Two pedagogical paradigms of online, self-directed creative learning
Various circumstances have led me, as various other circumstances have led many others, to pursue creative proficiency in an autodidact fashion. Helped by the Internet both by its own user-generated content and the Web's efficient availability of other source material such as books that merely years ago their physical acquisition would've implied a considerable monetary sum, it suddenly became very easy to amass a large amount of both resources and pathways and acquire the means to start learning.
The most straightforward example (but by no means the only one, as I feel that most of the things said below can apply in some way or the other to a wide range of creative endeavours), the one most people reading this will associate themselves with, and the one I've been incidentally exploring the most as well, is that of creative illustration—that is to say, how to draw: resources for this are perpetually abundant, with the larger torrents for “art books” weighing in at several terabytes each and endless communities, both centralized within larger sites (such as deviantArt) and confined to tight-knit enclaves (such as Discord servers), attempt to offer advice and guidance of all sorts. The sudden maelstrom of information becomes daunting and the apprentice rests easy knowing that, even if a particular subject is not readily available, the information most likely still remains at easy reach. However, the realization soon follows that with such amount of information at one's fingertips, the aspiring artist remains completely in the blind about how to start; the materials on how to draw are there, but the first question to be answered remains much more fundamental: how to learn.
Please note that using creative illustration, i.e. “drawing”, as a larger example for the rest of this text is not only a consequence of its versatility, but also the result of its strong association to art in online discussion: “artist” has basically become a synonym of “illustrator”, and terms like “learning how to do art” or “learning how to be an artist” is essentially shorthand for “how to learn the basics of creative illustration”; this is a very explicitly narrow interpretation of “artist”, as it omits pretty much every other artistic endeavour under the sun. This peculiarity appears to be almost strictly confined to the English language, which unfortunately has long ago settled itself as the lingua franca of the Web, and thus propagates this ambiguity of terms in other languages, permeating communities all over. I continue to use “drawing” on and off (probably alternating it to the point of total confusion, sadly) for the sake of exemplification and to not overly clash with the colloquial definitions, but all of this can virtually fit seamlessly in other facets of art: from crafts adjacent to drawing such as painting, to activities such as musicmaking, sculpture, embroidery, singing, woodworking, writing, and so on.
When the Internet and Internet communities are your first and sometimes only source of information, because of the different timeframe that the Web operates in, the most readily available voices of authority are, more often than not, people from online communities around your age or younger; they have settled a level of mastery in their own fashion, probably within the past decade, and have their own preconceived notion of artistic pedagogy. *Thus, the most-readily available sources of information from “living masters” (that is to say, barring books from authors long deceased or so entrenched in the higher echelons of the industry that direct conversations with them are impossible) usually present themselves in two ways:
- An indirect display of mastery by these “new artists”, often displayed through tutorials, videos, sketches or modern books.
- A more direct form of communication, ideally two-sided, between the apprentice and individuals proficient in art: these can be people from forums, chatrooms, social media accounts, and even your artist-oriented online friends.
The caveat which both present is that, most likely, these artists in question are usually not good teachers. More often than not, when asked, they're never entirely sure how they achieved their own proficiency; aside from those that had a very formalized sort of artistic training, most have started at too young an age to remember the steps taken or did not give conscientious thought about the creative process. This is not a bad thing in the slightest however, it's simply, as it shall be explained below, part of the idiosyncrasy of their own process; if there is indeed such a thing as structural milestones of drawing proficiency, they did not think of them as they reached it. Nothing about art itself demands that good artists must also be good teachers.
From observations of these sources on info and talking to a rather considerable number of people about it (including those artists that are usually not “readily available”, so to speak, either because they don't wish to deal with the social aspect of their hobby or they're too busy in their professional applications of it), the aspiring learner catches wind that autodidacts have, in one way or the other and with an astonishingly varied degree of awareness about it, subscribed to one of two very distinct notions in how to approach the first steps in learning an artistic craft. While I'm still unable to pretend for an acceptable length of time that I'm half-decent at what I do (or that I even know what I'm talking about!), the result of me investing a considerable amount of time amassing and consuming pedagogical resources to learn a variety of artistic voyages has led me to notice and point out —at least for myself, for the sake of ultimately sorting out my own thoughts in a rather desperate bid for self-improvement— that, online, people have been usually following one or two fundamental approaches applied to their own learning process.
The first one is what I find to be the most common and yet one of the hardest to grasp for (an admitted minority of) people: it consists of an *intuitive* approach to drawing, and a subsequent intuitive approach on learning how to draw. This is often found in people with an inclination to drawing from an early age and had the means to pursue it; after all, it is no surprise that the neuroplasticity of children yield to a much higher level of intuition and unconscious conceptualization of perception and execution. It consists of an internalization of the fundamental building blocks of drawing through repeated execution, and tangible progress in skill can be fully appreciated over time. The road to improvement and solidification of the artistic skillset is centred around the constant creation of finished products, and implies an unconscious internalization of the observed subject and the training of the so-called “mind's eye”.
The second approach is a much more methodical one, consisting on a conscious, careful study of these fundamental elements. This is a more common approach on older people, as it's a path voluntarily chosen most often in late teenagers and older adults with no previous experience in artistic production—after all, if an unconscious, intuitive approach to art has not manifested itself in an individual, a conscious decision must take place for it to happen. Progress and experience doesn't come from “grinding” finished pieces, but rather every step of the way needs to be consciously and voluntarily examined, understood and internalized before moving onwards.
This distinction at first glance may feel obvious, and even their descriptions feel biased to timeless notions about nature versus nurture (which, even if tangential to the topic at hand, may . However, the presence of both in Online discourse yields to a certain number of conclusions and deductions down the line that not only produce problematic advice, but also underline the need of careful consideration by the aspiring artist to weigh in every morsel of help carefully before following through with it.
With regards to the intuitive approach, it would appear to be more common in more colloquial artistic circles: many younger, successful artists claim to be interested and fascinated by drawing from an early age to the point that they declare it to be their passion. Spectators of their art and artistic process usually claim these people are “artistically driven” or similar words. These illustrators don't think too much about the step-by-step of artistic process and perform in another state of mind, one that is non-verbal and almost subliminal. Betty Edwards (of “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” fame) says that, when sufficiently engrossed in drawing, people would switch onto a different, “creative” mode of thinking and cognition which made teaching verbally a difficult task; she ascribes it to a crossing over from the “logical left side of the brain” to the “intuitive right side of the brain”, a notion of neurology which transcends the scope of this text as well (even if it's, ultimately, strongly related to it). Edwards describes cases of art teachers who are unable to express with words the actions they make upon the canvas, verbal explanations of techniques trailing off almost immediately into a trance-like silence, as if the brain was unable to keep up with this non-verbal interpretation of the world and a verbal explanation of actions performed under the enthrallment of this deafmute side of consciousness. The “intuitive approach” is in the end the result of a parallel way of processing information (non-verbal, visual, intuitive, atemporal, always on the lookout for a complex and comprehensive “whole”), with which these artists are more attuned with. They did not put a lot of conscientious thought to the fundamental building blocks of their craft *simply because they didn't need to*, nor they had to think too much about reaching the structural milestones of their artistic journey.
Yet, how does this translate in the intuitive approach's advice on how to start drawing?
Their advice, for them, is glaringly obvious: ultimately, it consists of repetition of finished productions until all the fundamental aspects of it are correctly internalized, unconsciously and automatically, by the apprentice. In less convoluted words, “just gotta keep doing it until it clicks” is the gist of it, and it's a conclusion often mentioned, more or less verbatim, by these young masters. The reasoning is straightforward and plausible: if you grind enough, you will simply get progressively better at it just like any other craft. This advice, in its elegant simplicity, is probably one of the most common—but remains one of the hardest to grasp for some (minority of) individuals. This is not to say it's *bad advice*, or advice that doesn't work. Prima facie, it's a suggestion that makes sense and it even seems to work for those willing to put in the effort to an approach like that; for them, eventually “it clicks” and thus they begin this intuitive, abstract internalization process. “It comes to you by itself” is another phrase often mentioned, but did it really come by itself for them, or did the artist go look for it and found it without realizing?
I'm not saying through this interpretation that this approach is incorrect or flawed; on the contrary, it has appeared to have worked well enough for a number of people even if they haven't quite planned it. After all, finding what the “fundamentals” of a certain art online can end up becoming a difficult task as well, even if I said above that it's supposed to be easy to find everything. But how can chaff from wheat be successfully without a discernible criteria when one is in the complete blind about it? It's not easy to find the conceptualized notions of the basics of illustration, other than one's own preconceived notions and capability for intuitive skill development, much more commonplace in children to the point that it's even considered a litmus test to gauge developmental milestones in neuropediatrics. “Find tutorials, references” is usually the follow-up suggestion to it, and places where these can be found still remain abundant in large websites and communities, from deviantart to Twitter—even if these sites have shifted so much in design and presentation that it has definitely become harder for new users to explore it and find what they need. This might have worked well for them, and surely you'll find many that swear by it and will attest that consumption of tutorials and references and what have you has worked wonderfully for their improvement; but further inquiry tends to show that they have approached this “by feel”, rather by a conscious manner. They will simply not remember exactly *what* they were thinking about when mentally digesting what they were learning.
People genuinely in the blind about the fundamentals of art will find this exposition overwhelming and confusing, which adds up to another pitfall found among some people who ascribe to this approach: their concepts of the fundamentals, because they've never been quite formalized or consensually agreed upon, may differ severely between person to person! This is because their idea of the foundations of their skill are internalized in a personalized, almost case-by-case basis; so not only the advice they offer is based around this skewed notion, but also they're more often than not unable to put out a verbal definition of what the “fundamentals” may mean, even if they're perfectly able to understand it and wield it in their usual non-verbal fashion. This can be seen as a net advantage for the artist: after all, you “save yourself the trouble” and the end result is the same.
But the problem lies when applying this to those that don't understand it very well, such as people who begin to draw or paint at a later age; is it perhaps neurobiology at work again, and the attested decline of the cognitive aspects of certain intuitive conceptualizations, visible in areas such as mathematics? It may explain why for some people, once they “grow up”, have such a hard time in understanding things like how to draw or how to paint or even how to do computer programming: they have a very hard time internalizing the concept and understanding through a non-verbal, intuitive fashion. And not to mention how exclusionary this approach can be for people with (innate or acquired) trouble with spatial awareness, or the physio-mechanical such as something as seeming “simple” as drawing a straight line for example. That some people are able to approach this involuntarily by being more “attuned to the feel” and suggest that everyone can do this, it unintentionally draws the danger of becoming pointlessly exclusionary: saying that “art is about drawing until it clicks on you” is a dogmatic statement (even if a rather benign one), for it negates the possibility of formalizing the study of art and implies a “you either get it or you don't” conclusion.
Once again, I am not saying that this is an approach that doesn't work. Cases of people who have achieved proficiency and excellence by themselves through this approach are certainly not lacking online. But it's important to keep in mind that the characteristics of this way of learning (non-verbalness, ambiguity regarding definitions) are deeply confusing for some people and, when they don't yield the expected results, can be awfully demoralizing when presented as the “only way to learn how to do art”: it not only implies, due to the degree of how some people are able to internalize these concepts by feel, an unevenness of the road (i.e. “some people just have it easier than others”), but also implies that ultimately, for this road to be open, there is a prerequisite for it to be open in the first place. It can end up *becoming the unconscious reason some people may think art is not for everyone*; even professional art teachers, who are usually supposed to be trained in an academical setting and understand the nuances of pedagogy more than anyone else, can end up putting people down with this very argument: “maybe this isn't really for you” is something many people claimed to have heard from teachers after years of building an artistic skill without discernible success; yes, most of these cases are usually ascribed to older, rigid teachers from eras long past and ultimately (because of the presence of a tutor) unrelated to autodidact learning to the point of all this being a gigantic digression—however the fact that some people still report this mentality present in online communities and also contemporary teachers (mostly seen in those teaching musical instruments such as piano) raises the possibility of a correlation. I suppose these are, in conclusion, words of caution against the potential slippery slope of holding a rigid orthodoxy of the intuitive approach and the damage it can have to the morale of aspirants.
A summary of sorts for this intuitive development of acquisition of artistic skills, then:
- Seen mostly in people with an early affinity to art
- Characterized by a more “naturalized”, attuned approach to the craft
- “Right-brained” approach: nonverbal, “feeling”-oriented, intuitive, unconscious
- Extreme difficulty or outright inability to properly narrative their learning process and/or artistic methodology. Its not understood by themselves in a “language of words”, but rather conceptualized at a fundamental, almost individual level
- Fundamentals of a craft picked up from non-conscientious practice, experience gained usually from repeated practice wrapped in leisure
- Speaks of a (real or purported) heightened sense of perception
- “You either get it or you don't”, “keep working until you get it” are common associated phrases
- Probably established in online circles in the earlier years of the Web (mid-'00s or earlier, the “Deviantart era”)
On the other hand, a minority of online art circles and a growing number of online resources from more recent years, (such as drawabox.com), have started to offer a more formalized, methodical development that is always in a process of various degrees of refinement. Frankly I'm not entirely comfortable with neither the words formalized nor methodical because they imply a sense of rigidity that doesn't necessarily coincide with reality, though it's still supposed to convey the main takeaway of this approach: structured and slow-paced practice with perpetual awareness of the steps taken, avoiding unnecessary “grinding” but keeping in mind that non-directed drawing can't have the purpose of studying these fundamentals from scratch, but (aside from having fun, of course) as a way to gauge the level of progression through this sort of study.
The type of study differs just barely, but fundamentally so, from the usage of tutorials as a loose guide as often seen in the previous method. No ad-hoc tips and techniques are consumed until very later on in the study (so as to avoid the “draw the rest of the fucking owl” syndrome), but any piece of written text or masters' advices are mostly focused on slowly building the fundamental aspects of the craft from the bottom up. Artistic production, such as drawing, is posited here as the synthesis of an interconnected conjunction of elements which serve as the foundations for proficiency, even if their interactions with each other in the finished piece can seem possess some rhizomatic complexity rather than showing any sort of hierarchy. Even if every individual aspect of an artform seems so tightly knit together as to seem horizontal and inseparable from each other at first, this approach appears to favour the usage of plans, schedules and/or roadmaps, where one or more things have to be understood at a certain level before integrating them with previously-learned knowledge and moving on to understanding new things.
Something as seemingly “simple” as knowing how to hold a pencil and the ways to lay down lines and curves in the paper are taken into consideration as starting steps before studying concrete elements such as anatomy and construction. Abstraction is avoided as much as possible when absorbing these elements as they are being consciously taken in, and the focus is oriented upon meaningful, quantized exercise: that is to say, not rushed, not meaningless repetition of a particular exercise to the point of perfection (as it prevents proper understanding of the skillset as a whole), and as part of a whole. In more colloquial terms, one would say that this approach focuses more on fully understanding “the meta” of a particular type of artistic production without letting this “meta” retroactively fit itself through one's art by what could be perceived as “mindless” drawing, which would be a more time consuming process and allows for technical “vices” to seep into the productive workflow.
This doesn't mean that the “intuitive approach” doesn't do this—on the contrary, it does it so well that the individual doesn't really notice; this structured approach forces the apprentice to go through these elements consciously, which also serves as a contingency for those who are unable to wield art with the same attunement as those who have developed this fundamentals intuitively. This form of learning is, for example, invaluable for those who didn't (or couldn't) sharpen their skills on the early years of their neurological development: those that, at a rather more adult age —which would explain why this method is more common in older people—, have to sit down and go through the process of learning the “smaller things” like drawing straight lines. A particular case of this that comes to mind is the so called “ghosting” technique: in order to have more control over a drawn line and increase chances of successfully laying it down on the paper, the motion is “practiced” several times with the pencil hovered over the paper before putting it down once they're sure the movement is adequate and the placement of the line is where it's desired. Some people reading this right now will notice that this is something they've been doing all their lives without thinking it, and may even be surprised it actually has a name, whereas some other people would've never been able to figure out something like this by themselves and think something about the lines of “why the hell didn't I *think* of this before?”. Now, what if I told you that digital illustrators do something similar all the time by testing out one line several times, hitting Ctrl+Z every time until they're sure they got it right? Or that some illustrators perform “ghosting” without hovering their pencil, i.e. drawing their test lines directly onto their paper causing a fuzzier, messier style of lineart? Is it a matter of the “definition” of ghosting itself varying between people, between mediums? And to what level has every single individual “formally internalized” this behaviour? This is one of the many nuances present in drawing, and drawing is just one of the many pathways artistic expression can take. Another example would probably entail grabbing 20 different illustrators and asking them to explain what “draw from the shoulder” means, and grabbing 20 aspiring artists and asking them what do they understand by “drawing from the shoulder”. Some people will grasp the biomechanical aspects of arm movements and its relationship with better line control without even noticing, some others will get it on the first go by purely verbal advice, and some may probably need a diagram or two and a hefty amount of practice along the way to finally get it. In this aspect, a structured development of art skills becomes more inclusive, with the trade-off of having to go through a lengthier (and probably more frustrating) learning process.
Some may think this is a more perfected, “academic” alternative than the approach to art through intuitive development, however it's also not without its own set of pitfalls. As it brings the progress of skill into awareness it can be perceived as painfully slow for some people, and because it begins with a breakdown of the craft into its many individual aspects it becomes very easy for some to quickly lose track of their self-crafted schedule. While art does require a certain degree of focus and dedication, this renewed focus on the study of its structure demands more attention than one can usually be accustomed to; not to mention that if you're completely unaware of these notions, it can all feel at first like learning to walk with very painful awareness of the frustration and failure it inevitably leads to at first. It is important for the autodidact student to remember while on his own personal journey: if a general approach to art by feel did not yield the expected results, it can be very easy to expect instant results from the careful study of the building blocks and become crushingly demoralized when these do not appear.
A structured development as an alternative to art can be easily overlooked by one of the most common preconceptions against it: at first glance, it goes very much against some widespread preconceived notions regarding art and aesthetics, at least to a point that it is derided in some popular art communities for this reason. Because it formalizes the production process to “the boring stuff”, it can be perceived as reductionist in nature by some. Just as some people become ill at ease with the more “carefree” intuitive approach and may find themselves more comfortable with a more structured outlook on their progression, the exact opposite can happen because of the reasons described above—it's worth pointing out the correlation that some people that deem this autodidact approach as “too academic” have had their fair share of trouble with studying in a proper academical setting such as in an art institute. And because this focus on exercise and fundamentation can be somewhat interpreted as “forget about art, and focus on the meta first”, it can be subsequently interpreted that this approach is not as “artistic” as the intuitive approach which can be seen as the result of “letting your mind and heart flow” while drawing; whether or not this is necessarily true is way beyond the scope of this text, but it undeniably remains as a prejudice of sorts held by some which can end up causing people to desist with their artistic endeavours before progress is made (or even before starting in the first place).
To somewhat summarize again, the elements behind the structured development of autodidact learning of art are:
- Seen mostly in young adults and older, often with no previous artistic experience
- A formal, unintuitive approach to art. More catered to individuals who feel “lost” when trying to learn art through an intuitive manner
- “Left-brained” approach: Verbal, structured, quantifiable, measurable, conscious
- Better ability to narrate its pedagogical structure, both practical and theoretical. Possible rationalization of practical components
- Reduced ability or inability to pick fundamentals up from observation or non-conscientious practice. Abilities do not get acquired passively (or at least not in the same timeframe)
- Speaks of a lowered sense (or perhaps just an inadequate, “left-brained” sense, interfering between what's perceived and what's to be internalized?) of perception, or lack of expressive synthesis
I try to be careful here of not using heavily loaded words as to avoid not only the implications of a personal bias, but also the false suggestion that one is necessarily better than the other. It is also not meant to be an entirely polarized, binary notion: countless amounts of people will swear by different methodologies of autodidact study, and yes, they will more often than not fall squarely in one of these two categories, moreso if they happen to fall in the age ranges described. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're unwilling to concede to counterpoints or take their own method or learning as a sort of dogma. It's a rather pleasing thing to notice that as more people seem to notice this dichotomy, the so-called “fork on the road” is only so at the very beginning, when defining the most fundamental strategy to approach art; as time and expertise goes on, each traveller will find more things in common with their counterpart, and their worldview will widen enough to warrant taking some elements from its apparently opposite approach: intuitive learners may be more lenient to lean away from heavy use of references and pore over the technical aspects of a subskill they find lacking and structured autodidacts will tend to hone their intuition over time by exposure alone, getting more familiar with undirected observation of their surroundings. In the same sense that an “intuitive learner” shouldn't dismiss the technical fundamentals of art, a “methodical learner” shouldn't shy away from observation, experimentation and experience. The “fork” in question is only tangible in online discourse and the resources available; after that, there are many paths as there are artists (though the distinction is also important in that aspect, as the chain of knowledge can become impenetrable for a newcomer if everyone has a radically different definition. It can quickly become a game of telephone, or at the very least runs the risk of becoming so)
Even the terms “intuitive” and “methodical” feel loaded as well, for the former implies an innate and exclusive harmony with artistic expression and the latter can become associated with diligence and hard work. It's very important to note here that a “non-intuitive person” isn't any less of an artist, and a “non-methodical” or “non-structured” one is a bad self-learner. It also becomes very easy to use these differences as an excuse to go into insane diatribes about the nature of talent, for apparent interpretations of innateness or early cultivation of affinity to art; as for this digression, I will tactically ignore it aside from saying that there really isn't an explicit manifestation about the talent, or the nature vs. nurture dilemma, in a surface observation of these two pedagogic manifestations. Likewise, the left brain/right brain division I mentioned earlier is far from a scientific fact and only serves the purpose of briefly encompassing the two different approaches; putting the weight of these distinctions to one or another side of the brain would be equally misleading and rather senseless.
I believe thinking which is better than the other is kind of missing the point. I don't know if they are supposed to be opposites, or if one is a reinvention (superior or otherwise) of the other. Both can be valid individually for different people, and perhaps both can easily coexist in synthesis within someone's perception. And as we see that the pedagogy of art has been pushed into a faster-paced evolution through more access to information and worldwide communication, teaching art must remain as important as art itself: while artistic expression does ultimately come from within, it becomes imperative that the ways of kindling it become as inclusive and efficient as possible.