The Delayed Gratification of Teaching

I am proud of never having messed with the teaching of drawing until I was in my forties. I ended up teaching at the Art Academy of Cincinnati after having attended an open studio figure drawing group there, and discovering that graduates of the school couldn't draw the nude very well. I asked them if there had been any instruction on anatomy for artists. There had not, at least not within the experience of these graduates, whose years spent at the Academy had been in the mid-1990s.

Having studied anatomy under a very charismatic teacher a couple of decades before, I believed that a class on the subject could be a good addition to the school's curriculum. There wasn't much other motivation, except the sheer fun of teaching. I'd taught anatomy once or twice in community education classes, but here was a chance to get at students who wanted to make drawing and painting their life's work.

Despite the unkind things I said a few days back about Robert Beverly Hale {see "Hale's Folly, and Mine", 10/4/2017). he was a very good anatomy instructor, and his very name was enough to get me an audience with Claire Darley at the Art Academy. I told her the sort of class I thought I could teach, and showed her some of my drawings. But it was Hale's name that ultimately got me an opportunity to deliver a sample lecture.

Ms. Darley pulled together a group of grad students and other interested people, and I did a sample lecture on the rib cage, introducing the five-eye system of proportions which I had learned from Hale. A few days later, she told me I could do a 1-1/2 credit class on the topic if I wanted to. I wanted to.

This meant, depending on the vagaries of the calendar on a given semester, thirteen to fifteen lectures on the anatomy of the human body. I tried to remember how many lectures Hale had. It probably was about the same. I broke up the body into segments and planned the course.

The only available time slot was Friday afternoons. Kids go home on Friday afternoons, they don't sit through lectures. As the signup deadline approached, there were only a handful of kids who'd expressed an interest. I agreed to do the class for almost nothing; I wanted badly to teach this material, and thought that once word got out, other kids would want in. So I did my lecture series to four students. The class consisted of an hour of lecture and two hours of supervised figure drawing.

I was 43, i think. That means that everything I had to say had been experimented with and tested for more than twenty years. I'd used the material doing illustration, painting, courtroom sketches for television, and even a stint doing portraits in bars to keep myself alive. Whatever misgivings I would later develop regarding Hale and his philosophy, the anatomy stuff was helpful, it worked, and it had all been tested in the crucible of my drawing and painting over the twenty years that had passed since I learned the material.

Maybe they ought to pass a law. Nobody should be allowed to teach art until he's had a few decades of experience under his belt, or hers. The majority of my students planned to become art teachers. If you're not willing to bet every chip you've got on your own talent, becoming a teacher makes sense, I guess. It's easier to become a professor than it is to learn to draw or paint competently, and it's certainly easier than learning how to make a living selling pictures. But easy does not mean right. Why begin one's career by compromising it? And from the standpoint of wanting to help equip students to do serious work, becoming a teacher in one's twenties is silly. What those students need is exposure to the lifestyle and habits of someone who's successfully slogged it out in the trenches, and prevailed. An art teacher, holing up in the protection of academia, is hardly equipped to generate working artists.

Was I a working artist prior to teaching? That might be a stretch. I lettered comic books. Occasionally I also did TV courtroom sketches, drew and painted book covers, and whatever else I could find to do. But I was hardly an example of a successful picture-maker. But I was an example of someone who understood human anatomy for artists, and who could use the information to draw the figure. That ain't ideal, but it's certainly a step up from a 27-year old armed with a master's degree seeking Tenure at the expense of Truth.

Not everyone is cut out to teach. Whatever other gifts I may lack, I've got that one: teaching, like storytelling, is a seductively wonderful pleasure. Engaging an audience is an act akin to romance. It's magical. My four students got their money's worth, and the class was green-lighted for the following year.

The Human Anatomy for Artists class, buried in the boneyard of the Academy schedule, had to be promoted to survive. So I began designing posters advertising the class. I'd hang them all over the Academy's two buildings. Here's one of them:


"Learn it next semester, use it for the rest of your life" was soon supplanted by the slug line which was used for the class during the remaining five years of its existence on the Academy schedule: "Ask Anyone Who's Taken It". And sure enough, word got out.

None of this is due to my brilliance as a teacher or lecturer. It speaks more to a craving, at least among some of the Academy students, to be told what was right and wrong. Human Anatomy for Artists was boot camp, and a surprising number of students wanted just that. The number of students increased, and when the Academy permitted students to take the class a second time for credit, the result was a steady stream of students, and the class was offered both semesters, every year. I got to teach a few other subjects, as well.

It was a precious time for me. It never could have happened as well had I been in my twenties or thirties. One's forties are about right. If what you know works, why not share it? Anatomy for Artists came on the scene at a boom time in the comic book lettering biz. Every time I headed to the Academy to teach, I lost money compared to what I could have made doing comics. My wife understood it. It was a joy time, a time to pass on the cream of what I'd been taught. It was magical. If teaching's your bag, and if some years under your belt have qualified you to teach, perhaps it's something you ought to be doing.

One addendum. The poster shown above has a list of a few dozen of the great figure artists of the western world. Having spent most of my adult life in comics, I wanted badly to include at least one representative of that industry in the poster. If you look close, on the left side, on line 9, you'll find the name KUBERT. Joe Kubert is without a doubt the greatest figure draughtsman who ever drew comic books. I had the privilege to call him shortly before his death, to tell him about the poster and his inclusion in the Hall of Fame. He was old enough, wise enough, and humble enough to understand what this meant. He went to his grave knowing what at least one person believed about him and his body of work. If my stint at the Art Academy of Cincinnati accomplished nothing more than that, it would have been well worth it.

But the class juijitsued into some other realms: it brought me into contact and friendship with some very talented students, many of whom remain my friends to this day; it exposed me to the backstage world of academia; it gave me a chance to eulogize my father, six years before his death and in his own presence; and it opened the door for me to write a book on figure drawing. Life's full of serendipity if you keep your eyes open.