This morning, Richard Wong of Victoria, BC, Canada wrote, “Nervousness got the better of me when I recently demoed Chinese Brush painting. My hands shook. I felt really embarrassed. My demo was not very convincing. What can one do in situations like that, other than stop giving demos?”
Thanks, Richard. Demoing seems a straightforward business, but it’s loaded with problems. You’ll be glad to know that some truly excellent artists often strike out at demo-time. After forty years of demo-doing, I’ve learned to fake it. Here are a few thoughts:
Before you start, try to make eye contact with everyone in the room. This has the effect of turning your audience into friends who have their own anxieties and fears. As audiences these days tend to be mostly women, I quietly say to myself, “Mothers.” My own mother was a sympathetic and loving person, and somehow this word calms me down.
You need to have your stuff ready and squeezed out. Quickly tell everyone what you intend to do and how long it might take. Brief demos are best. Tell people to feel free to blurt out questions as you go along. Make it clear that a question asked by one person is often the same question on the minds of others. Keep preliminary verbiage as short as possible and dig right in.
It’s difficult to demonstrate and describe what you’re doing at the same time. A useful ploy is to let your work-in-progress trigger related educational anecdotes and insightful stories. This simple transition settles your nerves, aids your concentration, and may actually improve the quality of your demo.
Effective demo-doers often find it easier to answer questions than to give blow-by-blow accounts of their process. Don’t verbalize your every move. Keep asking yourself, “What do they really need to be shown?” It’s all about showing, not telling. And don’t worry about silent periods. If you’ve set people up properly, every silent period will be pleasantly punctuated with a valuable question from your group.
PS: “First he wrought, and afterward he taught.” (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Esoterica: The business of demo-doing is based on the observation that some demo-doers have a fairly good idea what they’re doing, and that demonstrating masterfullly is probably the most effective way for people to learn. In art, amateur and formulaic demo-doers can do more harm than good. Some actually guide others to new bad habits. To be effective, a demo-doer needs to take a group along on a think-on-your-feet adventure where the evolution of the demoed work stimulates the viewers and brings them to their own epiphanies. No matter how well you think you know your stuff, think of your demo as a shared learning experience. ” Who dares to teach must never cease to learn,” said the great museum director John Cotton Dana. Masterful demonstration goes hand in hand with humility. Don’t pontificate. Understate and over-prove.
Engage students by screwing up
by Michael Schlicting, Portland, OR, USA
When I started teaching workshops and giving demos 30 or more years ago, I would stress out, thinking the demonstrations had to be “perfect.” I came to see, though, that when a demo was going south, it was an even more teachable moment. Students loved to see how I would solve a compositional or conceptual problem, especially after it looked like I’d really screwed up. It engaged the students and made the process more real and understandable. And for me it took all the anxiety away and made demoing very fun.
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Make a video first
by Joyce Washor, Riverdale, NY, USA
I had been giving oil workshops regularly and then was asked to do one in watercolor. That made me anxious to say the least. I decided to video myself and make a few copies so that I would have something that I knew looked halfway decent. I showed the video and explained that I would do a similar set-up but not to expect that the demo would look exactly like the video. That wasn’t the point. Painting is a process that happens in the moment and it’s different every day. I had no way of knowing if the demo would work, but at least they would see one that did.
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Secrets of a successful demo
by David Lloyd Glover, West Hollywood, CA, USA
I found that the artists attending my demo are mainly interested in one thing: “What are the magic brushes I use to solve my artistic problems?” There is a common belief by many hobby artists that professionals have access to the secret tools known only to us. First thing I do is show them the well worn hog-bristle brushes I use so they can get over the concept that they were missing out on insider information. A lot of artists are even surprised to find that I use less expensive brushes than they do. Once we get past the issue of the artists’ sworn secrets, they are relaxed and interested in just watching you go about your business of blocking out a painting. You don’t have to put on a show or even attempt to be entertaining. They are there to soak up what you do. Let them ask you the questions while you work and you’ll find it’s really quite easy to conduct a successful demo.
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Doing instead of speaking
by Janice Moser, Regina, SK, Canada
I recently attended a class taught by Michael Lonechild about light and shadow. He is a quiet teacher and has demonstrated many of the qualities you mentioned in your letter. As a virgin student, I didn’t know what to expect but found myself studying his brushstrokes and asking many questions as he sat silently at his easel. I thought it odd that he wasn’t divining his every move, but now I appreciate the wisdom in keeping our rapt attention by doing instead of speaking.
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More on the prospect of failure
by Tom Hoffmann, Seattle, WA, USA
I’ve been thinking about demos, since I’ve agreed to give one tomorrow! I believe the key to taking the fear out of the process is to remember that it is, first of all, a form of teaching, and teaching still works even when it goes astray. If a demo takes an unintended turn, it is an opportunity to pause and ask, “What just happened there?” In a way, it may be more useful for an audience of painters to see a demonstration of how to fall on your face, learn something, and get right back up, than it is to watch a master make the impossible look easy. Once the prospect of failure has some positive possibilities, some of the pressure is lifted, and the odds of being relaxed for the demo are increased.
A unique demo process
by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA
I can only demo part of my process, so I make it fun by doing several beginnings, and getting my audience involved. I let them paint on my paintings! Then I flip the canvas around to see what my subconscious makes of it, then I consciously make the image a little more obvious by delineating what I have seen in the marks and paint. We talk about vision. My process involves a lot of looking and imagining, so when I do that with an audience it is so amazing to hear what their brains are intuiting and what their eyes are seeing. The demos are a lot of work, but so attractive to the people that participate. They begin to see that they have vision and ability. The desire is up to them, and many do not desire to express themselves in paint, but are thrilled to see that their subconscious is still and always working. A 2-year-old boy made the violet line in this horse’s head, moving off the canvas to the right. It is an important design element. I had to sit quietly for hours to see how this violet line worked. Sitting and looking is not very exciting for the demo, but we can discuss it, they can share what they see, and I always bring successful examples of past work. Demos are always worth the effort.
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Love what you demo
>by Kathy Los-Rathburn, Griffith, IN, USA
I, too, teach and do demos since ’74, in watercolor. I agree with you. Keep that eye contact and keep looking around the room. I always start out with a question like, “Who has painted in WC?” Then before jumping into the big demo, I talk about the quality of good supplies. By that time you are warmed up and you feel comfortable and confident with your group. I always paint a subject that I’m comfortable with. I am there to show them how to paint and not create a show piece. I also keep it simple and short. I gave a demo a week ago and I made an effort to talk slower and to not say “and” or “ahhh” at the beginning of a sentence. Afterwards some folks said it was the best that they had seen with this art league. I think loving what you do has a lot to say for the success of your demos.
Make it fun
by Bob Rennie, White Rock, BC, Canada
I taught Mathematics at the University level for almost 40 years. It was most enjoyable, but most of my students entered the class with fear, dislike for the subject and a complete lack of any amount of enthusiasm. Teaching many classes in watercolors was such a welcome change. The student enthusiasm is probably the most remarkable difference from lecturing math. People giving demos or teaching classes in art need to recognize the support they receive from their audience. It is truly significant and most helpful.
A couple of things that I found helpful: I always demonstrate only subjects or techniques that I do well. Some quick jokes need to be worked in. We are entertainers as well as demonstrators. Teaching is fun. If we exploit making it fun we will be relaxed and successful.
Just do a lot of them
by Jim Oberst, Hot Springs Village, AR, USA
I started doing demos a few years ago (I’ve been painting for about 9 years). Here’s my “formula” (I work in watercolors):
— Paint large enough for everyone to see. I usually use a half-sheet (15″ x 22″).
— Unless I have an overhead mirror, I paint vertically so people can see. This can take some practice in watercolor.
— I encourage people to get up and join me at the front to really see what I’m doing.
— I use a small PA system because, when I’m painting and facing away from the audience, I can be hard to hear.
— I always paint something that I’ve painted before.
— I have the drawing already done, and I show the drawing to everyone before I start.
— I only choose subjects that I can complete in one hour or so.
— I plan the painting in 3 or 4 separate steps so I can stop and talk between the steps.
— I talk as I paint, but it’s often just the “self-talk” that I do silently when I’m painting. This helps people understand my thinking.
— I encourage people to ask questions at any time, but if I’m getting behind schedule, I ask folks to wait until I’m done. I find demos fun to do. I always remind people before I start that I may not paint a masterpiece, but that they’ll learn how I approach a painting, regardless. It’s good to bring along other paintings people really enjoy looking at them. Demos also provide an introduction to my painting style, and often lead to the group scheduling one of my workshops. How does one get comfortable doing demos? Just do a lot of them.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Fiona Guy of South Lake, West Australia, who wrote, “A thought for Mr. Wong: Usually people only attend a demo if they need to learn how to do it, therefore the person giving the demo must know more about it than the attendees. I find that thought helps.”
And also Michael Warner of Rochester, NY, USA, who wrote, “It may be obvious to you that it seems 99.9% of everything that is written on your site strikes right to the heart of Calligraphers (of which there are now more than 20,000 in the USA alone).”
Enjoy the past comments below for The art of demo-doing…