Most artists are self taught, or very largely so. Even when attending college full-time, students will be left on their own for long periods. The tutor will come round from time to time, to offer advice or encouragement. Or maybe he or she will not: some artists with international reputations are notorious in the trade for having given no tuition whatever to their classes. They preferred to get on with their own work, and argued that unless students showed a similar single-mindedness themselves they would never get anywhere. And it is surely true that art colleges can only train for a few years, leaving their students a whole lifetime afterwards to go on learning and fending for themselves.
Does that mean that classes are a waste of money? Assuredly not. What classes inculcate are attitudes, ways of approaching problems, and the basic techniques. They engender camaraderie, respect for the profession and a sense of kinship borne out of meeting common problems. Painters may be shy of painting out of doors, with the public looking over their shoulder, and being one of a crowd helps them over this difficulty. Some beginners even find it hard to begin when faced with the blank canvas, so that a friendly word from a neighboring student pushes them gently forward.
But the difficulties shouldn't be minimized. Students enroll, pay their money, and turn up on the first day of their oil painting classes with their canvas and paints. A shock awaits them. The room is usually crowded, with sometimes twenty or thirty students, half of whom are old-timers, who have saved positions for their friends. The newcomer is obliged to take an easel near the back, where the view isn't too good indeed, is sometimes impossible until the tutor comes round and moves people about. Then the newcomer has to peer over or around several bodies to see what may be some distance away, and possibly not well lit. Many studios are not purpose-built, and they lack large windows and/or a steady light source. Painting in summer is particularly difficult, when the shaft of sunlight moves across the room, changing tones entirely within a few hours. 'Good enough for this lot', is the unspoken attitude of some tutors, who forget that in these early stages, when students haven't the experience to make adjustments for changing conditions, it's absolutely essential that things be made as straightforward as possible.
Lack of money is the problem, as always in an artist's life, and many teach simply to make ends meet. Teaching is a different skill, however, and needs to be learnt like anything else. Graduates in particular are often asked to supervise classes while preparing for their post-doctorate, and they have neither assimilated their courses sufficiently, nor been trained to impart their knowledge, to do more than keep order and answer basic questions. And finally, of course, some tutors are brilliant painters, but quite unable to put things across, or to see matters from the student's point of view.
Keep these problems in mind when you look for oil painting classes. Basically, there are four options: adult education classes at your local community center, courses run by your local art store, courses at art colleges or private institutions, or individual tuition.
Adult education classes are by far the cheapest, and offer good value for money. Tutors usually have recognized qualifications, plus experience in teaching at secondary or tertiary level. A beginner can't do better than start here, and indeed the more advanced classes will often include good painters with local reputations.
Equally good are many classes run by the local artstore. The tutor is often the artstore owner, whose work hangs in the shop, so that you know very well its technical competence. In the local scene, it's also easier to ask around, and ensure that the tutor is as good at teaching as he is at painting.
The third option, paying courses at art colleges and private institutions, are the most difficult to generalize about. Word of mouth may be your best guide, but you also need to:
read the prospectus carefully
ensure that the main objectives of the course are what you want
research the professional standing of the tutors, and ask to see samples of their work
check facilities, in person if possible
inquire about student to tutor ratios, and class sizes
look at standards of work in the annual or whatever exhibition
compare fees against those at comparable institutions
ask for testimonials
ask if you can contact former students independently
At several hundred dollars per session, these courses are not cheap, and you have every right to be cautious.
Even more expensive is private tuition, and here you will naturally do all the above, but pay particular attention to the styles and genres of the tutor. Some are true teachers, able to put themselves into the shoes of the student and craft their tuition accordingly. Others will be saying, in effect: 'This is how I do it; perhaps you'd like to watch and make a few notes?'
Classes and workshops are widely advertised on the Internet and elsewhere. Here are a few directory listings.
1. Open Directory Project. Dmoz's listing of courses in oil, acrylic and watercolor painting.
2. ArtSchools. Classes, university art departments and online courses: some 2000 listed in USA and outside: includes helpful articles.
3. AllArtSchools. Directory of US schools for the arts, including graphic design, fashion, music, etc.
4. The Art Career Project. Extensive listing of schools, clñasses and experts grouped about a career in art.
Many art tutors make videos, and the larger art materials suppliers often have excellent collections. Some specific distributors:
5. Critique Studio. Videos on the basics of oil painting and color theory.
6. Artist Videos. One of the largest north American distributors: good stable of artists.
'October: Demotkanovo' by Valetin Serov 1895. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. A simple analogous color scheme, with just a touch of blue in the sky. Similarities in color purities play the key role.