process art

I Just Want to Paint

As an art instructor, I hear this phrase frequently enough that I am devoting a post to it.

What does it mean, exactly? In my experience as an art instructor to adults, when I hear someone tell me they “just want to paint,” it means they want to immerse themselves in, or enjoy a new experience – painting – without worrying too much about the disciplinary aspects of it such as drawing, composition or color theory. This to me is fine since I teach at an art center, not at a degree-granting institution. Most of my students are retired professionals who know exactly what they want out of an art class. After six or more decades of learning, my students are perfectly aware of their learning style and are able to articulate their needs to any instructor, right?

Photo of a small canvas on which liquid acrylic paint in several colors has been poured
Using an additive that breaks surface tension in this acrylic pour.

Wrong. Fast forward a few weeks into the painting class. The same student who told me they “just wanted to paint” on the first evening has had a few weeks to enjoy paint as a medium and has moved beyond the merely sensory. Precisely because they are adult learners, they have set some goals for themselves. They might want to finish 2-3 paintings in a style they like. Some don’t care if they don’t bring home a finished product if they get to use the techniques they are learning. What these students have in common is that by week 3 or 4 they don’t feel they are reaching those goals. Some ask for help but others are visibly frustrated. As I listen I realize most of us have been influenced in some way by movies about visual artists portraying the act of painting as fluid, effortless, energetic and spontaneous.

While nothing could be farther from the truth for the painting beginner, there is a precedent for these expectations in the process art movement, which has been concerned with “the creative journey or process, rather than a deliverable end product.” since before the 1960s. Expressive therapies and the transformative arts have also divorced themselves from art-making as a product-driven endeavor, choosing instead to focus on “personal insight, individual healing, and social change.”

This, however, is not what most of my students tell me in the short form I give them at the beginning of class. More than 80% want “to improve their painting skills” or “paint realistically.” These goals are reachable within the span of an 8 week class but I have to help those students gain the awareness that realism first requires understanding a few basic visual concepts. I try to keep the concepts organized and the environment safe and nurturing. Students who start out “just wanting to paint” might feel ok asking lots of specific questions to improve their understanding. Others might later decide to enroll in a supplementary drawing or color class to expand their learning. And a small minority will decide that the business of painting representationally requires a larger time investment than they can afford at the moment, and that is okay, too.

No matter where our painting takes us, it is still a journey that might begin in the simplest and most basic of ways, and that journey needs to be understood and respected for an adult learner to thrive.