The Blog: Learning through teaching

Learning through teaching

Jul 3, 2023 | Process, Teaching

A bit of botanical color theory—students practiced painting color ramps in watercolor. From top to bottom: tints; color complements; shades. Color inspiration from pineapple sage.

On Friday, I wrapped up a two-week course, teaching botanical illustration as part of CSU Monterey Bay’s Summer of Science Illustration program. Botanical illustration is my favorite subject to teach, and plants are a wonderful subject matter for observational drawing—they come in such varied and beautiful forms and colors, and unlike birds or mammals or bugs, they hold still. Over the course of 9 days, we covered botanical anatomy, color theory, watercolor and colored pencil techniques, and botanical art throughout time. The classroom was filled with mason jars spilling over with flowers and vines and leaves; desktops were cluttered with pencils and paintbrushes and books and watercolor palettes. In short, it was heaven.

My students were varied in age and drawing experience, and the group came together quickly, sharing ideas, supplies, and encouragement. Conversations ranged from medicinal plants to fairy tales, from the best birding apps to why bees are so cute (we decided it’s their heart-shaped faces, big eyes, and fuzziness). One student, a botanist, answered our weird botanical anatomy questions (and gently corrected me when I misnamed something); an architect explained how, as a student, she and her classmates would help each other with the tedious work of shading pen-and-ink drawings. A retired art teacher told me about the lightfastness of red pigment, that it is the quickest to fade. Students shared all kinds of things with me—a brand of watercolor paper I’d never tried, a kind of paint I’d never seen, fancy pencil sharpeners and magnifying glasses and vintage gardening books. I left class each day exhausted from expending so much energy, but also exhilarated, because I’d learned so much.

I have worked from home since 2007, so I am used to working alone in a quiet house. Working from home suits me, and I can be super-focused and productive. But having a dog as my only on-site coworker does have its downsides. Dogs aren’t great at giving critiques on illustrations, or giving pep talks or brainstorming or sharing book recommendations. I do miss the camaraderie of being around others, and the kind of learning that happens just by being around other people. Teaching the occasional class is a way for me to connect with people and share the things I’m passionate about, but it goes both ways—I learn so much from students as well. Each time I teach, I have the familiar sensation of simultaneously learning lots of new things while also realizing how little I know at all. It’s kind of exhilarating—the discovery just keeps going on and on, and I keep meeting people who have so much to share.

This week I’m back to my regular illustration work, and settling back into a routine. I read emails, tidied my office, and took my dog on an extra-long walk—things I had a lot less time for when I was teaching. It’s nice to be back in my quiet home office, my dog snoozing at my feet. But I do miss the companionship of the classroom, and the back-and-forth trading of knowledge between teacher and student.

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