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Photo taken from John Torreano

A Semester With John Torreano

Learning art with John Torreano, a constructive critic and a talented artist.

May 12, 2019

When I was around 11 or 12 years old, I discovered that I was “Not Any Good At Art”, and that most people were “Not Any Good At Art.” In my high school lessons, only the naturally gifted could thrive and embrace the weird projects we were assigned with ease, while the rest of us plebeians did the bare minimum in quiet frustration. We realized that we would never be able to make the images in our heads come to life in watercolors, clay tiles or recyclable materials.
To continue the clichés, I changed my mind about this assumption after watching a TED Talk. I had the mind-blowing realization that drawing (not to be confused with art in general) is a skill that can be learned. I looked up lessons online and tried to follow them, but schoolwork got in the way. So, I limited myself to the occasional doodle. When it was time to register for my first courses at NYU Abu Dhabi, I saw my chance and picked a course titled, Foundations Of 2D, which was taught by Professor John Torreano.
After looking up reviews about the class on Facebook, I decided to give it a try. The overall consensus seemed to be that the techniques taught would be basic and intuitive for people with prior drawing experience. I am not one of those people, so my first drawing in that class consisted of a few haphazard lines that looked like a human if you squinted at it, and for the first few weeks I could often be found in the library on Saturday afternoons taking hours to sketch a halfway decent apple or eraser.
The imposter syndrome may have crippled me if it wasn’t for Professor Torreano. One of the reasons he has such a talent for teaching was that he knows exactly what constructive criticism looks like. He would laugh gently at the beginner mistakes we made with proportions or line work, but always did so in order to explain how and what to improve. He wasn’t the type to say that ‘there’s no such thing as bad art’ but at the same time, he saw the intent and potential in everything we did. His judgement of our work was less about nebulous measures of effort, creativity or worst of all, collaboration, that I was so used to in high school. The real question was, did you understand and think about the technique you were supposed to practice?
His sense of humor and passion for his craft was also fun to see in action. As he took attendance, he would go off on weird and wonderful tangents, most of them involving joking, tongue-in-cheek to the point of obtuse observations about our names and native countries.
Whenever he said my name, he had to either say it in its entirety, “OliviA.. Brayy,” or with a sing-song intonation, “Oli-viaaaaaa.” He could fold his ears back towards his head and frequently did so to express mock disapproval. He asked the Emirati students to bring in any used abayas they had for a photography series he was working on and seemed genuinely surprised and grateful when people obliged. And he was a little bit deaf and made sure we were aware of that.
My lack of skill and experience became a strength in some ways — I was more inclined to simply follow the directions I was given since I didn’t know any other way of working and had the technical skills and personal flair of a child. I didn’t have the habit that more experienced students had — stylizing instead of drawing things as they were because I had no style to -ize. Drawing with charcoal, completing overlapping lines and getting proportions right became more natural throughout the course of the class
When we had to do self portraits using pencil, charcoal and ink to capture dark, medium and light tones in shading, I was happy with what I had done until I made the eyes too close together and too wide. And the lips too large. And the nose too angular. It was fine until it became the worst thing ever.
When Professor Torreano came to my portrait for review, I was sure I would get lovingly pilloried for it. But instead, he showed everyone how my shadows didn’t have lined borders, how I was able to create variety in the tones where it wasn’t always apparent, and how it was clear that I and nobody else drew this. ‘It’s not perfect and some might say it looks a little off, but she understood the task and did it well.’
I would go on to draw portraits of drag queens for my final project. When I posted my final works online, some of the comments were, to use the appropriate lingo, shady. Thanks, I didn’t need sleep anyway. This looks like a South Park character. She looks like her face is made of luncheon meat. Does she have the Zika virus?
They weren’t wrong, and they were funny, but what mattered to me was that my professor loved the idea from the get-go and his attitude got my classmates to appreciate the work I put in too, just as I appreciated theirs.
At some point out of boredom, I stumbled across his website. It is worth a browse. For a start, there are videos! Really old ones, where he has hair! And a beard! But in all seriousness, I would never have guessed that my professor and the man who made galaxies on a canvas were the same person. His sculptures and paintings are simple yet elegant and they shine with the youth and energy he brought to his classes.
I told him after our final class that if someone had told me a few months before that I would seriously consider majoring in visual art, I would assume that they had mistaken me for someone else. That was the only coherent sentence I could get out because I was trying not to look like I was trying not to cry.
He asked me to clarify: did I really have no experience in drawing before this? ‘This is...really impressive for someone who’s only been working at it for a few months.’ If I keep this up, he said, I’ll make great things. That was the first time in a while I believed someone’s compliment.
That was his last semester of teaching before he retired. This article came too late and isn’t even a unique story — I’m sure in his decades of teaching he has inspired many plucky young drawers before me. But more importantly, this positivity and skill in teaching and art, in general, isn’t even unique to this campus. As my first year here comes to a close, I have been consistently astounded at the intelligence, compassion and good humor that all the professors I’ve met have shown. I could write a tribute to so many of them, but still, I never thought that I would be anything other than Not Any Good At Art, and Torreano stood out by proving me wrong. Professor, if you ever end up reading this, with all of the feelings words can’t express but drawings can: thank you. Thank you for changing my life forever.
Oscar Bray is a contributing writer. Email him at
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