9 Artists’ Art Lessons You Can Watch Online for Free
Hito Steyerl, still from How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .MOV File, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Instructional art has a storied history, from the Fluxus artists of the 1950s and ’60s to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “Do It!” exhibitions, based on artists’ written directions. Anti-elitist at its core, instructional art is grounded in the belief that art and artmaking should be accessible, open to interpretation, and playful and pleasurable, too.
Today, remote learning has become the new norm: We’re using video for everything from attending university classes to studying new languages or discovering how to proof sourdough. Arts education, long under fire for its exorbitant price tags, has moved online, too (leading some MFA students to request tuition refunds). But you certainly don’t need to be in a degree program to get an art education. And you can learn about art directly from artists, as these nine videos show.
As Bob Ross would say, let’s get crazy.
Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting, 1983–94
Possibly the only thing more pure than Animal Crossing is Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting series, which aired on American public television in the 1980s and ’90s. Today, we can access all 403 episodes on YouTube. Ross teaches everything from how to prime a canvas to the “wet-on-wet” method of oil painting (also called alla prima), in which paint does not need to dry before adding more layers.
In each half-hour episode, Ross guides viewers through the process of creating tranquil scenes filled with almighty mountains, fluffy clouds, and happy little trees. He speaks in the most gentle, ASMR-ish tones and sports an iconic, fuzzy perm. His approach to nature is as charming as his language. Trees are friends, and episodes often feature animal buddies like Peapod the baby squirrel or Hoot the owlet. In a time when many of us are feeling a pervasive sense of anxiety, what could be more soothing than turning on Bob Ross and perhaps picking up a paintbrush ourselves? After all, there are no mistakes, just “happy little accidents.”
Kim Beom,Yellow Scream, 2012
Sometimes, we need a different kind of catharsis, as provided in Kim Beom’s Yellow Scream, which premiered at the 2012 Gwangju Biennale. Many of the artist’s works combine pedagogy with absurdist humor; he might lecture rocks about the finer details of Korean poetry, or teach a ship that the sea does not exist.
In Yellow Scream, the deadpan narrator speaks in Korean, teaching us how to paint intense emotions—and as the title suggests, maybe work through the frustrations of racialized microaggressions, too. He demonstrates a painting technique where we “incorporate the sound of screams into the brush strokes.” Essentially, this means screaming while painting, with different timbres, mark-making, and shades of yellow to express different emotions. A long scream expresses hurt; little short exclamatory barks mean flashing pain; a dijon-like hue is filled with regret; grayish-yellow signals anger; and others symbolize unbearable confusion, irritation, and even joy.
Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995
Things get darkly comic in Paul McCarthy’s 1995 video Painter, which teaches viewers how to act like a successful artist, in a “fake it ’til you make it” kind of way. In it, the artist is seen inside a studio, dressed in a painter’s smock and wearing a blonde wig and several prosthetics, including a fake nose, big floppy ears, and oversized Mickey Mouse hands. The video parodies several familiar art world characters, all of whom sport the same bulbous nose: The artist visits his gallerist to plead for the money he is owed and, later, is assessed by a lineup of collectors. But the main target of its satire is the “great male artist”: At one point, McCarthy spins around while invoking Willem de Kooning; at another, he references Vincent van Gogh by theatrically slicing off a finger with a meat cleaver.
Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975
In Martha Rosler’s short video Semiotics of the Kitchen, the artist sends up traditional gender roles and the Betty Crocker archetype of a cheery, aproned housewife. The 1975 video takes the form of the cooking demonstrations that Julia Child popularized in the 1960s. Rosler is filmed standing in a kitchen, demonstrating how various tools work in alphabetical order. More than that, it’s a lesson in addressing patriarchal oppression.
Rosler explains that “E is for eggbeater” and “G is for grater,” but as she moves through the alphabet, her movements become less demure or helpful, and increasingly more frantic, jerky, and even violent. “Knife” is accompanied by a pantomimed, vengeful stabbing; invisible pancakes for “pan” are flipped in a way that could take out someone’s windpipe; and “R” is not just for “rolling pin,” but also for righteous, roiling feminist rage.
Cannupa Hanska Luger, How to Build Mirror Shields for Standing Rock Water Protectors, 2016
In some of the most enduring images of 2016’s Standing Rock demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, water protectors are seen holding up mirrored shields. These shields were the work of Standing Rock–raised artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, who createdHow to Build Mirror Shields for Standing Rock Water Protectors as part of the Mirror Shield Project. The tutorial circulated widely on social media, and supporters around the country made and sent in hundreds of shields. They glint in the winter sun, sometimes reflecting the riot police to allow them to see themselves and perhaps find some humanity, in a move inspired by protests in Ukraine and elsewhere. It’s the contemporary equivalent of sticking a flower in a gun, and has the added benefit of helping to evade facial recognition.
Yvonne Rainer, Passing and Jostling While Being Confined to a Small Apartment, 2020
Yvonne Rainer rehearsing a piece at the Judson Memorial Church gym, New York, 1962. Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images.
As dance history courses move online, pioneering dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer created a new work for a class at Yale that speaks to social distancing: Passing and Jostling While Being Confined to a Small Apartment. The course’s professor, Brian Seibert, recently shared the lesson in an article for the New York Times. The piece is an adaptation of a section of Rainer’s 1963 work Terrain, which directs performers to stand or walk around. In this new piece, the main idea is to keep up a steady rhythm of walking despite the confined space, clambering over furniture if need be. It is open-ended and adaptable to being alone or with others, as well as different levels of mobility—there is a sitting option. At a time when many of us are cooped up inside and unable to go to the gym, trying out Rainer’s piece offers us a new way to not only exercise, but to creatively avoid boredom, too.
Andrew Norman Wilson, Uncertainty Seminars—Group Therapy, 2014
Andrew Norman Wilson’s Uncertainty Seminars—Group Therapy is an instructional video based on French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of schizoanalysis. Its narrators are fluffy Chow Chow dogs with names like Tubbles and Tara_Reid, who are representatives of California’s La Borde clinic, a sunny version of the storied French namesake where Guattari worked for decades. Through a series of delightfully weird non sequiturs, we learn about the role of dogs in Freudian thought, from the psychoanalyst’s relationships with his own dogs and his fascination with doggy style to the formation of his theory of the Wolf Man.
Tom Sachs, 10 Bullets, 2010
Tom Sachs has made so many instructional videos that it’s hard to pick just one, but 10 Bullets certainly stands out. The video serves as a kind of orientation for anyone wishing to work in Sachs’s studio, laying out dos and don’ts for his staff. The rules range from sensible professional courtesies like being on time, not cutting corners, and following instructions—“work to code,” in studio parlance—to suggestions like keeping a list of tasks and always getting picture proof of deliveries.
Others get a little more idiosyncratic. Number eight is “always be knolling,” a term that means organizing like objects at parallel or right angles, and which sparked an Instagram trend. Number nine, meanwhile, is the studio equivalent of a swear jar, terrifyingly called “Sacrifices to Leatherface.” These charges include $2 for not having a pen and notebook on hand to take down lists, $10 for forgetting a task because it wasn’t on your list (Sachs clearly really believes in lists), and $20 for creating a fire hazard or leaving the studio unlocked. The fines double with each infraction.
Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .MOV File, 2013
Having technology pervade every aspect of our lives—especially now, with the widespread adoption of software like Zoom—comes with serious privacy concerns. Hito Steyerl has the answer in 2013’s How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .MOV File. In it, a robotic narrator drawls through several strategies of how to become invisible to cameras. Sometimes the strategies, which are silently illustrated by Steyerl against a green screen, are as simple as hiding, getting out of the camera’s field of vision, or just pretending you are not there, in the manner of a cat that thinks hiding behind a curtain with its paws peeking out makes it completely undetectable. Others still are more advanced, from CV dazzling–type camouflage—which uses makeup to confuse facial recognition sensors—to military techniques that evade aerial photography, accompanied by imagery in which the real melts into the virtual. Others, still—like “being female and over fifty,” “wearing a burqa,” or “being spam caught in a filter”—remind the viewer of marginalized populations that remain uncounted, under-resourced, and ultimately left behind.