Interview with Walter Bartman

November 20th, 2006

Walter Bartman was my art teacher in high school in 1984-86 in Bethesda, Maryland. Students of “Mr. Bartman” were ten times more likely to become Presidential Scholars in Visual Arts than students in other art classes in the United States. Although he retired from high school teaching in 2001, Walter Bartman continues to teach landscape painting in Maryland and in workshops across the U.S. and in Europe.

Artwork in this post is plein air painting by Walter Bartman [click images to enlarge]. This interview was edited for publication together with Leslie Holt

KARL ZIPSER: Walter Bartman, you give effective training in how to draw and paint, but you also give students the feeling that painting is important, help them find a passionate devotion to art. What are the key ingredients for creating an art community like the one you create among your students in your high school class?

WALTER BARTMAN: Karl, I like to think that all ideas need a catalyst, like a fire needing a spark. As an idea person, I realized I could never see all my ideas to fruition. That is what has made teaching so important to me. I found that I could share my enthusiasm and ideas for discovery with my students. I have always seen myself as someone who puts things into motion. Teaching was the perfect field for me and my temperament, though when I graduated from college, I didn’t value the importance of the profession. That came when I had actually taught and seen my impact.

As an artist, I am striving for a breakthrough in personal awareness. I feel that is what all of the “fields” of creativity are about. That should be their mission, to go beyond what is known. How you get there has many paths. I follow a path that is grounded on “digging the garden,” as Matisse put it. It is the Zen of working. Sharing that with people of similar interest seems so easy. Today, most of my students are adults and they like the younger students have seen what inspiration does at any age.

I have always led my life with six ideas…

  1. You can paint the sky any color you want and it will eventually happen (Any thing we dream can happen because it wouldn’t if we weren’t able to think it).
  2. The color you see is made by the color you just saw (everything is relative).
  3. It is the invisible in art that needs to be found, not the visible (clues are in the visible).
  4. The holy men wrote the books, they didn’t read them (be inspired to express what is in your head).
  5. The universe is inside me (all sensations are internalized).
  6. The mind prevents me from seeing, not my eyes (Getting the mind to see more…gaining a perspective on how you think)…

The most important reason I draw and paint is because I can see my ideas that are in my mind on paper. I came to realize this when I was very young. I could see in my drawings that “my personal ideas come alive”.

I always encouraged my students to build their ideas on their temperament (personal sensitivity). Understanding the perspective each student brings is important, because they share their ideas with others. Like the gardener, the plant needs nourishment at a young age, not pruning to soon. Too much direction is not healthy, I want my students to have an utmost belief in their personal ideas. I helped validate their own discoveries, with that comes personal intellectual growth.

KARL: Walter, your words give me a vivid recollection of the inspiration I felt when I joined your class 22 years ago. In addition to what I gained directly from you in the student/teacher relationship, I also got much support and encouragement from your other students. Do you think this community spirit developed as a side-effect of your method of teaching individual students, or did you also specifically strive to nurture the feeling of community?

WALTER: Karl, Community has always been something I feel has made great movements in the arts, science or math. It was my intention from the very beginning to build a community of young artists as the future generation. I have always felt that human thought is collective. We build ideas on the thoughts of others. If you can bring a group of very creative people together in a sharing environment, they will support each other and challenge each other to go beyond the instructor’s expectations. I was always impressed by the enthusiasm of the students for idea making through the visual art of painting.

KARL: Can you comment on your approach to building this strong community of artists?

WALTER: When I came to Walt Whitman high school, I soon realized that I would build my program around a nucleus of very talented students. That nucleus would pull other students in because of the high standards and enthusiasm of a small group of students. Each year, a new group would follow. They would be identified in the beginning classes and encouraged to challenge the older students. That kept the older ones from being complacent. I was fortunate to have some really fine students. I found that each year produced a strong group of students. Instituting a yearly festival art exhibition at the school gave the students an opportunity to be showcased for their ideas. I feel creative people need to have some opportunity to display who they are.

I always tried to build a community. It wasn’t ever about one student. I find when I teach, I do it to a group, not single students. I also befriended my students. I was there to validate and support each student who gave 100%. If you remember my grading system, students only received A’s & E’s. If they received an E, they could always make up the work. I also found that quantity made quality, so I always required a lot of work.

The work I assigned was based on contemporary movements. I felt my students were a part of that movement and had something to add. It is funny, but looking back on the work in my classes, some of it was very profound for anyone at any age. I guess that is why my program was nationally recognized.

KARL: You have succeeded in building a tremendous environment for your students, a place where art matters. The results are, I think, astonishing.

However, when students left your class, even if they went to a good art school, they might discover that they do not have the same magic feeling about art as they had in your class community. What advice can you offer to your former students, and to those who will never be your students, for building and maintaining a creative environment in which to produce their art?

WALTER: The advice I would give to students is to see themselves as artists. That means they have to have the discipline to make their own work. They must be self motivated. They need to establish purpose and work toward it. They must have an absolute belief in their work and that it does make a difference.

Over the years, I tried to prepare my students for an exciting life full of art. I hoped that their experiences in my classes would prepare them. I realized after talking to a number of students that when they went off to school, many of the programs just didn’t offer that spark they were looking for. After hearing their concerns, on their return from their schools, I counseled them to seek out a community of artists nearby or to form one.

I hoped that their experience of studying with me would be enough to eventually lead them to being productive artists. All I could do was to prepare them. Hopefully, upon leaving my program, they were working as artists and just not students. Artists have to be self-motivated. I tried to instill that in their work ethic.

As their teacher, I know I instilled a guilt complex for not working up to their potential. I guess I had expectations for them. That is something I know is still present in their minds years later. However, if there is one thing I had hoped they carried with them, it would be that art makes for a fulfilling life. It is something they could do anywhere at anytime.

KARL: Will you take questions from readers here?


. . .

29 Responses to “Interview with Walter Bartman”

  1. birgit Says:

    Having had a science mentor, in my youth, who instilled a sense of ugly competitiveness among students, I respect your intention to create a ‘community of young artists’among your students. – I will take your six ideas to heart. I hope that, someday, I will have the opportunity to join one of your workshops.

  2. David Says:

    As an artist, I am striving for a breakthrough in personal awareness. I feel that is what all of the “fields” of creativity are about. That should be their mission, to go beyond what is known.

    Walter, Karl is very lucky to have had such a wonderful teacher. I had some good ones in college, but in high school my art teachers didn’t know much about being artists. They were encouraging (which I’m grateful for), but otherwise I was on my own.

    Here’s my question for you. How would you say the mission of an artist is different from the mission of a scientist?

  3. Leslie Says:

    What you instilled in me was a few amazing things I carry with me now, almost 20 years later:

    1. Work ethic. I was not one of those naturally gifted artists, but I had a vision that I could get good if I worked hard. So I think none of it came easily to me. I had to sludge through clunky paintings and work really hard and try really hard. I remember ugly, awkward paintings. I still make a lot of them! You encouraged us to make bad paintings and learn from them. You encouraged us to go past our comfort zone. You encouraged us to work through dry spells. By the time I got to college I had already experienced several bouts of “artist block” and knew I would not be trapped in them forever.

    2. Community. It has been hard to find such an amazing group since then. How many high school students paint city lights into the wee hours of the morning in the light of a storefront in the cold? How many high school students go to a farm to paint cows all weekend? I had so many mentors.

    3. If a student wanted to be an artist, you opened the door. It was not for everyone, but you injected it in us, and for some of us it will always be in our blood. I have “left” art several times, and always came back out of necessity.

    4. Love of teaching. I find myself saying things to my students that you said to me! It kind of scares me, but in a delightful way.

    5. Make art personal (even if the personal is very intellectual). I am not sure I could thank you enough for this.

    Obviously, I could write a lot on this topic, but that’s enough for now. I will ask questions later too.

  4. Arthur Whitman Says:


    There appear to be some uncanny parallels in our backgrounds. At about sixteen, I spent a year in a Connecticut private school where I had the good fortune of working with the plein air painter David Brewster. David worked mainly with oil on paper He inspired and brought together art students in a way similar to Walter. It took me half a decade or so to recover that sense of community. I fear that I’ve lost it again. Anybody who has an influence like that as a teenager is very lucky.

    My grandparents (on my father’s side) also lived for over twenty years in Bethesda. My grandmother lives nearby still.

    I wonder about how you got involved with science. Did it happen at the same time, or is it something you got into later?

  5. Karl Zipser Says:


    I’d like to ask about your night paintings. Is it more difficult to paint at night? Well, I know that it is, because I have tried it. How do you do it so well? You capture the night colors perfectly. But at night it is so difficult to see colors well when one is painting, even by artificial light. These night paintings capture the feeling of night, the spirit of darkness.

    Another thing I find intriguing about your artwork is the way you capture a unique American viewpoint with your landscape painting, which refers to but is not dominated by or derivative of French plein air painting of the 19th century. I find it good that you can work in reference to an older school of painting, make your own statement, but not waste painting energy trying to pretend you never heard of impressionists.

    Finally, I’m impressed with the way you can take such mundane subjects as pickup trucks and make them into something beautiful to look at. This gives an honesty to the work that is refreshing.

  6. Karl Zipser Says:


    Good point about Walter. If it were not for him I would probably be stuck in some well paying, interesting job. That said, I do feel lucky to have been in his class.

  7. Karl Zipser Says:


    It was a great group, wasn’t it? I have never felt quit that magic again, although I have searched in many cities and countries. I found groups of artists with all the wacky qualities we had back in Bethesda. But I never found a group that got stuff done the way we did. Walter was able to combine wackiness with drive, direction.

  8. Karl Zipser Says:


    Interesting parallels, I agree. I got interested in science when I went to college. I got interested in art again some years later after I got my science Ph.D. The obvious thing seemed to be to look for an inspirational community of artists. I did find some artists in Amsterdam who inspired me, but we never had a large functioning group as I experienced in high school. I eventually realized that I would have to do it mostly all by myself, or with one other person.

    Reading art history, it is clear to me that much of what we think of as great art comes out of active art communities. So I have always felt that the lack of a tightly knit community was a loss, but I’ve tried to do the best I can.

  9. Rex Crockett Says:

    I read this interview with great interest. Karl mentioned several times it was forthcoming.

    I was not fortunate to find good art teachers in high school or college. The ones I did find, I could not take seriously because I could not respect their work, so I would never take their classes. I came away from my formal schooling with the impression that art teaching in America had been usurped by champions of the mediocre. I followed the harshest of self teaching paths and put myself through no end of grief trying to reconstruct the methods of dead painters from books and museum studies.

    Problematic for me with my recalcitrant attitude towards art teachers was the fact that my mom, now passed on, was a great artist and teacher. No other teachers could measure up, and of course (Mamma’s boy I was and am) I was and am biased, But my mom would have loved Mr. Bartman.

    I know, from what I’ve just read, that I do too.

    I look upon the spirit of group those who participated in Mr. Bartman’s classes and I am a little teary eyed with envy… longing really. I would have loved that as a teenager. It is certain I would have had no problem with respecting this work. I would have found great inspiration in the fact that Walter Bartman shows how it is possible to express profound, powerful emotion in scenes that to the eyes might have been rather ordinary landscapes. I mean look at this stuff! It screams with feeling. YOW!

    And I have for YEARS been trying to figure out how to do night paintings. I still can’t! So when Leslie says how you guys would work by the light of storefront window I go “Ah HA!”

    I shall bookmark this post and read it again and again. I know wisdom when I see it. Thank you.

  10. Colin Jago Says:

    The most important reason I draw and paint is because I can see my ideas that are in my mind on paper. I came to realize this when I was very young. I could see in my drawings that “my personal ideas come alive”.

    This fits nicely into the discussion on the next post. Does inspiration come from the mind or from the world? And how does the answer to that quesion affect which artform we choose and how we work.

  11. David Says:

    My mind is part of the world, so it’s really hard for me to think of these things separately.

  12. Colin Jago Says:


    My mind is part of the world, so it’s really hard for me to think of these things separately.

    Now there is an opening to talk about the theory of mind………perhaps not. My scanner is at long last working again.

  13. David Says:

    Colin, I’ll let you run w/ that one :)

  14. Walt Bartman Says:

    David’s question: Here’s my question for you. How would you say the mission of an artist is different from the mission of a scientist?

    Answer: As Francis Bacon said, The importance of art is to deepen the mystery. I believe the scientist’s job is to attempt to explain the mystery.

  15. Walt Bartman Says:


    Night painting is for night people. If you like to stay up late and want something to do, try painting at night.

    Here are my recommendations: Stand under a light or have some artificial light source, car lights, camping lanterns or flash lights will do. Organize your palette. Know where the white is and the yellow or you could be in for a big surprise. I usually tell people to tone their canvases orange or red because the color is easier to see on red. Work value which is easy because the light doesn’t change. Try to think warm and cool contantly, sensing the color by temperature. A lot of my color work is done by feeling over seeing.

    Night subjects can be unique and challenging…and before you know it it is 2 AM…

  16. David Says:

    Walter, good answers! Thanks.

  17. Rex Crockett Says:


    Thanks for the great tips. Solid gold.

  18. Homa Assar Says:

    Thanks for this great interview. The questions were intelligent, that’s why we also had intelligent responses.
    Walt is not only a great artist and philosopher, he is also a great “mover”, as he said. I will never forget how he shocked me into action, when on my first workshop with him, I asked him what if it rains?! He simply said: “You just get out there and paint!” I thought it’s as simple as that! Wow! I had never thought of it that way! It may sound trivial, but it did make a profound change in me.
    Wishing you all many more successful years

  19. Leslie Says:

    Ok Bartman (that’s what we called you in high school, and old habits die hard),

    Here’s a question for you that I have had for awhile (and Karl inspired me to ask based on his recent posts “Why Paint?”):

    I feel like you steered your students away from painting/drawing from photgraphs in an adamant, almost religious way, that to work from photos was somehow untruthful. And part of me totally gets that approach because photos do flatten things out and they are pre-composed images, taking away a lot of the looking and thought process (in particular if the artist did not take the photo). And when beginning to learn to draw, I absolutely believe in working from life only.

    I read with interest that you consider your students to be involved in a contemporary movement of some kind – “The work I assigned was based on contemporary movements. I felt my students were a part of that movement and had something to add. ”

    I finally shook my apprehension of painting from photos a few years ago and found it opened up huge possibilities for my work, both in subject matter, intimacy of points of view, catching ephemeral images, etc… And looking at how much digital culture has influenced how we see and contemporary approaches to painting, what are your beliefs about using photography/video now? How can we be truly contemporary without acknowledging (and perhaps working from) the photographic/digitally generated image? Obviously for your work, you still beleive strongly in direct observation with little or no mediation. Do you react to it by believing even more strongly in the handmade, directly observed art? And how do you approach that with students now? And are there any contemporary artists whose work is obviously influenced by digital media that interests you?

    Ok, that was several questions, but I am really curious so I hope you can answer them…

    Your fan, Leslie

  20. Walt Bartman Says:


    Why paint? Photography is a very descriptive art form. Does it have the potential and power to superceed painting?

    I don’t believe it does, but many people do.

    Painting and Photography …They are both valuable art forms. Like my sketch book, I carry my Fugi S2 with me every where I go. My Fugi is a great idea tool, like my sketch book….but it is different. Perhaps a little distant, a little remote and less personal to me. I prefer ideas from my own hand. As Picasso said, Do you want to know what is in an artist’s mind, watch the artist’s hand. In Drawing & Painting, I can feel the measurement of a line or two colors. I know it’s distance, it’s temperature…. I don’t in Photography.

    For me visual rythmn, the dance of the eye is important. It is all about the dance and how the eye acquires information and the mind defines and interprets it. That is where Painting and Photography are different for me.

    Photography is a very basic principle, it is light imprinted on film. It is like a footprint in the snow. It isn’t the foot… There is something some what unatural about the photo. I don’t feel I see the kind of image represented in a photograph. That is why I paint.

    Your question is why I choose not to use the photograph. I believe in personal interpretation and personal experience, feeling the cold…Funny, my camera doesn’t work in the cold.

    To argue that one artform is more important than the other, is not important. Every artform expresses something that makes it unique. If I felt that the photo was the most accurate form for expressing my way of seeing, I would employ it as my primary artform.

    In guiding students, I knew through personal experience that they needed to value their unique vision. I as the validator (teacher), encouraged them and you, to not rely on the photographic image because it was too confining, and at their age it would limit their ability to see beyond the image.

    Life’s experiences are a great teacher,I can share my own experience as a commercial artist. My very first client brought me a job to draw an airplane unlike any that could be recognized as being built by a specific company. I drew the image from my imagination and was applauded for my creative ability. I did not rely on any outside sources.

    Then I was introduced by the art director to the morgue file (photographic ideas) and I never again produced anything that I felt came close to relying on my own imagination.

    This is one of the reasons I left my job as a commercial artist and went into teaching art.

    I realize that many artists today rely on the photographic image and they use it in a variety of ways. It isn’t a problem for me when students who are working with me ask why I don’t encourage working from the photographic image. I just tell them that I value their ideas more, when they are confident to express things the way they see them.

    I always would tell them, “You can’t take a picture of what is in your mind”

  21. Birgit Zipser Says:

    Hi Walter, I want to portrait landscape in its full 3-dimensionality. So far, I have not succeeded doing that using photography with a canon powershot. My hunch is that even better equipment would not help me because I would always be limited by the physics of the lens.

    I grew up at a bay of the North Sea, unknowingly, spending a lot of time training my eyes looking over wide areas. Now, I live near the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, another fascinating 3-dimensional landscape. My plan is to draw every day to learn to capture 3-dimensionality and then learn how to paint.

    My question is whether you think that in portraying space 3-dimensionally I could learn to use subtle distortions to bring wider area into view and still have it look plausible.

  22. Walt Bartman Says:

    Dear Birgit,

    Yes…it is possible. I live in an area where there are long, wide vistas. I usually work on a canvas that is 24″ x 48″…but to really push the idea, I should probaly work on a 24″ x 96″ canvas, griding the canvas into peripheral sections. Treating each one as a separate painting and visually connecting the as one panoramic view. I would want the center of the painting to feel closer than the outside edges.

    I would suggest remembering that there are 4 vanishing points, top to bottom, side to side…

    Are you familiar with Hockney’s book, Secret Knowledge? He has a number of photo collages of the figure that might be interest to you.

    The artist Rackstraw Downs has worked in a similar way.

    Three dimension as an illusion in painting has been it’s “Holy Grail”.. Drawing can help with perspective as long as you concentrate on value over color. Color can be ambiguous, it doesn’t occupy it’s space…In using color, understanding the sculptural properties of color is important…and that is relative…

    Holbein was known for experimenting with the illusion of dimensions as in his painting the Ambassadors. Optics were important to the artists of that time period.

    Poussin, as many of his collegues, made minature 3 dimensional landscapes to paint from.

    Years ago I completed a painting of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, in Pittsburh, Pa. It had a long vista of train tracks. To paint it, I realized that I would have to go beyond my peripheral vision. I decided to try and capture 3 dimension by painting two canvases and displaying them as a dyptic in the corner of a room instead of on a flat wall as is the traditional presentation. So the painting was in the shape of a “V”. I thought that after I completed the painting, I would continue to work exploring that idea, because of the ideas uniqueness. I felt I was explaining the feeling of three dimension. Unfortunately,I sold the painting, before I ever displayed it, and haven’t explored the concept since then.

    I would be interested in hearing of your ideas and your experiments.

  23. Walt Bartman Says:

    What do you mean by an American view point?

  24. Walt Bartman Says:

    Leslie, Do you remember a painting you did as one of your very first paintings of the Smithsonian Castle. Am I correct?

  25. Paul Butzi Says:

    I decided to try and capture 3 dimension by painting two canvases and displaying them as a dyptic in the corner of a room instead of on a flat wall as is the traditional presentation.

    I have an opportunity to do a show in a space that has a corner that would be just perfect for this. It’s not quite symmetric, one wall is slightly longer than the other. And the walls are fair long. So I am now thinking about, say, seven related photos arranged in the corner, four on one wall, three on the other.

    Did you do some experiments along these lines? Any lessons learned?

    It seems like an awesome idea.

  26. Leslie Says:

    Yes, I do remember! In fact, I think about that painting often! I will have to search for it in my parents’ attic. It was the summer between 8th and 9th grade. I had cut my toe in the lawn mower so couldn’t go to tennis camp (thank god). SO my mom found your summer class and I sigend up, having no idea that I was getting into 4 hours a day five days a week in the hot humid summer sun!

    The painting was acrylic and had a kind of magical Rousseu feel to it (very naive, defined, almost cut out forms), with the Smithsonian castles and the brightly colored carousel at the bottom. What I remember is that my colors were really dull and you kept walking around to me (I was sitting on the gravel path) and said to intensify the colors in those reddish brown castles. And I had no fricking idea what you were talking about, because they just looked brown to me, but I dutifully kept re-mixing the color and laying it on. You must have come around 6 times over a period of a couple of days and still were not happy with the intensity. Finally you came over to my palette and mixed some cadmium red and burnt sienna and not much else and painted it on my painting. It took me aback because I was shy and had just started painting and was terribly intimidated by the whole process and didn’t know you. You put some of that red down and then you mixed a bright blue and lay that on the sky area and said “see how those colors sing?” or soemthing like that. And it clicked.

    My memories are very vivid of those summers… very spotty but vivid… I recently gave a talk to some students at an exhibit of mine and I tried to tell them how powerful that summer landscape class was and explained “en plein air” to them. They were nonplussed. I consider those experiences to be where I learned to paint, where I learned about color and light in particular.

    What were you thinking about that painting?

  27. Walt Bartman Says:

    Paul, I didn’t explore the idea as much as I felt I could. I did find myself thinking about the concept often and visualing that there are many possiblities.

    I find it interesting, especially because rooms are angular. I feel the corner deepens the space of a painting and could work with photography as well.

  28. Walt Bartman Says:

    Leslie, Why would I remember that day after all these years?…I remember that particuler painting and the blue and yellow canopy…It is iteresting how paintings etch themselves in our minds. You may not have valued it, but with my experience, I still remember it vividly and that is why I asked.

  29. Birgit Zipser Says:

    Hi Walt,

    I am happy about your advice that different methods complement one another.

    I introduced Karl to drawing 3-D when he was tiny. He was fond of drawing trains driving from the right to the left on his easel. One day, I added a street light in front of his train and Karl had a fit. “Mom, the light cuts through the train”. “No, Karl, the light is in front of the train.” Karl fought hard but then suddenly caught on. It was a special moment. From then on, we drew trains that started in the foreground and became smaller as they disappeared into the distance. Karl continued drawing while I became distracted with other activities.

    Never too late to change. Thank you for your offer to stay in touch.