- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

Meghan Shea uses the strokes of a paintbrush to express herself. While some people communicate best through words, she specializes in visual images.

A senior fine arts student at George Washington University in Northwest, Ms. Shea, 21, is taking an independent study course in painting. Several self-portraits are among the projects she has created. Although she is unsure of her post-college plans, she hopes painting will always be part of her life.

“It seems like an endless struggle for betterment of your art,” she says. “Sometimes you wonder if you’re making any progress at all, … but sometimes there’s a moment when it’s worth it.”

Today’s universities and colleges are training this generation’s Michelangelos and Caravaggios. While some students study painting as a minor or elective, others receive undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field.

When instructing beginners, it’s important to stress the basics, says Thom Brown, assistant professor of art at George Washington University. He starts by making sure his pupils know how to translate what they observe in the three-dimensional world to the canvas, which involves developing their hand-eye coordination.

Understanding how to mix paint to create specific colors is essential, but is mostly learned by trial and error. In addition, students must become familiar with their materials, including the types of brushes and paints.

After reviewing the technical aspects of painting, Mr. Brown stresses that painters need to be able to generate ideas, otherwise, they will end up creating the same painting over and over again.

“They should start to be self-critical about their work,” he says. “At the beginning, they are dependent on an instructor, but eventually they need to know for themselves what’s good and bad.”

As a beginning exercise, John Morrell, assistant professor of painting at Georgetown University in Northwest, has his students make 100 different strokes on canvas. Although this may seem mundane, he says the best students find ways to vary color and brush movements.

“If they are going to be painters, they have to fall in love with painting,” he says. “Otherwise, a different medium may be better.”

Whatever the speciality, Mr. Morrell emphasizes that becoming an outstanding artist does not happen overnight. Painters, like other artists, must develop their own vision as they continue to enhance their skills.

“It’s something that’s a progression over time,” he says. “It requires patience and the ability to let things develop.”

As a painter’s style evolves, the individual’s work usually becomes either more figurative or abstract, says Barry Nemett, chairman of the painting department at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Figurative painters specialize in depicting people in the natural world. Abstract painters are more representational, focusing on space and color interactions of imagined realities.

“Students create their own visual problems in the studio and go about finding inventive ways of solving them,” Mr. Nemett says. “The students learn how to be creative.”

Natalie Provosty, 21, a senior painting major at Maryland Institute College of Art, paints large-scale interior works in the 4-foot-by-6-foot range. Although she does mostly figurative pieces, she also enjoys creating landscapes. She studied in Florence, Italy, for four months earlier this year.

Although she is aware of the obstacles, her ultimate goal is to work as a professional painter. She has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to India to study painting, starting next fall. She also is considering a move to New York City.

“[Painting] affords me occupied time to think in a meaningful way,” she says. “It’s purposeful. It’s something that feels right in my heart. I feel like it’s a calling. … Painting is definitely a very spiritual experience. It’s not connected with religion. … It’s an honest search for truth.”

Although painting is no longer the dominant art form in Western culture and is somewhat overshadowed by film and photography, it is still the traditional way to depict ideas visually. Since it’s been around since the day of cave art, it will never go out of fashion, says John Figura, chairman of the art department at Catholic University of America in Northeast. Painting is distinguished by its physical nature and the ability to manipulate the work with the hands.

Sometimes, contemporary artists combine paintings with digital pieces or photographs. Mr. Figura routinely takes his students to view other artists’ work to receive inspiration for their own. His classes visit places such as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Southwest and Signal 66 in Northwest.

Although his students are aware of the trends, it doesn’t mean they will be influenced by them. True artists make original statements instead of mimicking someone else’s ideas, he says.

“Painting today is totally wide open,” he says. “There is no dominant trend. There is no ‘ism.’ It gives an artist free rein to do whatever they want, but within the total range of freedom is difficulty in selecting what to do.”

Even though parents may discourage their children from pursuing a career in painting, students need to be able to follow their dreams, says Judy Baus, professor of fine arts at Marymount University in Arlington.

While painters are becoming established, they can give lessons to other students for income, she says.

“You have to love what you do and do what you love,” she says. “It’s tough to make a living at it, but there are ways.”

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