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The Value of Beginner Classes

Like many artists and photographers, much of my creative development has been through sheer determination and white knuckles.  Workshops, classes, courses, and graduate- and post-graduate studies certainly have provided me with a solid grounding in the fundamentals.  But image-making as a whole, whether as craft or as fine art,  is largely learned by just doing it, finding your own comfort zone for composition, color, light, texture, balance, and rhythm.  In the doing, you develop confidence and authority.  Still, there is a lot to be said for reviewing the basics.  Sometimes in reviewing, you are introduced to something entirely new.  Or perhaps it is something you’ve been taught before that you forgot, or that you never understood before.  At the very least, you are a different person today than you were last year, so you see things differently.

Too often, an artist will become very good at their craft, able to produce amazing images, only to find themselves challenged by not being able to execute a detail, or not knowing how to structure an element.  I can’t tell you how many artists have told me that they cannot draw.  Drawing seems to me to be essential to the execution of anything visual.  It doesn’t have to be drawing with a pencil — it might be a drawing with a brush, with wet media.  Perhaps those artists have a limited definition of drawing.  Or perhaps they are more of the instinctive, intuitive school, where the image evolves almost like a performance, without the artist having a preconception.

A painting I did a couple of months ago, shown at right, might be considered a drawing as much as it is a painting.  I painted the canvas-board a dark blue-black color, let it dry, and then painted the tans and blue colors over it.  I created the trees by “drawing” them with a rubber stylus, wiping off the wet paint to expose the dark color underneath.  The related blog is at

Several accomplished artists are in the Back-to-the Basics Drawing Class that I am teaching for the Cultural Arts Alliance this month.  At first, I was a little intimidated because I know their capabilities, but within just a few minutes of my start,  I found my footing and got on a roll.  Many years ago, I was awarded secondary school teacher certification when I received my Fine Art degree from the University of Northern Colorado.  I taught painting and drawing in a high school in Colorado for 3 years before I moved to Florida.  Since then I have just taught a few adult classes in watercolor painting, and a private drawing course to a student who needed a humanities credit to graduate from high school.  So the Back-to-the-Basics Drawing Class is requiring me to review the basics myself.

Teaching can be exhausting.  Supposedly a good teacher prepares for 2 hours for every one hour in the classroom.  An experienced teacher will be so well-prepared and so practiced that he or she can teach off-the-cuff.  But it’s been so long since I taught that I am having to review everything myself, as well as come up with visual examples of the concepts and techniques I am teaching. In the first class I reviewed elementary perspective (ugh!) for the first hour, and in the second hour I let the class draw, focusing on thumbnail sketches and line quality.  I provided some articles that were difficult to draw, requiring the artists to simplify.

I myself am taking a beginning photography class.  My point-and-shoot camera is so smart that the only decisions I have had to make are compositional decisions.  There is a lot that I do that I don’t have to think about because it is “instinctive”.  And there is the added benefit of using a digital camera with no expense associated with the number of photos I take, so that if necessary, I can take a zillion photos on the high probability that at least one will turn out good.  But I have been finding limitations to the “automatic” settings, so now I am learning about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.  I have dusted off my tripod, which has hardly been used because it is difficult to deploy from a canoe or stand-up paddleboard, my usual vehicles for nature photography.  The class I am taking is at Northwest Florida State College, at the South Walton Center.  Like many colleges, they offer non-credit adult-education classes for a nominal fee.  My class is taught by Jackie Ward, a professional photographer (  This week’s homework was to produce a few images of the same subject, keeping all camera settings the same and varying only the aperture, without too much concern for the excellence of the composition.  I photographed the little metal birds that are fastened onto my porch railing.  The first image below, focusing on the third bird, was shot with a larger aperture, so it has less depth of field than the second, and more bokeh (new fancy photographer’s word, meaning blur).  The bokeh is most obvious in the background trees.  Now I have a new problem:  I don’t have as many options as I would like, so now I need a better camera!

ISO 100 f/3.2
ISO 100 f/8


Most of my images are available for purchase.  Contact me if you are interested. — Joan Vienot

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