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Julie Sharpe

When Your Art Teacher Sucks and What to Do About it

Julie Sharpe
2017 Intern

In middle school, I began taking drawing lessons from a well-known local artist. My family and I had seen her artwork in local art galleries, and most of it consisted of photo-realistic portraits in graphite or colored pencil. This artist taught me how to replicate her style of drawing by tracing photographs from magazines and blending out all pencil marks with a tissue. I was only encouraged to draw with two mediums: graphite and colored pencil.

At first, I enjoyed her drawing lessons, and I loved impressing my friends by drawing our favorite celebrities such as Beyoncé and Daniel Radcliffe. However, after several months of copying photos, I became bored. One time, I intentionally dropped my case of colored pencils to avoid having to draw in her class. I soon stopped taking lessons from her, but I noticed that I still had major gaps in my drawing technique.

For example, I didn’t know how to make confident marks with pens or pencils because I had relied on blending my drawings to death. I didn’t know how to do gesture drawing or draw from life. For the next few years, my sketchbooks were filled with hundreds of celebrity portraits and fan art from Harry Potter, something I partially attribute to her class, but also my obsessive middle school mind.  

The next art teacher I had was during eighth grade. Her class was mostly centered around developing foundation skills such as observational drawing and color theory. Although she was open to experimentation, she was extremely forgetful, and her projects were not very ambitious. (although to be fair, she did have to teach six full classes of kids every day, which sounds like HELL)

She was kind to us in class and never yelled, but our projects were repetitive and easy, and many kids would play on their phones throughout the entire class period. She never disciplined these students, so the majority of students had no respect for her. However, I was able to work on my observational drawing skills that year. I eventually stopped drawing celebrities altogether and started drawing from life in my sketchbook. I mostly drew my classmates, the environments I was in, or small studies of hands and feet.

The summer before I started high school, I attended a three week long summer program for visual arts. For the first time in my life, I was encouraged to make art about subjects that mattered to me, and I was allowed to use any media I wanted. Acrylic paint, kraft paper, and charcoal all seemed revolutionary to me at the time. During the program, I took an illustration course and realized that I had a passion for political satire and comics. I returned to school knowing that I had to pursue art as a career. Before this program, I had always loved doing art, but over the summer I realized that being an artist was actually a real career option.

During my freshman year of high school, I had the same teacher from eighth grade, and her class was mostly a repeat of what she had taught me previously. Before her class, I had researched art schools, art competitions, and scholarships that I could apply to. When I told her about this, she was supportive, but soon forgot about it. I had to constantly remind her about deadlines and send her messages about new art competitions, only to have her say, “That’s great!”, and then move on to something else.

I watched my friends in STEM classes be encouraged to enter regional competitions. The debate team and business clubs went to national tournaments and events. By contrast, my art teacher neglected to tell us about any art events (not that there were that many to begin with) and forgot about the ones I informed her about.

If you’ve had similar experience with your art teachers, here are some tips for how to cope:

1. Sign up for figure drawing classes!

Try to choose classes that allow for experimentation with different art media. A local community college, or even an adult continuing education class would be a good place to look at. In my experience, there are very few art classes available for teens, so seeking out adult Continuing Education courses allows for many more options. If you find that the figure drawing teacher is too rigid, try finding another class.

You can also draw people from life in your sketchbook in your free time on a regular basis. Even casual situations are a great place to draw! I’ve actually taken my sketchbook into the ocean and tried to draw – I wouldn’t recommend this because the water smeared my pages! Other weird places I’ve drawn from life are in doctor’s waiting rooms, orchestra concerts, and presidential debates. I’ve found that sketching in a variety of locations keeps me from getting bored, as there’s always new subject matter for me to capture in my sketchbook.

2. Keep a very active sketchbook process.

Experiment as much as you can in your sketchbook! In addition to drawing from life, try to push yourself with the type of art media that you’re using. For example, try collecting receipts, scraps of plastic, etc. to create a collage, even just different types of paint like ink wash, gouache, or acrylic.

Try out art media that you have no experience with, things that make you uncomfortable. Feeling like you have no idea what you are doing is important in growing as an artist – it seems counter intuitive, but once you learn to be uncomfortable, you’ll be more inclined to try new things.

3. Attend a summer pre-college program if you can afford it.  

These programs are expensive, but many programs offer scholarships. I attended a summer pre-college program for visual arts and was blown away by the quality of the art teachers. For the first time in my life, I was encouraged to explore new mediums and ways of thinking, and I was surrounded by a group of talented and enthusiastic peers. Check out Art Prof’s listings of summer pre-college programs here.

4. Attend National Portfolio Day.

National Portfolio Day is one of the most important resources available to high school artists. Dozens of art schools agree to meet in one place and review your portfolio for free. I went last year as a junior and received great feedback on my portfolio and advice on what to make before senior year.

Check out Art Prof’s free Art School Portfolio course, which has tons of resources for how to prepare a portfolio for art school admission.

5. Hang out here on Art Prof!!

Art Prof is seriously awesome – it’s basically my dream come true visual arts resource. There are so many different pages to explore, and the Art Prof staff also responds to questions quickly. Unlike other educational sites, Art Prof maintains a personal connection with everyone on the site, and every staff member is dedicated to helping out viewers as much as possible.

If you’d like to become more active in the Art Prof community, consider participating in a Draw Along, doing a course, or creating a response to the monthly Art Dares.Check out the Art Prof list of art competitions for high school students too!

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2 responses on "When Your Art Teacher Sucks"

  1. OOF, I feel this!!! It’s so frustrating to be a student with all the desire, eagerness, and determination to learn whose teacher doesn’t give back the same enthusiasm. Where I grew up, the arts were SOOOO loosely cared about in comparison to the maths/sciences/etc. Fortunately, I had some wonderful art teachers that definitely listened to me when I told them about my future goal. However I definitely found that I needed an after school program and my own set of goals to constantly be learning and accomplishing portfolio pieces.

    You make some wonderful suggestions on how to beat this art teacher slump! In most cases (clearly not with your forgetful teacher, though) it helps to be super clear to your teacher about your aspirations and what you want out of the class. Sometimes, the art class is the “easy” class for most students. For a once lively teacher, years of teaching students who didn’t care about the class can take a serious toll on their enthusiasm. However, in most cases, I can guarantee that having a student reach out to them and bring that eagerness to learn back into their classroom will reignite that spark! If not…. ask them who they can connect you with. Previous alumni who are working artists, former college friends who are doing cool things, a gallery owner, whatever!! If they’re not willing to help you, have them connect you with someone who is!

  2. Reading this gave me a number of flashbacks! I know what it feels like to have teachers who aren’t much of a help or who have sometimes given terrible advice for how to help me grow personally as an artist in the particular field that I was interested in. In situations like this where art teachers give little to no guidance, sometimes we just have to be a little creative as to how we approach art, and particularly the skill building portion of it. Anything worth having comes with sacrifice and it almost never comes easily.

    A personal story – when I was in high school I was challenged to draw 1000 heads, 1000 hands, 500 arms, 500 legs, and 500 feet (no those aren’t typos, those are the real numbers lol). It took me a few years to finish but I did it. And by the time I was done, I was able to draw better than pretty much anyone in my school. And these weren’t finely done charcoal drawings that were six feet high, they were 2-3 inches in my sketchbook and I spent no more than 10 minutes on each. I found that simply just grinding really pushed me forward a lot, and each time I spent a focused amount of time/effort on something like this, it always yielded positive results.

    I realize that not everyone has time for a whole 3500 drawings, but in unique situations like not having a valuable art education experience, sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands (no pun intended). Portfolio reviews are great, critiques from friends are also great and very helpful. But what’s really exciting as an artist is learning to self correct. When we so train our eyes to spot mistakes in our own art – then this will propel us forward like almost nothing else will.

    and Artprof….keep coming to Artprof 🙂

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