Learning to teach beginners. On the teaching philosophy of Sketchbook Skool

What is the role of feedback in learning? Especially when starting to do creative things, things that are ultimately pretty subjective? When there are no answers in the back of the book?

The biggest obstacle we need to overcome in learning to create is the belief that we can’t. That’s especially true when we learn as adults. We have spent our entire lives believing that we cannot do this thing, and now, unless we are convinced that we can, we will never get to a point of any sort of mastery.

The most difficult and crucial lesson for beginners is the importance of failure. You need to make a lot of mistakes. You need to feel good about those mistakes and recognize that they are opportunities to improve. You can’t allow those errors to overwhelm you and make you feel hopeless.

The biggest obstacle we need to overcome in learning to create is the belief that we can’t.

The reason that people struggle with failure is because they believe that their failures are reflections on who they are as human beings. “Only failures fail.” The fact, of course, is that everybody fails on the path to learning, that failing is the most important part of any education. Researchers have shown that people learn far more from watching others fail than they do from watching extremely accomplished people do things without making any mistakes. You can sit and watch Lebron James shoot baskets perfectly all season but that won’t prove very instructive in developing your own game.

It is much more difficult to look at our own failings as educational opportunities if our egos and self-image are wrapped up in success and failure. When we watch other people fail, we are able to separate failure from ourselves, to see the failure as ‘other’ and thus look at it objectively.That is why it is generally better to learn creative things in a group environment where we can see others struggling and failing. We can see where the mishap occurred or how the problem was not fully solved.  The problem exists independently and facing it is an interesting challenge, rather than a demeaning disaster.

…failing is the most important part of any education

What is the value of a teacher’s comments to a new student?

In creative situations, where one’s ego and self-image are tied into the results of an exercise, any sort of perceived criticism can undermine that process. Because we are still so new at learning this new skill, it is difficult to accept that a mistake is not a reflection of who we are and an indication that we shouldn’t even bother tackling this lesson.  That’s why we need as much encouragement as possible in the beginning phase of learning, a phase that can actually last for years. We need to develop self-confidence and faith in our own creative abilities and sometimes criticism of any kind can thwart that  progress.

Students often ask for specific advice on how to improve their composition or how to use a certain medium more effectively, and some teachers are quick to provide lots of guidance, rules, and specific direction. I don’t know if that is especially effective. I find that most students are extremely vulnerable to the most benign sort of commentary — even if they asked for it. Simply telling somebody that they might want to consider a different composition, different medium, consider a slightly different approach, can be extremely undermining. There are so many open wounds as one is going through this creative rebirth that everyone involved must tread lightly. That includes the teacher, the student, and the relative looking over the shoulder.

I think it’s more effective to encourage students to experiment, to make more work, and to gradually developed their own answers to these questions. In fact, my experience is that almost all direct input from the teacher (inevitably an authority figure) is not particularly useful before the student has real confidence in their abilities. Instead the teacher should create an environment of trust, inspiration and fun. They should encourage the process, the experimentation and exploration, provide reassurance and safety, and do demonstrations in which they explain their own process, rather than making specific suggestions about the work the student has done. Turn the key, but don’t grab the wheel.

Turn the key, but don’t grab the wheel.

Many novice students believe that there are shortcuts available that once revealed will turn the student from an amateur into an expert. They want to know what brand of pen the teacher uses under the misimpression that the pen is the secret. The fact is that the student will do much better by discovering answers on their own, by studying the works of others, and by trial and error. There isn’t an accumulated body of knowledge that the student can acquire which will transform them. That knowledge only comes through years of work.

But that doesn’t mean the student can’t be delighted with their accomplishments almost immediately. Especially in the beginning of a creative education, progress happens quite quickly, simply by feeling empowered and free to actually make things. Sometimes that simple realization can wipe out years of anxiety around creative issues. And with that freedom comes an opportunity to continue working and develop one’s own style and techniques.

But that doesn’t mean the student can’t be delighted with their accomplishments almost immediately. 

Personally I find that students with the most technical skills alone rarely make art that I find very interesting.  Instead I’m far more excited by people who make mistakes and discover new and interesting ways to overcome them.

Learning the tried-and-true ways of making art is not necessarily the way to make great art. It is simply the way to rehash the lessons we’ve already learned, to make more art that is ready familiar. Instead you want to create new and exciting directions, to take risks, to see the world afresh, to find answers to new questions. Learning to draw is not like cooking Boeuf Bourguignon, a set of steps one can follow from raw ingredients to final delicious product. Instead it is a voyage, an excursion into the wilderness, an adventure that is mainly rewarding for its own sake, not for its results.

The teacher doesn’t have the answers.  Only the student does.

33 thoughts on “Learning to teach beginners. On the teaching philosophy of Sketchbook Skool

  1. You are so right about students asking for the brand of pen, etc. When I was a chef, it was the copper pots that the customers credited with producing the delicious food!


  2. It’s so beautiful to see the philosophy (if I may call it that) of Sketchbook Skool laid out like this. I loved how it was such an open, encouraging environment that allowed me to be myself. Reading this makes it all the more clear that it was all planned to be exactly that.

    I realize I never had the chance to thank you and Koosje (and all the other fakulty) for everything I learned in SBS. I took the first two semesters, but didn’t take the third for a few financial reasons – but partly because I enrolled in an animation course at a local college. Yup, after a college degree and the makings of a career, I am sitting among kids about ten years younger than I am learning this thing I’ve always wanted but never had the opportunity to learn before.

    Although many factors were in play (such as that I now have a job and I now have a boyfriend who isn’t a control freak), I have SBS to thank in part for helping me gather the courage to say “I’m good enough for this” and enroll. The animation teacher there is wonderful and as you might imagine expects more accuracy and effort than the SBS fakulty. I take her comments to heart and learn from them. And again, I have SBS to thank for helping me maintain confidence, and not end up erasing my work compulsively hoping I can make the perfect drawing if I try often enough.

    For me, it’s all in good fun. I don’t know if I will have a career in animation, or if I will take it seriously if given the opportunity. But after keeping sketchbooks for nine months, I now understand that art is a part of me and is my best form of expressing myself to the outside world. Even if it doesn’t live up to my ever-enormous expectations, what is more important is that I do it. Signing up for more formal art classes was a natural progression from that realization.

    Anyway, Danny, I hope you forgive the ramble. It’s just that from reading your post, I felt a rush of gratitude for the opportunity to be through something like this.

    Just another testimony that “Sketchbook Skool will help you develop a creative habit that will change your life” ain’t a bunch of fluff. It’s absolutely true. And I can’t thank all of you enough for that. See you in the next klass!


  3. This is me! I love and need the freedom to explore! I need to be reminded to keep trying and experimenting! It’s great fun and also frustrating when I don’t go up that learning curve faster, but I understand learning and I can be patient if I keep my experiments to only safe people.

    On another note, I have taught adults in GED and ESL for years. They need this too! The idea that failure is an ingredient of deep learning and it has nothing to do with their worth as a person. This thinking is very hard to encourage to change.

    You understand. Thanks for sharing!


  4. Love this article. You have accurately described the fears (and wounds) that hold me back and keep me from drawing, painting, etc. I love your approach and was trying to talk myself into signing up for Sketchbook Skool. After reading this, I’m in. I’m still scared, but I’m in.


  5. Hi Danny, I find much of what you say to be reflective of my own experience and I would like to offer a slightly different view on technical proficiency. I taught skiing for many years and after watching many, many different people at all levels of skiing what I observed was that having a solid foundation of skill/technique created the springboard for the skier to express their own style. As a skier, you have to gain some level of skill – creativity will only carry you so far and then the mountain smacks you upside the head 🙂 And yes, there is a difference in the skier who technically proficient yet is still in their heads thinking about what they are doing and the skier who is equally proficient and is just doing & being, without thinking. In the second instance, there is a magic to their skiing, a fluidity and grace, a dance with the mountain that is missing in the first instance. The challenge as a teacher is to help people move beyond the thinking stage and into the being stage. I think this applies to art as well and I think that technical proficiency and creativity go hand in hand. It’s not that people can’t express their creativity if they don’t have technical proficiency, it’s more that having a solid foundation in one’s toolkit (so to speak) can help open the door to finding one’s own style. At least in my own experience (both in skiing & in art), being more skilled gave me the courage to be more expressive. I think for some, the process is the other way around and the creativity comes first but then somewhere along the way they focus on the technical side to enable them to go further with their art. Creating an environment where learning can take place is a challenge – as an instructor, I was always trying to take people a little bit out of their comfort zone without moving them into their fear zone, finding that space in between where learning takes place. Ultimately what I was trying to do was expand their comfort zone as much as possible. Thanks for reading this far 🙂 Cheers!!!


    1. I take your point, Theresa, the being stage is central in both.
      But drawing is different because there isn’t necessarily a “solid foundation in one’s toolkit”. We were born to draw and did it as small children. In my experience, the initial stage of drawing are all about overcoming our fear and sense of incompetence, not in laying down essential foundation skills.
      If you open the majority of drawing instruction books, they start with chapter after chapter about materials, how to set up a drawing board, cross-hatching, negative space, perspective, etc. and for me, that was just sheer tedium. I needed the early reinforcement that I was on the right track. Am I utterly hopeless? Can I actually draw? Will I ever be any good?
      So I teach they way I learned at 35. It may not be for everyone and there are certainly many more linear programs available.

      Oh and one more thought: most people don’t come to skiing with this huge burden of incompetence, years of people telling them they can never ski, that skiing is a horrible career choice, that their degree in skiing was a waste of time and money.
      Plus if novice skiers don’t have a few foundation skills, they may never slide an inch.
      And, finally, no one ever ran into a tree while learning to draw.

      I hope I don’t sound strident, Teresa. I love this discussion and am fascinated by others’ experiences in this realm.


  6. Sorry if I’m late to the game here Danny… I usually read you through Feedly! Just wanted to tell you how much I like your new WordPress Theme. Clear, clean and the font’s large enough to read easily. It looks good on my mobile too! The only drawback is that I find the comments in gray a bit harder to read.

    I love how you’re experimenting as you find your own way through your new adventures. Yet another way you’re an inspiration to us all.


  7. Great and badly needed article. I have an un related question asking for opinion not answer. We retired. Now we are selling every thing we own without a storage unit and even my lifetime of sketchbooks. !!! We will travel every 3 months furnished apartment in different states and just keep our car.t question is what is the point to keep sketching when it will just be thrown away. Family is not interested in them . Hope u have time to read this. I need help.


    1. Sheryl I can’t believe this came up again in 24 hours. I have no children and my closest niece is the most practical non-sentimental woman in the world. The day I die is the day it goes to the dump (unless I become the most famous artist in history.) And still I create. It what I DO, and so you do too, if it pleasures you.

      On the flip side, I’ve done what you are doing too. And the two things I kept was my art and my books — I found someone with a little room in their garage, packed the most important and let go of the rest. I was glad i did, because eventually we stopped roaming.


      1. My son just called and said even though he has no room ,he would keep them. Phew! Relief actually some of his kid drawings are in some of my books. I don’t know if he should like me as much if he actually reads them if you know what I mean.thanks for the support. I needed it.


  8. I feel that I learned soooo much from my teachers at the American Academy of Art. Sometimes it is about the right brush or pen, as long as you also log the hours with it. I might have eventually learned all that stuff on my own but I progressed so much faster by learning the fundamentals and watching demonstrations by my fabulous teachers.


  9. Excellent post Danny. It is impossible to please everybody.That said I think your approach regarding students is probably one of the best things about sketchbook school. Sometimes knowing the pen our instructor uses is good information for me though I agree we all have to make our own choices. Sheryl sounds like she could use some time to think about her decision. I wish her success.Keep the darn journals,your logic followed to the end would have us all not doing anything afterall we are just going to die.


    1. Yes… You are right about the FINAL conclusion. Disheartened I guess. I reacted with quick despair. After all I am definitely not ghandi. My son called and offered to store them so problem solved but still having trouble with going on with my sketching. I probably will continue but things seem different now. Aging I guess.


  10. What is the point to keep sketching Sheryl?

    The point of sketching is to realease your creativity, to revel in the feel of the brush or pen as it travels across the paper, to watch the spread of the colour on the page or the marks add up to an image, the creak of a new sketchbook as it is opened for the first time and the tactile quality of the same book as it becomes used and loved.

    The point of sketching is to see the world around you, from the expansive view right down to the tiny detail, to make the insignificant significant, to express your emotions and interact with your environment. To sketch is to add another dimension to life, to capture the moment and turn the moments into cherished memories.

    To create art is to capture life…. I am not a great artist.. sometimes I share, sometimes I don’t but if I were to stop sketching, drawing, painting, sewing then I would lose my outlet to my passion for life… I would probably explode!!!

    These are the points to keep sketching… please don’t stop.. it seems to me that sketching would be the perfect partner for your new life of travels… it doesn’t have to involve carrying clutter around with you.. just a pencil and a small book which would fit into the glovebox of your car. And Danny’s suggestion to send your books to the Sketching Project is perfect…. you would be sketching for a cause!


  11. Danny a lot of folks forget this post was about teaching beginners. I think you are 100% right about beginners, and how fragile they are and how they need time and an environment of play and encouragement. Think kindergarten for adults — which is kinda what SS is. When I was a practicing architect I wanted to quit and pursue what my family had talked me out of doing — becoming an artist — and had the fortune of knowing some famous painters in Venice CA. I asked about going to graduate school. Billy Al Bengston said, “NO. Take the $10,000 and buy buckets of paint and canvases and some time to DO.” I did just that.

    This year I took a few classes as a long-time artist who wanted to switch from acrylic (self-taught 30 years ago) to watercolors. I played a lot on my own daily because that is how I learned to create, period. And, for me it was wonderful to read blogs and get tips which saved me MONEY — good pens (and some cheaper than I might have bought), better brands, paper weights. The basics. I think the ability to read what other artists were using and especially short free demos online gave me techniques. I didn’t have illusions about the magical pens, of course, but knowing that i can get a LOT of great line from a cheap Preppie is so good for where I am at.

    I am teaching again (have taught always) and what I tell students is look for teachers who share short techniques that you can play with, not the paint-by-numbers teachers. Teachers who share what they are actually doing, not teachers who tell you what to do or the “right” way.


  12. About running into a tree… There I was on a botany walk with a group of like-minded people only I was taking notes and trying to sketch while also trying to keep up with them on the trail… and you guessed it! Bam! Tree. Never say never.


  13. Great piece, Danny. I agree 100%. When students look to their teachers for approval/critique they give up a valuable part of the lesson — figuring out what they themselves like and why.


  14. I’ll be teaching a landscape (in the ‘sense of place’ sense) sketching and field journaling course at Harvard Forest in Massachusetts in January, and the organizers requested some readings to add to the course pre-reading packet. Would it be alright with you if we reproduced and distributed this to the students? As you say, transcending fear of drawing is a key aspect of teaching beginning adults, and that’s precisely what I’m doing.


  15. This is one of those keeper posts. Not just an “art” keeper post but a keeper post, period. Why? The truth in it has a cross discipline application, even, dare I say it? a life-application.

    Shared this with my wife who is a professional educator. She immediately shared it with her teaching peers.

    Thanks for a keeper, Danny.


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