On Teaching Art > Artist and art industry veteran Terry Stanley has some advice for art instructors who encounter students with a block stopping their progress.

Teaching Art: Unsticking the Stuck Student


When it comes to teaching art, a good instructor wants to make sure students leave her workshop feeling great about themselves and their experience. She wants the students to know from the start that she is not going to let anyone fail. This instructor has prepared an arsenal of tools to unstick the stuck student. Here are a few tips to help you do the same.

Long before stepping into the studio classroom, you will be planning your subject matter and techniques you’ll be teaching the students. As you decide how you’re going to describe each portion of your process, it’s a good idea to remember that everyone learns differently. Some students will understand through the strokes you lay down, some will glean more from the words you say as you do it, some will use the combined visual and aural information. The logical thinker may need you to present your information in an orderly way, perhaps explaining distance measuring in terms of triangulation. The abstract thinker may need you to actually talk about feeling a curve. If you’ve already identified different ways to explain the same concept, you will be a confident, competent instructor, seamlessly leading the students through your process no matter how they absorb the information.

Once in the classroom, make sure you let your students know that you are dedicated to making sure they get the most possible return for their investment in your workshop or class. I frequently remind students that if it’s too easy, they’re not learning anything new. (That one always serves me well when they’re ready to throw their palette at the wall).

Teaching art - Nancy Foureman teaches students at the Western Art Academy.
Teaching Art > Nancy Foureman teaches students at the Western Art Academy.

When you’re teaching art, you need to be your most observant self. By watching the students, you can get clues as to how well you’re doing. If the students seem to be paying rapt attention, busily taking notes and hanging on every word, you’ll gain confidence: All is well.

Terry Stanley hugs a student during the graduation ceremony of the Western Art Academy.
Terry Stanley hugs a student during the graduation ceremony of the Western Art Academy.

Sometimes, however, you can pick up on a student surreptitiously glancing at his fellows, obviously trying to hold back the panic as he realizes he’s the only one who doesn’t get it. If you’re prepared to handle this correctly, you will have a fan for life. If you’ve taken the time to think through more than one way to describe your points, you can segue directly into an alternate explanation without singling out the confused guy. Everybody else will think you’re just an awesome teacher who wants to make sure the concept is understood, and this could solve the issue for the nervous student. If he’s still looking a bit lost, make eye contact, send a reassuring smile, and make a mental note to quietly address the issue on your next at-the-easel instruction pass.

Painting on a student’s canvas is quite controversial in some quarters. My take on the subject is that doing so can be extremely helpful. That said, however, if we have discussed a difficult passage but the student doesn’t grasp the point, I will always ask the student if I may show them on their canvas. If they are reluctant, I utilize the sketchpad I habitually carry in the classroom, and draw out that which we are discussing, then give them the page from the sketchbook.

Another challenge is the student who loves what you do but continues to paint as they usually do, thinking they’re “adapting” your techniques, but in essence and reality, not doing anything differently than they did last week at home. In my experience, this student can be the hardest to reach and patience is required as you lead them from their comfort zone into your world. I have found that actually holding their hand holding the brush and painting on their canvas is the most effective way to get through to them.

Supplying students with a written synopsis of the workshop and the techniques covered is very much appreciated. There is something magical about a folder packed full of class outlines, tips and tricks, copies of articles you’ve written, links to interesting blogs, websites, videos, and books you’ve found to be helpful.

Nurture your students, but challenge them! In my experience, it takes about three months to quantify the worth of a workshop. Some of what they are shown will work its way into their style in that time, and some will be discarded. Only after that process is complete can they truly assess the worth of their participation in the workshop. The best advertisement you can get for your workshops or classes is not in any publication. It’s word of mouth from your past students.

Paintings by Terry Stanley:

Painting house portraits outdoors

Plein air setup for painting outdoors

This article was originally published in 2017

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