Teacher

If you’re stuck or confused in an area of your painting and don’t know what to do next you need to be proactive. Take responsibility for your own learning process. If the teacher isn’t available go to the source of information. When this happens to me, I’ll grab the book that the teacher brought of their work or go to the demo paintings they did seeking solutions. This is so much better because you’re thinking for yourself. Once you find something to try in your painting, go try it. There’s only one way to find out if you’ve found a good solution and that’s by trying it. Don’t wait to be spoon-fed the answers by your teacher. As the old saying goes, “Easy Come. Easy Go.” In other words, the information is going to stick more when you try to figure it out and apply it yourself. Then when the teacher comes around you can explain what your idea was and ask them what they think about what you tried. They can then confirm if you’re on the right track or enlighten you more if you’re not.

4. Pay Attention to The Broken Record

This is a big one. Keep track of the critiques you’re receiving from the teacher from day to day in the workshop. Do they sound like a broken record, telling you the same things again and again? If so, these are BIG issues to solve in your painting. Most likely if you don’t solve those you will not reach a new level of skill. There’s a reason why they are repeating it to you so…. repeatedly. Try to correct these issues IMMEDIATELY! Take bold, immediate action. When I’m in a workshop, I’ll keep track of one or two things I heard the teacher say to me and everyone else in the room so that when I try again on the next painting, I can implement those things.

5. Listen and Watch

Never ever wear headphones in a classroom. You need to listen to what the teacher is saying to everyone. This is key for picking up on the broken record, which are usually the biggest fundamentals needed for good work. When I watch a demo, I try to shut everything else out. I get the best view I can, and I focus my senses on just listening and watching the instructor as much as possible really soaking in all the movements, the mixing of colors, noticing the brush handling. During a demo, I tend to focus more on the watching than the listening and I rarely ask questions during this time. I know that seems contradictory to my #1 recommendation, but something about just soaking in what she/he is doing is far more beneficial than me getting into my logical left brain.

6. Make Big Changes

When I’m working with a teacher, my goal is to find out what I’m missing. I’m not there to prove how good I am, get praise or leave the same way I came in the door. The first couple of paintings are usually the roughest because you haven’t had time yet to implement the new information and learn from your mistakes. When the teacher recommends a change to me, I make it big. This means I don’t try to hold on to what I’ve already done or barely adjust something. If the teacher says I need to use more paint I start globbing it on so that I can find out how far I need to go with that change. If the teacher comes back around and says that it’s too much, then I can inquire more about paint quality and how to know where I need thick paint and where I don’t. I’m not going to learn anything by making teeny tiny adjustments.

7. Start Many and Push Further

My goal in a workshop is to do at least one painting a day in a workshop. I’m not there to make a masterpiece, I’m there to learn. Also, the more you start and repeat the broken record principles from your teacher the more that information is going to stick.

The other objective for me to push beyond my limit. We all know when we get to a certain point in a painting and we don’t quite know what to do next or how to take it further. It’s easy to stop here and just start something new. However, I find this is the best time for me to try and push further because the teacher is there to help me understand anything I don’t. This might be something like: I never know how to paint the eyes, or I don’t know how to handle the separation of the jaw from the neck or I don’t know how to paint the nub on a lemon or a leaf or stem. This is your chance to go for it and get some help. I push further, but I stick to my one a day rule.

A photo of artist Kelli Folsom with students at Scottsdale Artists School in Scottsdale Arizona

Join me at the Scottsdale Artists School in April this year! It is always such a wonderful experience being together with my students. Everyone learns so much while studying with me in person. It takes the painting experience to the next level. Students are able to reach the breakthroughs that they need in their paintings that are keeping them stuck. And the yummy margarita’s at lunch don’t hurt either! Click here for details!

Love in Light, Kelli

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