Back to School Recommendation


Lucky is the student who gets Clara Lieu as their teacher. Currently she’s an adjunct professor in the Freshman Foundation Program at Rhode Island School of Design. How do I know how good she is? I teach Sophomores at RISD, and one question I always ask my students in conferences is who they’ve had as influential teachers, to which all of Clara’s ex-students reply, “I was lucky. I had Clara Lieu.”  She’s a passionate, no-nonsense, wise and informed teacher, not unlike how she behaved as my student, years ago. Teachers, too can be lucky to have her in their class.

Now all of us can have Clara Lieu as their teacher, because she’s put many of her lessons for students, artists and teachers in a book called Learn, Create and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life


Here’s a taste, from the section which gives advice to  students:

See every assignment as an opportunity

“The biggest failure is that I am approaching weekly assignments as assignments.” -student

If you treat your homework as only homework, that’s all it will be. When you’re not interested in your efforts, it’s always glaringly obvious to everyone else. Beware of apathy. Your work should be an opportunity, not an obligation. There’s nothing more discouraging than seeing someone who is clearly not invested.

If you treat your homework as a chance to push yourself and/or to create something new, ambitious, and distinctive, that’s exactly what you will do. One of my favorite stories involves an assignment I gave a few years ago on the topic of “layers.” I walked into the classroom on the morning of the group critique and saw that one student had drawn chickens and eggs. I thought to myself, What the hell is he thinking?!

When it came time for the student to present his drawing, he said, “Well, Clara, the assignment was on ‘layers’ so I looked up the definition in the dictionary and it said that a ‘layer’ is a chicken that lays eggs. So I drew ‘layers.’” He had an air-tight premise and I couldn’t nail him on a thing.

Many students view the parameters of an assignment as a set of difficult rules that strangles their creativity. Instead, think of the parameters as a departure point with the final destination in your hands. In this case, the “layers” assignment was interpreted in the most unexpected manner and yet still was perfectly within the boundaries. The student used the requirements to fuel an innovative concept.


Ideas will always prevail over technique.

“The first good idea is almost never the best idea, and now I try to churn out ideas constantly, one after another, through the good and bad, and record them all.” -student

I went to art school with loads of people who could run circles around me with their technical skills. I think there are hundreds of thousands of people and probably more in the world whose technical skills put mine to shame.

If that’s the case, what possible chance do I have to distinguish myself? My ideas make the difference. Good technique will only take you so far. At the end of the day, it’s the ideas that matter. Make your work an op-ed piece: Express an opinion or point of view that can only come from you. Don’t create a book report that only regurgitates sterile facts.

Collect all of your ideas. Have a sketchbook or journal with you all the time so that you can record anything that comes up. Think about your sketchbook as primordial soup in which anything is possible and as visual documentation of the inner workings of your mind. Always be on the hunt for ideas and images. Your sketchbook should brim with raw concepts, random thoughts, and unfiltered content. After all, you never know when something will surface that could become valuable in the future.

Exorcise yourself of the most obvious solutions and your work will become more original. The first idea is never the best one. When I get started, I purposefully sketch out on paper my most cliché attempt so I can get rid of it and move on to something more distinctive and innovative. Then I make sure to exhaust every possibility. Sometimes you can figure out what to do by simply knowing what you don’t want to do. A process of elimination can be very effective and bring you closer to where you want to be.

For more information on Clara Lieu’s book and teachings, check out her blog. Lot’s to learn there, too.