05/01/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

What Do Art Instructors Actually Teach Artists?

Why people create art is a subject for philosophers and psychologists, but learning how to create art would seem a more cut-and-dried affair. A lot can be attributed to one's teacher. Still...

It is not always clear exactly what a teacher develops in a student, as inspiration is rarely a simple matter of cause and effect. In the past, an artist taught his students specific techniques or "how-to" information, sometimes so they could assist him on his commissioned works (the apprenticeships of the Renaissance era, for instance) or simply to ensure that they would paint or sculpt in the accepted manner. Even if that is not the teacher's intention nowadays, it is often the case that art students will work in that artist's style for at least a small period of time -- art school class exhibits are frequently tributes to their instructors. The reasons for this are not difficult to understand, as the students are in the presence of a working artist, who may refer to heady concepts and whose views about design, composition, color, texture, form and subject matter are more strongly formed than those of his or her students. However, the trend in art classes, programs and schools over the past several decades has been to de-emphasize the technical -- the how-to stuff -- and elevate the conceptual. In effect, the job of today's artists who teach is to inspire students, making them aware of the aesthetic issues to be tackled but encouraging them to tackle these issues in their own way.

Larry Rivers, one of Hans Hoffman's many students, stated that the elder artist "made art glamorous by including in the same sentence with the names Michelangelo, Rubens, Courbet and Matisse the name Rivers... It wasn't that you were a Michelangelo or a Matisse but that you faced somewhat similar problems. What he really did by talking this way was to inspire you to work." Rivers's paintings and those of Hofmann certainly look quite different and are based on different ideas. "He certainly got me to think a lot," Rivers said. "He said a lot of things I had never thought of before, such as 'Not only do you draw the figure on the page, but you create the space in which the figure exists.' Now, I think that's a very romantic concept. How do you create space? You create the figure and the space around it creates itself, but it sounded very good to me at the time."

One would be hard pressed to identify a stylistic relationship between the American regionalist art of Thomas Hart Benton and the mature work of his student Jackson Pollock, or between the work of Balcomb Greene, founder of the American Abstract Artists group, and his students at Carnegie Tech, Philip Pearlstein and Andy Warhol. Both teachers went beyond the call of duty to encourage their students. Benton demonstrably displayed confidence in the abilities of Pollock, acting supportively as both mentor and parent figure to his turbulent, rebellious student; the two were also united by their desire to show that "real men" could be artists.

Greene encouraged his top students to move to New York City, where the most advanced art was being created and exhibited, and he even helped them find an apartment to share.

The influence of Ashcan realist Robert Henri on his student Edward Hopper is not impossible to grasp. In 1935, Hopper himself said, "You must not forget that I was for a time a student of Henri's who encouraged all his students to try to depict the familiar life about them." However, the influence of Henri on Vaclav Vytlacil, one of the members of the American Abstract Artists group, is not easy to identify; and Vytlacil's influence on his student Robert Rauschenberg may be even less evident. Still, the importance of the teacher as conveyer of art wisdom becomes clear if one looks at the line connecting the three artists as representing the most progressive thought in American art during their respective primes for the first six decades of the twentieth century.

Those who currently attempt to teach a specific style often find themselves in battle with iconoclastic students. "Josef Albers was, for me, more a source of aggravation than of inspiration," painter Audrey Flack, who studied with Albers at Yale University in the early 1950s, said. "He was a very rigid man with very rigid ideas. He wanted me, he wanted everyone, to paint squares and, if you didn't, he gave you trouble. I was then an abstract expressionist trying to be a realist. We couldn't even get models to work from. Albers had us all doing squares, in effect, to make clones of himself." However, the experience of studying with Albers wasn't all negative for Flack. Being in the presence of such an artist was compelling in itself since "he recognized talent, and you knew that he knew." To be identified as having talent by Albers was an inspiration in itself, even though the pursuit of that talent often set up a battle zone in the studio.

One of the immeasurable qualities of an inspiring teacher is a good eye, especially when students are shown how to see (and, therefore, how to create) in a new way. Harry Callahan, who founded and headed the photography department at the Rhode Island School of Design, was legendary for his ability to invigorate the work of his students. Emmet Gowin, a Callahan student during the mid-1960s, credits his teacher with helping to shape his own ideas about art and the world around him. Gowin noted that the "transmission of knowledge was actually very indirect. You were learning in the presence of someone else's thinking, seeing how Callahan identified the task and what his attitude to the task was. He had the kinds of standards for photography that were new to me."

Gowin came to Callahan's first class with a painting and graphic design background, but found his confidence shaken within the first hour. Callahan asked his students to show their photographs to each other. He left the room for a period of time and then returned, walking around the class and looking at various students' work. When he saw Gowin's photographs, he remarked, "You're really going to have to learn how to print" before walking on. "I thought these photographs were the best I could do," Gowin recalled, "but his comment indicated to me that I had to go a lot further than I had in understanding my subject. It was hard to know what he actually meant--was he referring to technical or perceptual problems? -- and I think it was wise of him to leave it wide open. His comments were like tarot cards; you wonder if the message was meant for you or for someone else, but you search for applications and generally find them. At other times, he would indicate what the problem was and then say he didn't know how to solve it, leaving me to think about it. I spent a lot of time rethinking and reworking those pictures I had brought in that first day and, a few weeks later, I brought them in to show them, and he told me that they were better."