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FAQ: Teaching Studio Art

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What is your take on teaching a drawing course at the college level?

Is quantity or quality more important? Or what would be a good balance. I am new to teaching at the university level and can’t quite figure out the balance. Not sure where the line should be between process and product.

Jordan McCracken-Foster, Concept Artist & Illustrator

Jordan McCracken-Foster
Concept Artist & Illustrator

In my experience, I’ve been in classes throughout college that have been primarily concerned with quality, which would force my classmates and I to render for hours on end. The final product was often times really great, but what I’ve found is that it only taught me to render, not actually how to draw well.

I’ll try to explain it this way: if I spend 10 hours rendering a single portrait, by the end, it will probably look great, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve grown in my artistic ability for how to draw a head/portrait. Meanwhile, someone who does multiple quick studies will not have something that looks as finished as a fully rendered piece, but they will probably understand how the head operates, and its structure from all different angles.

However, quantity doesn’t always yield the best results if you rush through a drawing and don’t learn anything. It’s really all a give and take and it depends on what you’re teaching. If you’re teaching a figure drawing class then I would say quantity is more important so the student can actually learn how to draw the figure from multiple angles and poses. However, something like artistic anatomy, where you’re really focusing on the minutiae of the figure with all of its muscles and bones might be better suited for a more quality image.

To be perfectly honest, both quantity and quality are needed to become a successful artist. But I’ve found that spending more time in the quantity section will make my drawings have a higher quality when it’s time for me to make a really detailed drawing.

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Casey Roonan, Comics Artist & Cartoonist

Casey Roonan
Cartoonist & Comics Artist

I think it depends largely on the experience level of the students. If you were teaching high school kids, who may need the work for an art school portfolio, I might advise you otherwise, but since these are university students I would personally suggest more of a focus on process.

It’s great to reach the end of the semester and have a few high quality, finished pieces to show for it, but that is certainly not the sole factor in what makes a worthwhile art course. When I look back on my time at art school, the class that had arguably the biggest impact on me was one hundred percent process-based — the experience did not produce a single portfolio piece, but it changed the way I work for the better and gave me invaluable drawing tools.

On the other hand, taking Prof Lieu’s Drawing class during my foundation year also had a major influence on me, in large part because the ambitious homework assignments forced me to execute at a high level every week. Even then, however, the repetition of that execution was most important — as it enabled me to build a work ethic and the consistency of regularly following through on my ideas. After all, a lot of new art students don’t know what a totally finished drawing even looks like! It’s easy to take that understanding for granted, but if you’ve never had the experience of making a drawing at that high level, it’s very difficult to identify that achievement on your own.

Practice is such a key part of producing quality work, anyway, that the two really are very interconnected. If you don’t have that rigorous training in place, a single drawing will never be truly excellent, no matter how much time you pour into shaping and refining it. In other words, product is important but, if you teach it correctly — making it clear how the methodology can be applied in every step towards a finished product — high quality work should come as a natural extension of process.

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Do you provide lesson plans or workshops for art teachers? 

I teach high school 3D art and I love your sculpture projects like the 3D staircase and the chipboard personality sculptures. I don’t know of any resources for teaching high school sculpture and I struggle to develop new ideas for my classes. Do you provide any resources for teachers like lesson plans or workshops? I would love to incorporate more non-representational projects into my curriculum.

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

Right now we are building up our Project Ideas section, where eventually we would like to have tons of comprehensive lesson plans for a wide range of media. At this time we have two lesson plans, accompanied by comprehensive videos:  Chipboard Sculptures, and Linoleum Block Printmaking. Unfortunately, at this time we just don’t have the funding to have a substantial staff, which is what we need to keep adding new content here.

I would recommend that you visit my Pinterest page, where you’ll find images of student projects from the past decade. Even though there aren’t written out lesson plans on my Pinterest page, you can usually get a sense of the project by looking at the range of projects.

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Will an MAT degree qualify me to teach studio art at the college level?

I attended the Maryland Institute College of Art for the first year of my undergrad. Unfortunately, I was unable to continue there, due to financial hardship, and ended up graduating from my local state university with a BA in Studio Art: Drawing.

I took a year off to save money and prepare my portfolio, and applied to both RISD and MICA’s MAT programs for Fall 2017. I was admitted to bothand initially thought that receiving my MAT and starting out in a high school teaching environment would allow for a few years of experience before possibly later pursuing a teaching position at the college level.

I’m beginning to realize more and more that I feel most passionate about maintaining a balance between teaching at an advanced level and developing a professional studio practice, which seems to make college level teaching the best fit. This leads me to believe that I’ve had the wrong plan all along and should truly be pursuing an MFA (especially after reading some of your insightful columns about the bias present in the competitive college teaching climate).

Is there any opportunity to utilize an MAT degree at the college level? Or am I better off waiting/preparing another year in pursuit of an MFA program? If it is more appropriately the latter, could you recommend any prestigious MFA programs that offer drawing as a concentration? Thank you so much for your time and I truly appreciate your input.

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

Unfortunately, an MAT will not qualify you to teach studio art at the college level. Today, pretty much across the board, all colleges are requiring candidates to have an MFA degree. I think if you are totally committed to teaching at the college level, your best bet is to do whatever is necessary to enroll at an MFA program.

The only MFA program I know of that offers a concentration in drawing is the New York Academy of Art, and their curriculum is extremely specific and geared towards students who want to work with the human figure as their primary subject in a representational style. I’m not sure what your drawings are like, that school would only be a good fit if you want to pursue representational figure drawing. It’s possible there are other programs out there that offer drawing, but I’m not aware of them.

Most MFA programs offer concentrations in painting, printmaking, sculpture, new media. I don’t know if you have any experience in printmaking, but that might be a good concentration for you since it’s so closely related to drawing. Keep in mind that your major in an MFA program does not necessarily need to be exactly what you end up doing.

I applied for MFA programs thinking I was going to be a painter; I ended up doing my MFA in sculpture, and now I primarily work in printmaking and drawing! So I think no matter what you choose as a major, there is a way for every experience to be fruitful and applicable to your future work.

Keep in mind that MFA programs are terribly competitive, simply because thousands of people apply every year for very few spots. For many people it can take them several rounds of applying before they’re accepted into the school they want to go to, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get in right away. Hope this helps!

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When teaching studio art at the college level, how do you navigate department politics?

“I’m currently preparing to apply for MFA programs and working hard on making a strong portfolio. My long term goal is to become a ceramics professor at a university. Reading your blog post it sounds like it’s a challenging path!

You said in your article ‘how you navigate the politics of your department is critical’, which sparked my curiosity. What do people who successfully navigate department politics do?”

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

When teaching at the college level, there will inevitably be politics in the department you are in. Certainly, it’s a case-by-case situation: I have seen extreme cases as well as everything in between.

I’ve been in departments where colleagues are very friendly and supportive.  They go out to dinner together, they attend each other’s exhibition openings, they are quick to lend a hand and offer advice on all aspects of teaching. I’ve also been in departments where people are cold, competitive, and at times, downright nasty, confrontational, and petty. It all depends on the specific personalities and dynamics of the department!

There’s no formula for how to navigate politics in the department.  A strategy that might work well in one department could easily be useless in another.  Every single department out there is unique and completely different and impossible to predict until you’re actually in it.

In general though, I would say there are usually people in a department who have a lot of influence on your status who you don’t want to piss off. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, but you do need to stay on relatively good/neutral terms so that nothing goes wrong! Being polite, saying ‘thank you,’ being prompt and reliable goes a really long way.

For example, you are adjunct faculty, whether you get hired back or not is dependent upon whether you have a good relationship with the department head, so (although that can happen even when you are trying hard not to!) without a doubt, maintain a good relationship with the department head.

On the flip side, it’s also important to identify who in the department could be a potential mentor. Inevitably, you will encounter all kinds of challenges teaching at the college level, and you’ll need at least one person in your department who you can get help from. When I first started at RISD, I had one person generously reach out to me right away as a source for help, and that was huge in terms of me getting settled into the position.

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What can I do in my MFA application to increase my chances of landing a college teaching position?

As an Adjunct Professor at RISD, what have you found has worked for you to make headway to tenure? What has held you back?

Is there anything I can do in my MFA application process that would pave my way to success in becoming a professor of art? For example, I know that I should wait until I get into the best possible ceramics program. Is there anything else I should do from the start?”

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

In terms of working towards tenure, the most critical part of a professor’s dossier when they are up for tenure is their professional activity:  exhibitions, grants, residencies, collections, awards. The more prestigious the exhibition venue, the more renowned the grant is, the higher your chances are for achieving tenure.

At RISD, I am an Adjunct Professor, so being part-time, I am not on the tenure track and therefore not eligible for tenure.  However, I can say that I know one aspect of my professional status that has held me back from getting a full-time teaching position is definitely where I attended graduate school.  I went to a graduate school that was small and not very well known, and many of the top schools are looking to hire candidates from the top MFA programs, such as Columbia and Yale. If you skim the MFA degrees of the faculty teaching at the top schools, it’s not a coincidence that most of them went to the top MFA programs.

When you are working on your MFA application, there isn’t anything specific that you can do on your application to increase your chances of becoming a studio art professor.  At that point, the most important thing to achieve is admission to an MFA program that is a good fit for your needs.  When it comes time for you to apply for a college level teaching position, no one is going to look at your MFA application.  They’re going to look at where you got your MFA degree.

Getting hired as a full-time professor of studio art at the college level is becoming increasingly impossible to do.  It’s not a matter of who is qualified or not, it’s simply a matter of numbers.

The fact of the matter is that every year, thousands of artists receive MFA degrees, while there may only be a handful of full-time positions available. I’ve seen full-time positions that attracted over 400 applications, when you have to narrow that down to ONE person getting the job, you can imagine how insanely tough it is to land the job.

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Would colleges hire someone with an MFA in Illustration to teach studio courses in fine arts?

“I have a BA in Studio Art and have been a fine artist for 15 years. I am considering whether to get my MFA in Painting or in Children’s Book Illustration.

I work in traditional media, but I would dearly love to illustrate picture books. The skills I want are in Illustration, but I also want to be able to get teaching jobs! Do you think universities would consider hiring someone with an illustration masters to teach fine art classes?”

-Sarah Pogue

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

If you are really determined to teach studio courses in fine arts at the college level, I would recommend that you pursue your MFA in Painting.

Illustrating children’s books is a field that does not require any degree.  (by contrast, college teaching does)A publisher or agent won’t care if you have an MFA degree in Illustration, they just want to know that you have the illustration work that fits what they are looking for.

On top of that, there are very few MFA programs in Illustration, so you won’t have much to choose from in terms of programs.  Most programs in Illustration tend to be in BFA programs. If you really desire to have the formal training in illustration, you may actually be better off taking a single illustration course instead of enrolling in a full-time MFA program in Illustration.

Keep in mind that are so many resources for learning to illustrate children’s books that you can do without being in an MFA program. For example, there are tons of annual conferences through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as well as local chapters that offer all kinds of other opportunities. Many aspiring children’s book illustrators I know develop their children’s books on the side on top of their regular job.

Fine arts departments at the college level definitely require an MFA in a fine arts field. I don’t want to say that it’s impossible to be hired by a fine arts department with an MFA in Illustration, however, I do think it’s extremely unlikely. In all the years I’ve taught at the college level, I have never met someone teaching in a fine arts department who has an MFA in Illustration.

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4 responses on "FAQ: Teaching Studio Art"

  1. I’m teaching high school Visual Arts & as part of their exhibition, they are required to write ‘exhibition texts’ for each artwork & a ‘curatorial rationale’ for their individual display of 8 pieces. My question is this: There is so much meaningless jargon out there that passes of as rationale in the art world, can you make some helpful comments what constitutes pretentious twaddle & what is closer to helpful insight into the artists’ intentions…? Since I’m working with ESL students, I don’t want them to get the wrong idea about what is expected when it comes to talking about art.

    • Hi! I think what I would do is provide a list of questions they can use to stimulate their thought process. I don’t know what type of school you teach at, but in my experience, the average high school student generally hasn’t been exposed to the art jargon that is usually associated with the art world. I think if you tell them to use THEIR words and to speak honestly about their process, they will be fine! Perhaps you can write a few examples for them to reference as well. Good luck! -Prof Lieu

  2. Hi,
    I will be a new high school art teacher. Do you have links to beginning of the year recommendations – lessons, classroom management/set up?

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