Early this year, Chris Oatley, founder of the Oatley Academy, interviewed animator and fine art painter, Stan Prokopenko for the 107th ArtCast podcast. The podcast, titled How Distractions Help You Become a More Focused Artist delved into topics regarding some of the major potholes artists easily fall into, such as ‘why speed feels like a waste of time’, ‘why being “self-taught” can be a problem' as well as a particular topic that often appears to be the elephant in the room, ‘how to avoid “The Beginner Style”. On the discussion of being ‘self-taught', Stan describes some of the reasons behind art students’ reluctance to attend art schools.
“Some people have a thing about that academic style…People would say, ‘oh, the people from [Watts Atelier] or wherever, it all looks the same’…They all look like it’s the same artist that did this thing, because it looks like reality. There’s no style to it. And so, some people might avoid that and try to be self-taught or some people might not have access…or they just don’t want to be part of a school and they say they’re 'self-taught' and it’s like a good thing…That always kind of bothered me.”
On the surface, it would sound liberating for someone to say they are ‘self-taught’, but Stan and Chris speak from experience about why this mentality can be very troublesome. Chris highlights how artists want to have their art done in a specific way, but when artists don’t practice or learn the proper technique, the defense reaction of ‘I wanted it that way’ is the excuse that usually comes up during critiques. But, are these ‘self-taught’ artists truly pleased with their skill level? Mostly likely they’re not. To play around with the rules of reality, artists must understand how the real world works. In other words, to experiment with things like color, lighting and shapes, artists should observe how they look in the real world, practice and refine their drawing skills before making style their goal. Attempting to stylize without the basics can result in creating something quite untidy. As an example, Chris describes a critique from when he was still attending art school. On of his classmates presented a piece, depicting a character wearing a robe. Although, the drawing technique of the figure was somewhat adequately refined, the folds looked incredibly ‘soupy’ rather than stylized. Caricaturist and illustrator, C.F. Payne, who was the instructor from that class pinpointed the problem with the robe and how it was lacking the realism the student was trying to depict. The student’s reply was very simple: “that’s my style. I wanted it that way”.
So, why is the ‘self-taught’/’that’s my style’ excuse easily brought up? According to Chris, the reason behind this reaction is because “human beings in general lock into this thing where we start telling ourselves a story that feels comfortable enough to help us avoid growth...and avoid change and I think that’s what’s really going on there.” On that note, when it comes to being ‘self-taught’, Chris says “[n]obody’s 100% self-taught. You don’t actually learn in a vacuum, even if you’ve learned from books.” Stan replies in agreement, indicating that artists are “taught by the people that wrote the books. They’re still communicating stuff.” Stan then highlights what people actually mean to say when they say they are 'self-taught'. What they really mean is that they didn’t attend art school or receive formal training. The problem he sees is that these aspiring artists use that term to solely credit themselves for what they learn.
As someone who's main struggles are with form and technique in attempt to stylize and has received similar feedback, I can totally see where Chris and Stan are coming from. It can be hard to admit it at first, but there is a certain arrogance about claiming to be ‘self-taught’ that puts one’s own skills above those who attend art schools or have formal training. Stan reminds listeners “you’re taught by the many masters that have come before us”. That said, everything you learn on your own, you are drawing from knowledge of the past that is being passed down onto other aspiring artists. These established artists, however already understood/understand how to draw from life and then bend the rules of reality to create something visually distinctive. Every renowned artist who is known for having a distinctive style in history started by drawing from life before creating their signature style. In fact, that’s how their style came to be. Even so, an unpolished drawing reaching out for a personal style, does not make the art stand out from the craftsmanship of traditional art. The goal is to avoid creating art that all looks the same, yet the ‘Beginner’s Style’ produces the opposite effect. By practicing traditional art, artists can expand and explore beyond their boundaries.
Understanding basic drawing techniques as well as drawing from life go together before stylizing, not against it. And as far being ‘self-taught’ is concerned, it becomes more of a stumbling block for artists than empowerment. The sense of pride that tells artists to skip ahead and take credit for what they learn gives them even less freedom to pursue the skills they would need to bring their visions to life than taking up formal training. Artists are always growing and developing. As Chris himself always says, we are all lifelong learners. Stan states in his bio that "[a]t the age of 13, [h]e pronounced [him]self as a lifelong student of art" and still sticks to that student mindset to this day. Whether you’re a still life artist who wants to bend the rules of color, a portrait artist who wants to draw caricatures, a cartoonist or a manga artist, it never hurts to explore art schools, consult experts for feedback and attend classes that can be of help to further your growth.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.