An Art Class Can Be A Dangerous Place

A guest post by Melanie Rothschild.

I’d been making my living as a self-taught artist for nearly ten years when I decided it was time to take a proper art class. I figured I owed it to all the people who were buying my work to make myself legit and actually know what I was doing.

Up until that moment, I’d been responding to a sweltering burn to make things, working with paint and brushes and “guerilla tools” of all sorts. I’d studied anthropology in college, Ethnic Arts specifically, and was imbued with the observation that people all over the world, regardless how meager their resources, find a way to make art.


Due to a family business, I had access to loads and loads of picture frames. I started playing around with them, applying color and design in any I could dream up. Play is really the operative word because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing; I didn’t know there were rules about making designs on picture frames. I was just flying around in space, painting “with no net.” Eventually, I developed a line of frames (later adding boxes and small tables) and cobbled together a wholesale business. I wasn’t a household name, but I was making a decent living doing this weird thing I loved and that was plenty for me.

I finally decided it was time to “call the meeting to order” and signed up for a painting class – the real deal. Now, I’d finally have the chance to become a “genuine” artist.

After the first class I realized how lucky, how profoundly lucky I was not to have stepped into such a class ten years earlier – if I had, I never would have developed as the artist I ultimately felt was so authentically me.

From The Art of Mistakes:
Immediately the teacher told us that the most important rule she had was not to mix acrylic colors. What?!? I’d been mixing acrylic colors all along and, in fact, had always been told how much people responded, in particular, to my colors! Should I raise my hand and let it be known that it actually could be done? No, I couldn’t do that, I must have been wrong somehow.

Then there was more talk about brushes – different brushes for various techniques. I was told that I didn’t have an adequate amount of brushes on hand to create all the possible effects and was advised to buy specific brushes. Did you really have to have all those exact brushes to be a good painter? What if you wanted to try something else, to make something up, if you wanted yours to be different from the others? What to think? What to do? This was expert advice; how could I refute it? But then again, how could I ignore what had worked so well for me for so many years?

This was a huge moment for me, when I realized that my lack of training was actually a big plus for pursuing a truly individual path.

I felt compelled to share my experience with other people who I knew felt passionately about making art – but somehow believed they “didn’t belong.” It was that night that I went home and wrote the outline for a book I then called, An Art Class Can Be A Dangerous Place.


Let me be clear, there are a sea of fabulous, inspiring and life-changing art classes and teachers. I’m actually married to one. However, the wrong class, can be devastating – and sometimes, profoundly so.

From The Art of Mistakes:
Single-mindedly concentrating to follow a given set of instructions may lead to mastering a particular technique. But if the learning of a technique unintentionally lays down boundaries in such a way that experimentation with other ideas is thwarted, then we might be achieving the creation of a product, but what’s being taught is something other than creating art. And the price paid for learning that method might just be the obstruction of an inherent creative spirit.

After many more years of painting and playing and messing up and, quite surprisingly to me, going back to school for formal study in, the study of creativity, I came to understand that all my messing around time was extremely “legit” in terms of how the creative process actually does work. Weirdly, I’d been “on track” all those years and didn’t even know it.

Melanie Rothschild is a self-taught artist whose elaborate interior accessories have been sold in stores throughout the United States including Neiman-Marcus, the shops at the Smithsonian Institution, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and hundreds of others for almost two decades. Her work is shown in fine art galleries and has been licensed to Target. She considers moxie, an irreverent nature, and a respect for mistake-making to be the tools of her trade. Melanie has a master’s degree in the Study of Creativity and an undergrad degree in Anthropology. She is from and lives in Los Angeles. “Like” Melanie on Facebook today!

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