A New Path of Artistic Education

Magazine issue: 
#2 2012 (35)

Sergei Andriaka's Moscow School of Watercolour Painting and its Museum and Exhibition Centre opened in 1999, with Andriaka as its artistic director. The school's workshops are intended for a small number of students, and the teacher's studios are located next to them. In order to promote the use of glaze watercolour technique in the related decorative arts, such as painting on porcelain, enamel miniature, and combining watercolour painting with etching, the school opened its own etching, ceramics and jewellery workshops. The school's museum and exhibition centre presents shows of the students' and teachers' works. Andriaka — a People's Artist of Russia and Member of the Russian Academy of Arts, artistic director of the School of Watercolour Painting, rector of the Watercolour and Fine Arts Academy, watercolour artist and teacher — told us about his School of Watercolour Painting and the newly-opened academy.

Did you ever think that you would one day establish your School of Watercolour Painting and then the academy? Did you think that you would have students and like-minded fellow teachers?

I never thought about it. I could only dream of it, and so I did. At first, I just hoped to have a school, not an academy. I thought it would be wonderful to be able to teach art in a new way.

Let us talk about your background as a teacher. How did you gain your expertise? We know that by the time you established your School of Watercolour Painting, you already had rather substantial teaching experience.

When I started teaching at the secondary school for the arts at the Surikov Art Institute, I was only 21, the youngest teacher there. The school principal introduced me to the class, and then the students stood behind my back for an hour and a half while I was painting a watercolour still-life — that's how I gained their trust! Personal example is the foundation of both the theory and practice of teaching. In 1985, I received a call from Professor Viktor Tsyplakov who offered me to teach both drawing and composition to the graduating class at the Surikov Art Institute. At the time, I was working on restoring old oil frescoes from the second half of the 19th century in the Church of Saint Tryphon the Martyr, next to the Rizhskaya metro station; I was using the grisaille technique to make sure the paintings did not lose their glow or vibration. I was getting paid extremely well, considering when it was, so I did not go into teaching for the money — I was interested in sharing my knowledge with others. However, I did not like their approach to teaching. I was aware that I would not be able to change the well-established methods of art education, the system which had been developing for not just years but decades. It was impossible to break that mould and generate a new, truly effective model. It was only feasible to create it in a new institution with new people.

I left my job at the institute in 1989. I was obsessed with this question: can anyone, any person be taught to paint? I took a small group of students, five or six, and began teaching them in my own studio. As time went by, the group grew much larger, and we had to rent a bigger space. For three years I tested my system, which was based on two fundamental concepts: consecutive learning (do not start a new task before you have mastered the previous one), and personal example. Olga Volokitina, a wonderful artist, was one of my first students. Now, she is a Correspondent Member of the Academy of Arts, and a gifted teacher at both our school and the Academy of Watercolour Painting.

...so if we look at the established colossal system of art education as this powerful monster which you are trying to crush, does it make Sergei Andriaka a revolutionary?

Not, not a revolutionary. I think that the hardest and greatest ability is to be able to take a detached view on art education. Let us say, there is a certain artist, a professional. He is a graduate of some art institute. There comes a point in his life when he starts to think about teaching. Well, he is going to teach exactly the way he was taught — according to the same system, the same format. He will not be able to step back and look at the system "from afar". He is not asking himself: why does it need to be just so? Why can't it be done in another way? I, however, am convinced that it is possible to teach any person to paint in a short period of time. True, I cannot teach creativity, but I can teach craftsmanship.

Yet, can an artist who is also a teacher — a talented teacher, such as you and your friends and colleagues — pass practically all of their expertise to their students at the school — and now the academy — in a short period of time?

We base all training on direct instruction that the teacher gives the student. There is no place for the "consulting" approach here. Our method is direct teaching. And this will be the case with all the subjects taught at the academy, including the ones that are new to us, for example, ceramics, stained glass, and mosaic; our teachers will not "refer" students to other sources, as in "go look at this, go read that, go study something else". A teacher's responsibility is to share what he or she knows with the students. It is his or her duty, a duty which is at the core of the academy's instructional method. It is indeed the teacher's responsibility, because there could not be any other type of education.

Not every artist can be a teacher...

Certainly. There are real problems with artist-teachers who begin teaching. They are often talented people, but they do not have enough understanding of how to teach. Recently, I had some come in for job interviews, and I was horrified. Some new people came in who often did not understand where they were and why they were there.

It often happens that the artist is an excellent professional. He may have even mastered an artistic programme that fully meets the requirements of our school and academy. He knows everything. However, it is important to be able to pass this knowledge to students. Every student is an individual, and needs a personalized approach and tailored instruction; a good teacher must feel it. Along with providing a personal example, being able to point the student in the right direction by picking up a brush or a pencil, a teacher is required to reach out to everyone in his class. Let us say, someone needs to pull himself together a bit — he is all over the place, unable to concentrate. It is hard for him to do it, so it means that the teacher must find the right words, or maybe some appropriate training exercises that are needed to help the student focus on his job.

Does the opposite ever happen, when a person has so much creative zeal that he or she needs to be held back? He is ready to burst, he is like a volcano, he has real talent. Sometimes, someone needs to slow him down a bit...

This is how it happens. A very creative person comes to us and starts painting; however, he is lacking in skill. So when the time comes for tests, we tell him that the main thing here is the evaluation criterion. Academically, the testing requirements are very tough — there cannot be an educational institution without that. We had some cases where we could tell by a student's work in class that he has great creative potential, but has not quite mastered the necessary skills yet. So there you have it, that difference between an "A" and a "B"... We can see that he has huge potential, that his talent can grow, and given good training, he may just "take off". However, we hold him back, we tell him: "You have to first learn the basics, lay the foundation. While you are working on all this, your creative potential is not going anywhere, or altogether disappearing. All you are doing is attainting a whole lot of knowledge, skills and technique, all of which will give you the ability to express your creativity freely, without anything holding you back."

There is an opinion in theatre circles that it is bad actors, the losers who become critics and directors. What is your reaction to the opinion that it is failed artists, unsuccessful in their life and work, who go into teaching?

I am going to answer this question based on the experience of our School of Watercolour Painting. The artists who came to teach at our school at the very beginning were probably not the most noticeable, or noticed; they had not yet flourished. They started teaching. One of my most important requirements to them, and I lead here with my own example, was that they continue to work on their own art, that they do not dedicate themselves exclusively to teaching. Here is what's wonderful — many of them, though not all, have developed creatively and became brilliant, exceptional masters of their craft. One could say that they turned into genuine, profound artists. Alexei Kravchenko is a good example — he discovered his gift for pastel painting. I cannot even call his work drawing. It is magnificent pastel painting, and his style is completely inimitable, not to be found anywhere else. His portraits and landscapes are unique — it is impossible to believe that he paints exclusively with pastels. Our other teachers have flourished similarly; Olya Volokitina and Natasha Besednova — they, too, became great artists. They used to focus on oil painting and seldom worked with watercolour; to be quite honest, it was a secondary medium for them. And suddenly... Well, maybe not so suddenly... These days, I go to their solo exhibitions — and they have very many of those; they are quite productive, and many of their works do not have anything to do with their teaching at our school.

Teaching does, however, ensure great creative growth, because when you explain things to someone else, especially if you are holding a brush or a pencil in your hand as you do it, you are also explaining it to yourself, and you begin to learn. I always thought that for an artist, there are two ways to learn and improve. The first one is exhibiting, when you look at your work "from a distance" and notice your own strengths and shortcomings. You feel like a detached viewer, albeit a professional; you are looking at yourself and you can see everything, as if you stepped into the light and out of your familiar and (in your opinion) reliable shell. You start noticing a lot.

The other way is to start putting things into words, teaching. A good teacher has a sharp eye for the pros and cons of other people's work. In a flash, he detects absurdities, mistakes and miscalculations. This ability becomes especially strong when one teaches and helps one to grow, really grow, as an artist. Practically all artists who work at our school have grown and flourished professionally since they began to teach; what is more, this growth was revealed in their own art. This fact was especially clear when we organized large exhibitions and presented each artist individually. It was apparent that our artists' creativity did not "die", that is was not hidden away or stored. Teaching artists do not paint training studies of an apple or a pear, they create their own art. They express their own inner world and reveal what is important and dear to them.

As they say, to whom much is given, of him much is required.

It is probably true. But we do try to do our best.

First it was the School of Watercolour Painting, then the Academy of Watercolour and Fine Arts. What is it that an accomplished artist like you gets from this?

The most important thing for me is that I remain a teaching artist. If this is the area where you can make a difference, then work in this area. In my opinion, our first experiences with the School of Watercolour Painting have been a great success: the school is sought after, and the quality of instruction is high. I actually started developing the academy precisely because I saw that, in this absolutely new kind of art education that we had come up with, I could really make a difference. I am still constantly searching for ways to make this education more effective, to continue building the methodology and the system.

If you had not realized your idea of a school, there would have been no academy, would there?

I have always believed that it is better to start small. If you start small and do not attempt something huge and far-reaching right away, the outcome is better. It is like proving to oneself that something can be done. When we were just setting up the school, it was, strictly speaking, empty. We were given a kind of "loan": there was this new building and minimal equipment. But what would happen in this building, how it would start functioning, would our instruction be in demand, how successful it would be, how we would structure it, whether the students would come? It is not possible to fool people into coming to a school where they would not be taught anything. That much is obvious. It was very hard in the first few years. Nevertheless, now that our school is almost 13 years old, we can say with confidence that we have made it, and our school is really a success. After all, we have put up so many huge exhibitions, showing the public what we do. It is neither window-dressing, nor a "mirage" of teaching; nor is it cheating. We have shown and proven that we really can teach. We continue doing it. We have good results. However, there was a dead end: what are we going to do next? It was necessary, practically imperative to take a stab at something more significant, something large-scale. We needed something that would be the crowning achievement of our teaching efforts, like a higher educational institution, with all the consequences. Thus was conceived the idea of the academy.

Apart from these lofty goals when creating the academy, were you concerned for the future of some of your students, graduates of the School of Watercolour? Were you also thinking about them, or was it only about them that you were thinking?

Yes, their future was the first thing on my mind. Here is my point: when their parents brought them to our school (which is aimed at providing supplementary education), many of them asked: "At the end of the day, what is it that you will give us?" Our answer was that we would give them a certificate of supplementary education. I told them that I would not be able to give them a state diploma or some other graduation certificate of having "acquired a profession". "However, I will definitely be teaching you craftsmanship, skills. We will give you the foundation, fundamental professional skills." With the academy though, there are different demands on me and my colleagues. Here we do not only give our students the basic professional skills, but a profession, and most importantly, we give them the security of being in demand.

Naturally, the graduates of our School of Watercolour Painting are often looking to continue their education in a higher-educational institution. Every one of those has its own idea of art education. So more than once, not without regret, we had to admit that our graduates had to retrain, which meant that they lost much of what we had taught them. This was one of the reasons we created the academy. The other reason was the decline of the overall level of higher education in the fine arts. It is a dangerous trend which leads to the narrowing of specialization in all spheres, to "satisfying" only specific, narrow demands. In our area, this tendency produces unemployment and absolute lack of professionalism. For example, a student studies to become a book illustrator, and if she is unable to find work, she has to be retrained. There are a lot of similar, sad examples. Every year now, art colleges produce such "experts", who are absolutely not prepared for real life, and these days, life is not in a hurry to "adjust" to them. It is cruel, but true. This was the main reason behind the idea of creating a new educational institution, and eventually the academy.

Education at the Academy of Watercolour and Fine Arts will be based on your teaching method — the teacher and the students perform the same tasks together, at the same time. This technique has been tested at the School of Watercolour Painting and has been proven to be effective beyond comparison.

All types of fine art techniques that are in demand today will be taught at the academy. We will be structuring our training in an innovative way: learning will be tied to practice, to real work. There will be no division into departments. Academic drawing will be the foundation of everything. Mastering drawing techniques is at the core of professionalism in any area of fine arts. As a result of a sharp drop in the level of drawing instruction, art colleges are not only unable to nurture exceptional artists like, for example, Alexander Ivanov and Vasily Surikov; they are also failing to produce merely highly-qualified professionals.

Back in the 19th century, Vasnetsov did not only paint his canvases; he also painted the interior of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, designed the menu for the Tsar's table... Vrubel worked with majolica and watercolour, as well as monumental forms. Who were they? Just artists. It is something we lost due to the narrowing of specialisation. And in today's world, our task is to train artists who can do anything.

Another dream I have is to create a training programme for secondary school teachers of visual arts, to raise the level of teaching in all regions of Russia. Good new methods of teacher training are needed in all spheres of education, not just the visual arts. For example, foreign languages are a big part of the school curriculum now, but children cannot put two words together. It means that the teaching methods are bad. I know this firsthand — my mother taught foreign languages. She was in charge of a department at "Intourist" [the Soviet Union's "Foreign Tourist" company] Higher Language Courses. After a year of training, even those who were not good at languages spoke quite decently. It can be done! It is not the Unified State Exam that we should start with, but new teaching techniques. Then our educational system will start to improve, albeit slowly. It will happen slowly because training professionals requires an enormous amount of work, and a teacher is a unique, "one-of-a-kind" product.

We have a completely new approach to learning. I have already mentioned that drawing is a crucial element. We based our curriculum on that of the Surikov Art Institute, but introduced many new items, radically new things. Half of all the time the student spends studying for his or her major (throughout all five years of instruction) is dedicated to the same techniques that will be demanded in his or her future professional career. The student will try his or her hand in all these techniques and carry out all tasks, course work and graduation assignment in a practical, "hands-on" way. The courses will include those in pastel, murals, stained glass, mosaic, small-form sculpture, ceramics, pottery, sculpturing/modelling, basic book graphics, icon painting, restoration of paintings and drawings, architectural and packaging design. Finally, animation, which later becomes hand cartoon applique we remember from the old cinema productions of the 1940s-1950s.

This, perhaps, takes care of the main list. Students will be working with real commissions from beginning to end. The customer will pay for materials only, and the students will work for free. There could be many such offers. Let us say someone wants to install stained glass in his home. We will conduct a competition among the students who are at the time studying this particular technique. They will produce studies for the requested motif, and the entire class will work on the project. This does not apply to the first year of studies. According to the curriculum, it is only in their second year that the students will be learning the different techniques. They will start learning the material under the guidance of a professional artist, who is required to have an excellent knowledge of the medium he or she is teaching. Naturally, the programme will include a great number of theoretical (general education) subjects. We added international law to that list. It is an important matter for artists, which is regrettably not taught in universities. It includes international customs regulations (such as the import and export of art objects). Our students need to know the correct way to enter into contracts and professional agreements. It is no secret that many of our graduates go abroad after they finish their education and end up in unbelievable legal "bondage". We also included a course in the "art business" in our programme. As a result, we hope that a graduate of our academy will be a unique professional artist, a generalist who can meet real-life challenges, not just theoretical ones. He or she will have a state diploma. The new kind of education that we are proposing required a new standard, which we worked on and later reconciled and confirmed with various relevant ministries.

What would you like to say, from the pages of the "Tretyakov Gallery Magazine", to your fellow artists, educators and future students of the academy?

Classical tradition in art and culture is like our parents, like our ancestors. We should love, appreciate and respect it. It is important to build our lives on this foundation. Otherwise, we reject our own existence as human beings. Tradition cannot be denied, because for our civilization it is what air is to all living creatures. The most terrible misfortune that nihilism brings to culture is the absence of humanity in a human being. That's exactly why we strive to study our tradition and educate the young in its spirit.

We do not only want to take the best from the classical school of fine arts. Our main goal is to make sure that true talent, having absorbed the tradition, looks at the world independently, and experiences its beauty through his or her own personal awareness. Only then will we get a living continuation of the tradition, and not its fictitious "renaissance". We want, and must help everyone find the way to their true selves. After all, we all have a unique inner world. Indeed, this is the miracle concealed in all of us. However, an artist could never leave his mark in culture if he or she does not speak the language of art. We must empower the beginning artist by giving the ability to speak freely, to be creative in using this opulent language.

Interviewed by Valery Golubtsov





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