“Can I Paint Background Black?” — A Question That Challenge My Patience

#10 (1952) by Mark Rothko
#10 (1952) by Mark Rothko (Photo credit: wordherder)

Quite often, I heard some of my students asking me “Can I do this?’ or “Can I do that?” I repeatedly told them, that in this class, they have 100% freedom to do whatever they want to do with their projects. The question that “bugs” me even more is “Can I paint background black” or “yellow” or “orange”, some of them even asked me with a expression of ridiculousness, implied that there must be something you just CANNOT DO. Of course, my answers would always be: of course you can, if YOU REALLY LIKE IT!

Seemingly these are questions long for freedom, but somehow I saw just the opposite: they are asking for permission, asking for demand. These students really wished me to give them a certain rule to follow so they could be successful with every single projects. I often see this attitude among those whose parents have the highest expectations, those who also have high expectation on their teachers (in this case it’s me). And these students would be  frustrated or discouraged, even stressed if they could not reach their goal in very short period of time.

Since the beginning of my art classes (2009), I was clear with what I could and could not do with my teaching. What I could do is teaching students some basic techniques and giving them opportunities to discover themselves; what I could not do is giving them inspiration, making them “talented”. I told my students that I do not teach “how to paint a tree”, “water”, “mountain”, or any specific subject, rather, I only teach “how to paint”. In other words, I teach basic rules (such as perspective, shading, color principles, etc.), and let students use these basic rules to deal with subjects by themselves. Most of students (especially those self-motivated) could understand this idea quickly, put themselves in “experiment” and have fun with it, but some students couldn’t seem to understand, only feeling lost when there are no certainties to rely on.

Averagely, I found younger students seemed to welcome this teaching method more than older ones. Also same students could change through time. i.e., one girl was very creative when she just came to my studio a few years ago, now she is over 10, she seemed to try very hard to find some rules to follow, and confused when I refused to give her specifics.

Sometime I would feel impatient when facing such kind of questions too often, especially when I saw the mental laziness or complete dependence (on me) in their attitudes. But sometime I would remind myself that they are still too young and could be very confused by all different kinds of influences surround them. So I took a deep breath, be patient again next time.

Freedom is a good thing, is the soul of art, soul of joyful life. Unfortunately, it is not always comfortable. I knew this when I first read Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (and later my life experience seems to prove his point). Now, teaching young kids, I realized, that even at this early ages, freedom is not welcome to everyone.


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