Thursday, November 3, 2016

Wonderful World of Workshops

30 minute Charcoal sketch on Art Spectrum primed paper. 
This really bad sketch was done at a (sort of) workshop I participated in a couple of weeks ago. The very talented Cecile Houel (pronounced like the word Well) gave a demo at the Iowa Pastel Society meeting and those in attendance tried to follow her techniques. So I tossed out everything I usually do and tried my best to follow her instructions. Her way of approaching portraits is very different from the way I do it but one of the points of taking a workshop is to learn new things. DUH!  But unfortunately it's not such a duh moment for a lot of people.
Between college courses and workshops I think I've met every kind of student there could possibly be.  I've probably been a few of them too, but everyone's entitled to their young and stupid years, right? On a frequent basis we hear about how bad teachers are.  Those of us who went to an art school can usually commiserate as we reminisce about the lazy professors who "never really taught us anything." But what about the students? Are we really the best students we can be?
Recently I had a conversation with a woman who teaches Zentangle. She was telling me about a group of women who signed up for her class and how after only a half hour into it she just quit teaching them. She said they were argumentative with her, complained about it the whole time, and kept asking why they were even doing it. Well, hopefully the next workshop they signed up for was one on etiquette, but they brought up good points. Unfortunately they were all points they should have asked themselves before they signed up for the workshop.
Sometimes it is fun to try new things but do a little research before you just jump into it. There's an excellent article written by L. Diane Johnson in PleinAir, a supplement to PleinAir Magazine. Her website is being revamped and her articles will be available soon, but until then here's a summary of what she said.

  1. Evaluate your skill level.  "Be honest with yourself on this one."  She goes on to explain how to tell if you're a beginner student, intermediate or professional.  I'd like to add something to this. Evaluate your skill level not only in your artistic abilities but social skills. Ask yourself, am I physically capable of sitting and listening to someone for two hours then trying it myself? Can I sit still and be quiet? Can I ask meaningful questions? Can I take constructive criticism? Will I be OK with it if my finished piece isn't a "masterpiece" when the class is over? It's a sad day when sitting still and being a good listener can be listed as a skill, but, trust me, this is what it's come to. 
  2. Evaluate Your Goals. "What do I want to do? Why do I want to take an art class? Do I want to become a professional artist? Do I want to dabble in art as a hobby? Do I want to just make gifts for friends and family?"  I think this is something more people need to do. Signing up for a workshop you're spending your money and time to learn something, make sure it's the right something and for the right reasons. A couple of years ago I went to a fund raiser dinner and they served some of the most amazing bread I'd ever eaten. The woman who made it told me she holds workshops and teaches how to make it. I actually told her what my goal was, I wanted to learn how to make that specific bread. A couple weeks after that I was in her home learning how to make it and I still make it, there's some sitting on my counter as I type this. My goal was specific and therefore the workshop was successful and well worth my time and money.  
  3. What Kind of Art to Create. "Do you want to be a painter? If so, using which medium and in what style?"  THIS! This kills me. How many times have I gone to a pastel workshop and someone shows up with oil pastels? Or an oil painting workshop and someone shows up with acrylic. Don't sign up for a workshop and try to change the "rules" on the teacher. If the teacher is giving an oil painting workshop don't bring watercolour and expect them to bow to you. Also, if you want to paint realistic portraits don't sign up for a workshop with an abstract expressionist. Would you expect to learn how to ballroom dance from someone who square dances? 
  4. How to Begin. "Identify places offering classes and workshops:  Find out what resources you have in your immediate area. Are there colleges or universities where you could take classes? Read registration and art class descriptions carefully: Does it describe exactly what you want to learn? How much will you have to spend for the course and for materials? How large will the class be?"  One time I took a workshop where we had to pay a deposit to hold our spot in the class, which is perfectly fine most of the time. This particular time two of the students paid the deposit and only stayed for the demonstration. What's wrong with that? Well, for one it's incredibly rude and selfish. The class was limited to a certain number of students, there were probably two students who didn't get in the class who would have loved to participate. Then the teacher didn't get their full pay. If you only want to sit in on the demo contact the teacher and arrange something. Most teachers wouldn't find it a problem to have you pay a minimal fee to sit in on the demo to see if it's something you might like to do, similar to auditing a college course. "Talk to the instructor: if you don't do anything else, do this. I spent years and many dollars taking classes that were not what they said they would be, and were taught by those who could not teach or were not skilled themselves in the subjects they were offering."  She goes on to say that you should be honest with the instructor, tell them your skill level and your goals. This not only helps to prepare them on what they need to bring to the table but it will also help give them ideas on what to demonstrate. I still take watercolour classes with John Preston and every once in awhile he asks the class what we want to tackle. I always say clouds because I suck at clouds. My goal is to not suck at painting clouds. If I sat in the back of the room and never said what my goal was I'd never be closer to not sucking at clouds.  
  5. Expectations. "To maximize your time and make the most of your investment in the class or workshop, you should work as much as you can between classes.  Bring all the work you have done during the week back to the next class for the teacher to review.  Believe it or not, the work you do outside, between classes, may be what will benefit you the most! And if the instructor gives you outside projects, do them, and more if you can."  You've got to put in the work people! If you do five sit-ups before you go to bed tonight you better not expect to wake up tomorrow morning with washboard abs. You do those sit-ups consistently and over time you see results. Same with painting, or whatever it is you're trying to learn. 
  6. Conclusion. "Finding the right art class for you takes some time, but can be extremely rewarding! Find the best artist-teacher you can to save time, money and unnecessary frustration. With the right instruction, you'll soar to new heights and discover what can be done with your innate talent."  Finding the right teacher can be difficult but it's a two-way street. Are you a good student? Do you show up on time with an open mind to learn? Do you have a positive attitude about trying new techniques? 
We can't put all of  the blame on the teacher. God forbid we have to take responsibility of our own growth. (insert eye roll here) We need to be honest with ourselves. Are we getting what we need from the class? Are we putting in our best effort? The teacher/student relationship is like any other relationship, it needs good communication, a level of respect and most of all it requires work.


  1. FANTASTIC POST! I honestly wish my writing skills were as well as yours. Hmmmmm that means I need to look into a workshop on writing maybe :D. Seriously, I have to agree about the "learned" skill of "listening" and ones own expectations. Again, I really felt your post here is spot on with how a lot of people "feel" and needed to maybe..... see it in writing.

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback, it's nice coming from you since you also teach. I truly think it's a two-way street, in order to get the most out of a class/workshop all participants need to be at their best. Or at least try.