What I'll Tell My New Art Students On the First Day of Class

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Beach, S. Truro, MA, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2006I teach two classes a week at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. It's a large art school ("America's oldest continuously degree-granting College of Fine Art"). PAFA up in Philadelphia is older, but we can claim Abraham Lincoln giving his second inaugural address at MICA, which is pretty cool.

Every summer brings to an end a period of intense painting activity for me, a time when I do a lot and speak little about it to others. It's my annual "monk" period. This is good for it clears my head and allows me to think afresh about what I want to say to my students on the first day of class. 

This Fall I'm teaching Life Drawing and an introductory Painting class. Both are required classes and always have a few over twenty students. I love teaching these offerings because I believe they offer perhaps the greatest potential to genuinely help young artists grow. On the first day you can't descend into all the subtleties and details. Since the students' ears are working overtime on Day 1, tell them what you feel is most important.


Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 36 x 54", 1990
Permanent Collection of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

So here are the things I'm planning to say:

1. Art is a visual experience before it is anything else. Expanding your capacity to see is our goal, so we are going to give you as many opportunities to look as possible. If you look a lot, you start to see. Those are not the same thing.

2. While there are many competing ways of working in today's art world, no one gets anywhere by barking up every tree simultaneously. Many branches of the art world have their own validity, and we are not here to deny them that. But we are going to concentrate on just a few approaches to making art so me can make the most progress in the short time we have together.

3. You have to become an expert not only on your own work, but also the progress of all your classmates. They are here so you can learn from them- how are they solving their problems? What do they routinely do well? What pot holes do they keep falling back into that you should avoid? If you
come to class and share your work, you are shouldering your responsibility of helping your fellow artists.
So you have to come to class.

4. We are going to require you to work standing up at all times. If you are standing you awaken your senses, including your eye. Artists have as much in common with dancers and athletes as we do with poets and philosphers, so we employ the whole body in our work.

5. Put your Home Studio piece up on our critique wall first thing when you enter the classroom in the morning and leave it up until the last possible moment before you leave at the end of the day. It will look different in our classroom studio than it did at home. You want as much time as possible to see what you may have overlooked. Also you want to see your work in the context of your fellow artists' pieces.

When you hang your work up, hang it with a sense of pride. There is no more important piece of art in the world for you than the one you are putting up each morning. Make sure it is level (and if it's a drawing pin it down lovingly flat with pins in at all four corners.

6. You must save all your work, both in class and the work you do outside of class for your Home Studio topics. Even if a piece is not successful (if you are trying to stretch your art wings you will fail some of the time) you have to absorb its lessons for you. A successful artist never "loses" her or his work, and you won't.

7. Entering into a creative frame of mind is difficult at best. The setting where you do make your drawings or paintings is critical to your success.

I like to talk about The Muse, the mythological figure who represents our deepest and most inventive side, and for convenience I call her a "she." The Muse has made it known through the years that she doesn't like to work surrounded by squalor. To get the Muse to come join you as you work you must keep your work space clean. After class you must clear up you work area, throw out your dirty rags, wrappers, recycle cans, etc. Remember, The Muse is watching. She is legendarily fickle. Do not annoy her or she won't help you with your art.

Philip Koch, Monhegan Dawn, Ochre, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2011


  1. I'm reminded of my first painting class with Dan Dudrow (82-83') I had never painted in oils before. I didn't even have oil paint on the first day of painting. Dan was trusting enough to lend me money to buy some. I was taken aback at how far behind the others I seemed to be. Some students might lose confidence because they will undoubtedly compare themselves to others.

  2. Your lucky students benefit from a good teacher's lessons everyday - thanks for sharing this one with your readers - I am copying and printing this one. Publish a lesson book, professor.

  3. Michael, thank you for your kind words. As for doing a book, I'm a painter before anything else and think it best if I target my energies on that.

  4. Phil, I've been thinking a lot about the first day too, but I blinked and now we have just finished our fifth week!

    Good and familiar advice, especially the standing to paint bit.


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