The Self-Taught Artist

Recently I was considering the term “self-taught artist.” Several things about the use of the term arouse my curiosity: why would anyone other than an academic care who taught an artist? Many academics have a thing about where people went to school, but it seems to me hardly anyone else cares—if the art is any good, that is. And the truth is every teacher and mentor has students who succeed and those who do not, so while knowing the teacher might tell us something, it certainly cannot predict the quality of the art a particular person produces.

Another question I have is whether the term is pejorative or complimentary. Is it better to have gone to art school or is it better to have learned on one’s own? Or does it matter? More importantly, why would an artist want to label him/herself anyway?

Evidently some see the label “self-taught” as a matter of pride. Not long ago a former student, now a scenic painter said, “Everything I know, I taught myself.” It was said proudly rather than complaining. It should have been a complaint; this person has attended two different schools and is currently trying to get into a third, curious behavior for someone who is learning only from himself.

And the statement is untrue. And while there is little doubt that much of what this person can do is the result of experimentation, that experimentation is based on a foundation acquired in educational theatre shops. There he learned the basics of color mixing and the fundamentals of basic painting techniques; along the way, he learned more about the materials and how they work.

In that sense, most of us are “self-taught.” We take what we learn from mentors and teachers and make it our own, modifying, adapting, and experimenting once we have the fundamentals in hand. This is, I’m sure, part of why no two artists who train with the same people in the same place develop the same way. There is influence, to be certain, but our skills develop according to our native talent, how much time and effort we are willing to put in, and our personal aesthetics and artistic vision.

The term “self-taught” applies more accurately to those artists who, for whatever reason, have not trained in a formal school situation. It is a short cut for saying “I did not attend a school to learn what I know.” But, my bet would be that most of them have had instruction of some kind. They may have attended workshops and seminars; they may have read extensively; they may have studied the work of others; they may have done some sort of informal apprenticeship or have been in a casual mentored situation. But it is highly likely that some sort of information and perhaps guidance came from outside themselves.

The difference then between a self-taught artist and any other is simply the formality of the situation in which the artist trained. The term (or indication of an arts degree) says nothing about the nature of the art the person is likely to produce, nor does it say anything about the artist’s skill level or sophistication in handling tools, materials, or ideas.

Regardless of how we obtained our basic skills and artistic approach, it is more than likely that we took that as a starting point and went on to improve those skills and build on what we already knew. Artists are not simply the products of their training; they are visionaries who develop over time and whose work usually gets better the more they mature and the further they move from that source of initial education.

Wonder why we even have the label?


Date: Monday, 15. December 2014 0:05
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Originality

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  1. 1

    Great discussion. I also consider myself “self taught”—primarily. And as you said, being “self-taught” or not really represents the formality of the instruction received. To a large degree, my “talent” is inherited. But, as a youngster, I loved reading art books, both display publications and instruction books (Walter Foster, anyone?). I took one drawing class in college, but “art” wasn’t my major, so it was a sideline until I started to work, and as it turned out, a great many jobs I later went through, were largely based on my art skills. I now have an extensive collection of hard-back art books, both instructive and biographical/historical about specific individual artists.
    And you are correct: the “label” is irrelevant!

  2. 2

    Galleries and the people who write articles about artists seem to think it’s important that the artist has had formal schooling.Successful artists themselves who have had traditional schooling often look down on the self taught. Self taught artist may feel they need to reveal that they are self taught because people who judge their worth are concerned with these credentials.

  3. 3

    And yet those same gallerists and writers love to extol the qualities of those self-taught artists they “discover.” (Think Basquiat–and others.)

  4. 4

    I describe myself to those who ask as “self-directed”, clarifying that while I have not had a formal linear training, I learned through books, videos, and workshops. I believe the formally-trained artist “gets there” faster than the self-directed artist who manages to pull together bits and pieces, leaving gaps to struggle with along the way until we “luck-into” the info we need. And that’s only if we have enough money to invest in every book, video, and workshop that comes along (after the late 70’s; prior to that you were REALLY on your own). Not saying the formally-trained artist doesn’t struggle, they just seem to do it on a more advanced level earlier in their journey. At least that’s been my experience and personal observation. I personally think I could have been much further along at my age if I had had a linear education off of which to struggle.

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