What is freedom?

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft.

Owl’s Head fishing shacks, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, $1087 framed or $869 unframed.

My little granddaughter, age five, recently got her first guitar. Being a smart little nipper, she’s going to shortly become bored with strumming the open, untuned strings. She’ll want to learn how to play the darn thing. Thank goodness it’s not the bagpipes.

Her parents could let her experiment until she miraculously discovers how to finger chords, but a smarter idea would be to ask her aunt Mary to teach her. As a culture we have thousands of years of experience with stringed instruments.

That’s true of every discipline I can think of—mathematics, auto repair, music, carpentry. Only in the visual arts do we persist with the notion that ‘freedom’ means dispensing with technique.

Skylarking, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 24X30, $3478 framed,

I was reminded of that while sailing aboard American Eaglelast week. One of my students is a high-school art teacher. “I realize art is about personal expression,” she said. “But how do you get them to understand there is a better way?”

It’s been a long time since I taught children, and I’ve never taught them in a school, where they’re under compulsion. But I have four kids of my own. I remember how mentally-inflexible they are at that age; they’re always certain they’re right. They don’t like adults touching their head space, but that’s what teachers are supposed to do. Meanwhile, they’ve been told that the art room is the one place in life where their thoughts and emotions have complete freedom. It’s no surprise that they guard that freedom zealously.

Back to basics: Karen experimented with various compositions before she started painting in Thursday’s class.

In fact, it’s not until they head off to RISD, where tuition, room and board will set them back an eye-watering $73,000 a year, that they may start listening to their art teachers. (In comparison, Pratt at $69,000, seems like a bargain, not.)

Meanwhile, the clarinetists and violinists among their peers will have had the benefits of private lessons and strict discipline. They’re used to following orders and practicing, and they don’t chafe at it.

But that’s not so in visual arts, and it’s not the fault of their teachers, but of the society that dismisses visual arts as the comic meanderings of dilettantes. This month’s offensive kick in the teeth is an Italian artist who sold a “column of light and air,” i.e., literally nothing, for $18,300. Parents aren’t wrong in wondering if art is just a con game, and teachers aren’t wrong in questioning the point of such a career.

Terrie’s sweet sketch for Thursday’s class.

Artistic kids are routinely told to pursue some other avenue of creative expression. After a career in teaching, industrial design, or marketing, they’ll finally wander back to me to try to recapture their first love, painting.

At which time I give them the carefully-scripted protocol that they should have had at age 14. As adults, their thinking has matured. They accept that is how art should be taught. They’ve had enough disappointment with their unguided attempts that disciplined learning is a relief.

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft. Expressive freedom rests on a solid base of experience and technique.