When Limiting Heuristics grow from Bad Habits

While many of you know that I like to poke fun at certain ideas that I think are problematic for art education, I hope that you all know that my aim is only to improve the chances that aspiring creatives have the best information possible so that they may manifest their ideas with the greatest success and fulfillment.

Within an exchange with a fellow educator yesterday I had forwarded along this walk-through so as to better communicate one of these issues. I wanted to share it with you all so that you many better understand why I am critical of certain ideas. If you are an art educator you may quickly recognize this scenario:

Let’s say that an aspiring artist in your painting class is extremely timid with color. With each class project, the struggling creative consistently gravitates to the same 2 or 3 colors on their palette, barely touching any others. As one might suspect, they are often disappointed that their resulting work lacks the depth and vibrancy that he or she observes in the efforts of others. You, being a clever instructor, decide to diminish this undesirable behavior by issuing a “policing-rule” that requires the student be attentive to very specific color use. You state that for the next assignment, the student MUST, regardless of any other variable, apply 10% of this color, 20% of two others, 30% percent of another, etc. The ratios, percentages, or metamers are not important–but you are introducing a rule that is intended to disrupt a recurring habit that is affecting development. If they succeed in the task, both you and the student may agree that the result “more successful”, or even–more “beautiful”. This is the point where many may make a significant error in logic. The ratios of the specific colors were issued as a policing variable to influence behavior (in this case–to disrupt an undesirable habit). It does not mean that the specific ratio of colors represented a global heuristic for beauty or depth–even though the application DID result in something that both you and your student were more pleased with. "But!” one might counter, “I can find 10,000 master works that have that SAME ratios of visible colors.” However, in truth, you can most likely find just as many, if not more, that do not. In addition, there is a good likelihood that just as many “bad” paintings can be found to hold similar ratios of those specific colors.

It is important that we, as educators, carefully explain these issues to our students so as to avoid the replacing of an undesirable habit or skill deficit with a limiting or problematic heuristic.

I hope this better communicates my perspective on these issues.


So true.
Many times I have taken my teacher’s words as gospel only to find out later that was a sort of “passing truth” that was great for that time in my training, but is not advisable as a rule.
Now that I teach I understand the reasoning, but would rather hear “this is a good practice for now to teach you to do X”.

Having said that I have to mention I found there’s also a pitfall of sorts with giving as much information as possible (at least for beginners, and not people who actively look far and wide for a great atelier or teacher).

A beginner might not be as interested as an advanced painter in the physics of light, perception of color or even the chemistry of pigments.
When I just started teaching I was trying to give new students all the information I got through years of inquiry, but found that people get bored and lose steam very fast when confronted with theory.
My solution now is to give the student a chance to start asking questions during the practice and supply the answers I would earlier give as a “theoretical background speech” before starting the practice…
There’s a great saying in French that applies here- L’appétit vient en mangeant- which means “Nothing whets one’s appetite like eating” :yum:

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Great points all Stella!

In Daniel Coyle’s book, Talent Code (a great read but a little too much emphasis on myelin imo), he does talk quite a bit about teachers/mentors providing “ignition” (the interest/passion/motivation that will fuel deliberate or “deep” practice). This ignition is often built by providing the "right’ information at the “right” time. I believe that it is absolutely essential in the path to expertise.

There is an aspect of my program that is very similar to the strategy you mention. I will place a particularly challening exercise in the order (often prior to a significant repetition) so that a student, through experience, will build a strong database of meaningful questions. Such questions are seen to in what is to follow and as such, the information finds much more fertile ground.

“Theory has no place in an artist’s basic education. It is the eye and the hand that should be exercised during the impressionable years of youth. It is always possible to later acquire the accessory knowledge involved in the production of a work of art, but never – and I want to stress that point – never can the will, perseverance, and tenacity of a mature man make up for insufficient practice.” -William-Adolphe Bouguereau

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