Are you self taught or academically trained? Does it matter? Is one better than the other? I know it seems like the answer to the last two questions is obvious, but you'd be surprised to hear some of the discussions I've had with people about this subject. I thought I'd share my thoughts on education and training and share a little opinion about being self taught.
First off let me say that I am both Academically trained and self taught. I have a BFA from the Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD). I have also studied with Richard MacDonald, Andrew Cawrse, Jordu Schell, and I've taken classes at the Watts Atelier. This coming Saturday I will be returning to Jordu's studio for his next workshop. Clearly I don't have a problem with taking classes or learning from others. However, I have had to learn a lot on my own. Experimenting with new materials, developing new techniques, making tools, these are all things I've done on my own. This isn't the interesting part... What's interesting is the few individuals who I've come across who think that somehow, I was less capable because I turned to someone else for learning. This is where the discussion and the debate grows.
There are people out there who wear the title of "Self Taught" as a badge of honor. They feel it somehow raises them above those who have sought out places of learning. But what does it mean to be "self taught". This is where semantics pokes it's ugly head into the conversation. A self taught person (in my opinion) is somebody who has not learned or been trained by another person directly - as would be the case in a classroom, workshop or apprenticeship. A self taught person relies on books, dvd's, the internet, and an occasional query to a friend. I can't imagine a self taught person being strictly "Self Taught" - meaning that they learned everything on their own. That would mean that in order to learn anatomy, they'd be dissecting bodies in their studio or spend months experimenting with mold rubbers and casting materials trying to get the mix right. This approach seems unlikely and foolish since the hard work has already been done and all the information is readily available. So are you self taught if you buy a how to DVD or read a how to book? Is the only difference a live instructor? This is a question only you can answer. The opinions are so varied that there really isn't a set line for when you're self taught or not.
So why pose the question in the first place? Well, I think it can be a dangerous path to walk when people suddenly put too much stock in the term self taught. They resist learning, because they want to continue being able to say they're self taught. The funny thing is that many of the people who I've taken workshops with, claim to be self taught. Richard MacDonald says he learned everything about sculpting on his own. He never took a class or learned from anybody. I think it's Richard pushing the legend of Richard MacDonald. Jordu is another one who proudly wears the title of Self Taught. So why is this funny? Because the people who say they are self taught, and who wear that title proudly, also know the importance of education and offer workshops to help others learn what they've learned. Maybe it's just funny to me.
I continue to take classes because I feel there are people who are better at some things than I am and if they are willing to share that knowledge, then I want to learn. I also take classes because they provide a great opportunity for networking and meeting new people. I admire, respect, and appreciate Jordu, but I don't need to take his class. It's going to be on advanced maquette sculpting. He's going to talk about preliminary sketching, armature building, miniature eyes, teeth and nails, and a few other things. While I would never consider myself to be as good a creature designer as Jordu, I have had training in this and I think I'm an okay creature designer. I've been building armatures for 15 years now and I've gotten quite good at it. I know how to create small eyes, teeth and nails. So why do I sign up for his classes? There are those moments when a single phrase or a simple demonstration opens up your mind to something it was not aware of before. Those little moments make the whole experience worth while. There's also the fact that I'm hanging out at the studio of one of the best creature designers in the industry. I can also get critiques directly from him on my designs. These little things are what make a huge difference over the long run. The people that I've met in workshops have also been some great people and have led to new friendships and even opportunities.
So let's move on from the Self Taught vs Non Self Taught discussion, and let's talk about the importance of education - regardless of how you come by it.
Education, learning, growth... these are all things that are crucial to your success as an artist. Not allowing yourself to get comfortable in one place is important to facilitate your growth. New challenges keep us on our toes and force us to find new answers to a whole new set of questions. This is an amazing time we're living in right now. The availability and ease of finding information on just about any subject is amazing. When I was in college, the internet was in it's infancy. The information was not easy to find and books were still a better and more reliable source of information. But now, the internet has evolved into the ultimate library. The resources available to the young artist are like nothing we've ever seen before. Today, a young teenager can turn to the internet and learn about sculpting. There's information readily available, and the ease of which you can contact other people is amazing. There's no excuse these days for not finding answers.
When we stop learning we stop growing, and as artists, that's when our work also stops being interesting. Growth is so important that we can not ignore it. Picking up books and videos is one way to expand our knowledge. Jumping on the internet and seeking out new artists and information on new materials and techniques is also a great path towards growth. Being an academically trained person, I would also say that it's a great way to learn (if you have the right teacher). There are some great workshops and classes out there. Some community colleges even offer classes on mold making. The technical stuff is always great to learn from someone with more experience. The aesthetic stuff is a bit tougher. We all have a different aesthetic and sometimes, a teacher may be pushing their own aesthetic on you and it won't feel right. While this can be an annoying part of academic training, it can also be a benefit. When you see how other people look at art, you learn a bit more and open your mind to new possibilities. You certainly want to avoid frustration, but don't close yourself off to a new technique or a new way of thinking - it might just end up working for you.
So get out there and learn. Don't be afraid to learn from others. Pick up lots of books (I love anatomy books and nature books). Sign up for a workshop. And if you happen to learn some new stuff, remember to pass it along. We are the torch bearers of our tradition and it's up to us to keep this information alive and growing.
Cheers!! I'm off to do some learning!!