On Being “Self-Taught”

In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily mean taking shortcuts vs. a more “formal” art education.

In Baltimore, Maryland, there’s this really incredible museum called the American Visionary Art Museum which ONLY features “self-taught” artists who’ve had no formal training. (It’s a fantastic museum, and you should definitely visit if you’re ever in the area.) While I claim to be “self-taught,” I don’t quite meet the criteria that they’ve set forth for their collections — but I would still argue that, for the most part, that’s what I am.

What does it mean to be “self taught”?

Being “self-taught” means different things to different people, especially with regard to art. For some, it means no classes, lessons, or guidance, just sitting down with your materials and seeing what comes out. There are people out there who can do this and do it well (part of what makes the AVAM’s exhibits so compelling) but I’m not one of them. I like to have references. I like to see how other people do it. I like to try replicating a piece on my own to figure out techniques that other artists used.

While I don’t have an art degree (or certificate, or etc.), I did get some “formal” art training throughout my (10+) years in college, including:

  • Drawing I
  • Watercolor I
  • Intro to Black and White Photography
  • Intro to Graphic Design
  • Book-making (as in, designing and constructing books by hand)
  • Scene Painting I

I enjoyed the classes to varying degrees, but I didn’t like any of them enough to continue on to the “intermediate” levels. I wonder now, years later, why that was. Part of it is just my nature — I tend to prefer learning a little about everything instead of devoting myself to the deep study of one subject. (I will forever argue — as would many others whose opinions I respect — that learning other mediums reinforces or reveals knowledge in your “main” medium.) Part of it was the fact that the curriculum (especially in the drawing and painting classes) required everyone to do the same (sometimes dull) subject matter. I don’t WANT to draw a picture of a cow skull, thanks very much. I don’t WANT to paint a portrait of myself (even if it did make a good gift for my mom…).

These classes were all invaluable in laying a foundation for my own self-guided experience since then, though. As my photography teacher said (to paraphrase), you need to learn the rules in order to effectively break them. To put it another way, without those foundation classes, you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve also heard that self-teaching (vs. learning in a structured environment) takes something like twice as long to master a complex skill. (Is it true? I don’t know. I’m not sure how they would even quantify that, now that I think about it.)

Does that mean you have to take a formal class (or workshop) in an artistic medium if you ever hope to be proficient at it? I don’t know. I DO know that with the resources available online (I’ve learned SO MUCH just from watching Instagram time-lapse process videos) and in how-to books (another reason my public library is one of my favorite places), it’s easier than ever to learn whatever technique I’m interested in (and to discover others that I never thought of). I’ve spent hours and hours studying and practicing these techniques, and being inspired by the artists that I choose to watch and follow. I also know that I’ve drawn on what I’ve learned in my intro classes pretty heavily — at least whatever I can remember from them, 10 years after the fact.

So when I say that I’m “self-taught,” what I really mean is, I don’t have a fine arts degree. I took classes in the basics then learned on my own from there. I’ve thought about taking a watercolor workshop or class again, but it’s hard to meet the idea with any enthusiasm, at least right now. I like being able to learn what I want to and skipping the rest. I also like painting what I want to, at my own pace.

What does being self-taught mean to you? What do you think the advantages are to being “self-taught” vs. having a “formal” education? There are definitely pros and cons to each; what ones do you see?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s