In the last class of her fall course, Debbie Ottman-Smith set up a complicated still life, then, referring to a vibrant painting of objects outlined in yellow, she described what the day’s project was all about.
Debbie has been teaching acrylic painting at the KSOA since 2000. A successful portrait artist, she graduated from the St. Lawrence College art program in 1978 with honours and a major in painting. She considers herself a “normal”, not “gifted” painter, and when she conceived a title for her course, she considered “If I Can Do It, Anybody Can”. But the title was already copyrighted. So she settled on “Anyone Can Paint & I’ll Prove It!” Debbie good-naturedly but determinedly smacked her fist into her hand as she said this. Because she has proved it. In her 19 years at the school, after teaching almost 500 students, there have been only 2 or 3 deserters. “I keep teaching because the rewards are so great,” she said. As her students discover and nurture their painting skills, she explained, they build confidence on many levels, including outside of the classroom.
Helen MacIntyre was one of the student artists in this class. She admitted that some days during the course, while experiencing beginner’s frustration, she thought she would prove Debbie wrong in her choice of title. Ultimately, however, she learned a great deal from Debbie’s practical tips about paint and technique. Helen’s painting entitled Time for Reflection (after American artist Christina Dowdy), pictured here, is a testament to her progress. During this last class she was fully engaged in the Yellow Line project.
Debbie told me that her students have the opportunity to work on five projects during the 10-week course. The first, which she calls Grisaille, involves value studies and an introduction to the colour wheel, as well as to under painting and glazing. The second, Learning Tree, allows students to explore different painting techniques before they move on to the third, Copy Cat, which encourages students to emulate their favourite artist. Debbie calls this one an apprenticeship. Project Four, called Textured Canvas, involves the creation of faux impasto. And then we come to the final project, Yellow Line*.
Serving as a teaching tool is Debbie’s still life called My Little Corner, composed of objects that are important to her—among them an apple (for the teacher that she is), a plant in a basket (from her uncle’s funeral), a heart-shaped candy dish (indicating a new beau) and, of course, a tin of paintbrushes. The colourful objects and luminous yellow outlines give the piece a tropical look, full of energy, magical, almost like stained glass. As Debbie described the
painting and how the afternoon would unfold, she punctuated her instructions with “Does that make sense?” or “Are you with me?”
Shelagh McDonald was in Debbie’s class for the second time and, although she was working on her own projects in oil, Yellow Line intrigued her enough to participate again this time around. She told me she enjoys working at her own pace alongside like-minded individuals. Debbie, who sends the class copious handouts via email, acted as her advisor in class and in the virtual world.
In this acrylic painting course Debbie aims to teach what is relevant and what will allow student artists to continue on their own. She explained further: “I’ve taken all of my own good and bad experiences with professors, made sure I emulate the good ones and leave out the bad.”
As we began our detailed yellow contour painting, Debbie encouraged us to feel relaxed with the brush. And as we started adding colour intuitively, she reminded us, “Don’t listen to spouses or friends when you’re making art. Always please yourself.”
*adapted from an exercise in Betsy Dillard Stroud's book, Painting From the Inside Out.
Anyone Can Paint & I’ll Prove It! is being offered again starting Sept. 16, 2019.
Details and registration.