Valuable Lessons I Learnt in Art School

This art post features the creative lessons I learnt in art school.

People often ask me ‘how long did that painting take to create’?

Sometimes quietly thinking to themselves, ‘my child could do that’. Art challenges people. Especially, conceptual art. But art school taught me most of all, to challenge the way people think.

Because mostly, they need it.

Behind this question ‘how long did that take’ is a quiet cynicism about artists. Even famous artists like Matisse, who’s paintings and drawings are sold for multi-millions of dollars, are criticised for their simplicity.

Henri Matisse | Patitcha souriante (Patitcha smiling) 1947 | Purchased 1993 with funds from the International Exhibitions Program | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Henri Matisse 1947/Succession H Matisse/Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2011

Depending upon the person, I respond to the question ‘how long did it take?’ tongue in cheek, with either of two answers ‘5 minutes’ or ‘40 years’.

The paintings in the video below were bought for healthy prices in 2002, by a high profile school in Australia named Xavier College. The institution wasn’t concerned how long my paintings took to paint, nor did they say about my simplistic paintings ‘my child could do that’.


Download with Vixy |

Valuable Lesson 1. Genuine art collectors or art buying institutions collect painting ’s they love, artwork that means something to the buyer. Customers connect to an artistic concept.

Sometimes my abstract art looks simple, but the customer buys the concept and the meaning behind the painting. They also trust my artistic judgment and authority from decades as an artist .

Strangely enough, conceptual thinking often brings the artist in a full circle, back to simplicity. Hence, the comment ‘my child could do that’. I agree that some modern art is mindless, but what people mostly see is a simplified solution disregarding the creative thinking behind the final result.

Like most professions, the complexities of a problem and the hours of deep reflection or chaotic confusion to reach clarity in a final piece, is mostly hidden from the layperson.

Valuable Lesson 2: Experienced artists and philosophers will tell you, achieving simplicity is a complicated process.

For my tertiary education , I was fortunate enough to live in an old mining town, attending the University of Ballarat. I lived in an old miners cottage with my beloved great aunt Glen and completed my Bachelor of Visual Arts.

At university I studied all the great masters of Art & Design. I was fascinated by the practice and history of Art. It was a very interesting period of my life. I was a curious 18 year old art student, living with my 80 year old eccentric aunt.

It was an experience I fondly remember, a world of extreme contrasts where my creative thinking flourished. Thankfully, I was forced to integrate two weird extremes in my life.

One extreme was my wayward free thinking creative friends, on the other extreme, was my very conservatively and celebate Catholic auntie, who had devoted her life entirely to Jesus.

Valuable Lesson 3: Integrating extremes in life, enhances your creativity and makes life more interesting.

Every evening I was instructed, by great aunt Glen to arrive home from university for 5pm dinner. This routine was a little odd, but fine by me. One night, I invited my girlfriend for dinner and introduced her to my great aunt.

Dinner went without any hitches, but then relaxing together in front of the television, I put my arm around my girlfriend. This brought a sharp rebuke from Glen and caused great embarrassment for my girlfriend.

On another occasion my great aunt Glen was rudely shocked by the nude drawings I’d created at university. ‘Oh Simon, the naked body should be kept hidden!’ Yet, the renaissance master artists proclaimed the human body was the pinnacle of natural perfection and beauty.

Here’s what I learned in ceramics class:

I loved this class, but it wasn’t my strength. What I discovered was that if the clay hadn’t dried out, it can always be reused and remodeled for another pot. In life we all make mistakes , we need to be patient with ourselves. Thankfully, we can scrap the old broken project and remodel our lives and create a better pot.

Valuable Lesson 4. Patience is essential in the creative process.

Sometimes during class, my clay pot would become lopsided and spin out of control on the wheel. I figured that was ok, the pot wasn’t meant to be. So I’d begin remolding the wet clay and start the process over. Miraculously, my next pot stayed symmetrical and was created perfectly.

The principle of patience in art is essential. If we are patient and persistent, the right artwork will somehow create itself, but it might take some time and many attempts before your creative universe is properly aligned.

Every drawing is beautiful in some way. Even a child’s drawing. You have probably heard the saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ well this holds true for art.

Here’s what I learnt in drawing class:

I was reasonably competent at drawing and I thought sometimes, I’d produced a beautiful drawing. During class we would have a nude model to draw and after a 30minute pose, I would quietly think to myself, I had just created a masterpiece.

Valuable Lesson 5: No matter how brilliant and talented you might be, there is always someone better than you.

But then I would proudly take a stroll around the studio to view my classmate’s drawings. Wow, there was so much talent in the room! So many beautiful drawings, it shocked and humbled me.

Especially this one girl named Fiona, she needed only to hold a piece of charcoal in her fingers and the paper would come alive with her wonderful artistic ability. I quickly came to understand…

Valuable Lesson 6: Because we are all so unique, competition is futile.

I have always looked at the great master drawings and been surprised by how simple the lines appear, especially for a master like Matisse. His drawings are incredibly basic, childlike but beautiful. Sophisticated in their simplicity.

I am quite confident to suggest it was his belief in his own lines that made other people believe too, that his artwork was exceptional. He wasn’t competing with anybody, just content to draw what he saw in life from his own unique interpretation and perspective.

6 Good reasons to be yourself and be radically unique

  1. Being yourself is the foundation of excellence.
  2. Plato the great philosopher said, ‘know thy self’.
  3. The bible says you’ve been created as Gods masterpiece.
  4. Being yourself creates joy for you and freedom for other people.
  5. Life is very short and people need the specialness you offer.
  6. There is peace and restfulness when you stop trying to be someone else.

Here’s what I learned in painting class:

Like most disciplines, theoretical rules learnt in the classroom are broken all the time. At university, I was amazed by my friend Fiona who’s paintings contained anything and everything she could find.

It was clear she was not operating according to the wishes of her teachers, friends, a gallery owner, or classmates. She used dirt, twigs, leaves, nail polish anything could be included into her mysterious paintings.

Fiona’s creativity was exceptionally unique. Every stroke of the paintbrush held incredible painterly quality. When she used color it was perfect, not too much, not too little, just the right amount.

She wore interesting clothes that expressed her unique personality and individual style. By being herself, unconcerned what others thought, she broke the fashion rules in unique and interesting ways.

Valuable Lesson 7: There are no rules in creativity enjoy your artistic freedom.

Sometimes, our lecturers at university would recommend mixing certain colors together because they were complimentary colors. My lecturers would disapprove of the wrong hues mixed together in a composition. But when Fiona mixed the colors, somehow the painting looked amazing.

As a senior lecturer teaching Art & Design, I am aware of the theoretical principles. However, I also strive to avoid teaching strict rules in creativity. What works for one person, may or may not work for the next person.

What was the most valuable things you learnt at College? I would love to hear your responses in the comments box below…

About Simon Brushfield

Simon Brushfield is an artist whose work has been described as ‘poetic, enigmatic and dreamlike’ (Michael Berry, "Selected Contemporary Artists of Australia" book). His paintings have been exhibited and sold across Australia and internationally. If you enjoyed this post, sign up to Simons VIP list and have posts sent directly to your inbox.

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