Artists always get questions about the nature of their training. People often ask me if going to art school is what turned me into a painter. The answer is yes… because when I was there I wanted to be a painter, and no, because I went to art school, but did not study painting.
I first developed a love of drawing and painting through a scholarship I was awarded at the Liga de Estudiantes de Arte in old San Juan. “La Liga” was then a fledgling arts non-profit supported almost exclusively through private donations (it is still going strong). Its instructors were practicing artists but several were older. Some worked for political organizations. They had learned to draw in the 1940s and with few exceptions, their work was representational. It may be that this academic approach is what La Liga asked them to teach in order to retain the interest of middle class families.
So at a very formative stage of my life as an artist, I was trained almost in the same way they were. Or perhaps the political thread of their work appealed to me. Something must have taken root, because by the time I went to college (against my dad’s wishes) I switched majors from science to visual arts.
Back in the 80s, feedback was typically vague (“do more of this”) and working from life did not receive the attention it does today. By the time I was working on my BFA at the University of Puerto Rico, I had done abstract work under various younger, edgier instructors. These experiences helped me realize that it was on me to become a representational painter. So instead of taking (abstract expressionist) painting courses, I switched specialties. My interest in drawing the human figure was rewarded at the printmaking department and its department chair encouraged me to continue drawing and to study perspective and anatomy. Her printmaking shop became my headquarters.
After college I moved to California, where art instruction was expensive by comparison. I was supporting myself with jobs that had nothing to do with art and found myself reading technical books and trying out various painting styles to supplement the gaps in my knowledge. It was a very slow, stop and go process. One year I was rejected by four different MFA programs. The only thing that did not change was the very strong drive I had to express myself through painting.
So this is why I think of myself as a self-taught painter. At times I wonder about the kind of artist I would have become if I had had painting instruction early on. Yet there isn’t anything I regret about my journey. I have learned enough about painting to appreciate the work of academic artists, while retaining enough of an outsider status to admire the work of those who have gone other ways. In the end, all that matters is that I kept painting.