Yesterday, Fred Hulser of Houston, Texas wrote, “I recently agreed to do a small landscape/plein air workshop and I now realize I may not be prepared. While I’m more experienced than many students, I have never taught an art workshop or art class. I just read your letters on teaching and see I am not the only one to pester you on this subject. What should I do?”
Thanks, Fred. Conducting a workshop is a serious obligation and a responsibility. The job of instructor, in my view, is to help people realize themselves at whatever level they are at, and to further engage them in the basic academic exercises that are so wanting in contemporary art education. These goals are often compromised by customers who range from inflamed youth in need of channelling to companionable, contented geriatrics.
If you feel you’re not prepared, here are a few things you can do:
Prepare a couple of demo-lessons where you can illustrate a few techniques or specific exercises. Most often you need to strengthen a student’s facility with form, composition or colour. Help them to really look at the environment. Making it possible for students to unlearn bad old habits is as important as giving them new good ones.
Be prepared to go around to individuals as they work. Easel-side coaching is its own fine art. You need to size up work and offer no more than two or three suggestions at a time. Couch your critiques between praise and encouragement. Be nice. Many of your customers will be mothers. If you have permission, take their brushes in hand and demo briefly right on their work. Give equal time and attention to all participants who ask for it. Some don’t.
While teaching is an altruistic endeavour for many instructors, it is also part of one’s own growth and education. In the words of John Jay Chapman, “Benevolence alone will not make a teacher, nor will learning alone do it. The gift of teaching is a peculiar talent, and implies a need and a craving in the teacher himself.”
More than anything, it’s important to drop your own precious ego. Your students are paying you — they deserve value for money. Just as you are, they are processing information and winnowing directions. Tune in and help them find their potential and they’ll be friends for life.
PS: “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.” (John Cotton Dana)
Esoterica: At about the age of 12 I attended a demo given by an ill-prepared gentleman to whom the word “incompetent” would aptly apply. Nevertheless, watching that guy fumble along gave me ideas and confidence. He gave me the courage to follow my own path. Seeing the need for studenthood in him, I confirmed the need in myself. Nevertheless, the best teachers give freely from an enriched resource of accumulated wisdom. Feeling the joy of empowerment as their students grow and flourish, the best teachers lose customers and gain colleagues.
Explaining your good painting
by Michael Chesley Johnson, ME, USA / NB, Canada
I’ve been teaching workshops for about ten years, and it’s interesting to listen to students who have taken workshops with other artists. Quite often they learn that a good painter doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher. Painting and teaching how to paint are two separate skills that are linked only by a common theme. Teaching requires the skill of analysis and then the skill of clearly articulating that analysis. I know many painters who are good at what they do but have a hard time explaining it. Students are amused when they hear me talking to myself as I demonstrate, but I find it useful; it helps me to understand what and why, and then it helps me to communicate that “self-discovery” to the students.
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
Giving a proper workshop requires preparation from both the teacher and the student. Even then, unexpected mishaps occur. In one I was giving in at the Scottsdale School, the model simply did not show up. Another very fine artist had this happen to him and both he and I were vilified on the Internet. There was nothing at the time that either of us could do about it as it had never happened to either of us before. So to those of you giving a figurative, have a back-up plan for a no-show model.
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‘Stickems’ for demos
by Bernie Hoffman, Lords Valley, PA, USA
I am 80 years old and have drawn since elementary school. I have received many awards and scholarships (including to Pratt Institute) and I have been published, etc, etc, etc. At retirement in Florida I attended a portrait drawing class. The instructor was so bad I felt I could do better and therefore was encouraged to teach. I have designed and perfected my own portrait course that has become very successful. I now teach portrait classes in Florida and Pennsylvania. I agree with all your suggestions of which somehow I have done without any guidance. I enjoy teaching and I have had remarks from older adults such as “I’ve taken art classes for 20 years but this is the only one that I have ever really learned something.”
You suggest: If you have permission, take their brushes in hand and demo briefly right on their work. If you ask for permission I do believe a student would be reluctant to say ‘no.’ I use a “stickem” to personally demonstrate on and then they have theirs and mine to compare side by side. At the end of the session the students still have their original artwork and keep the slips as good reminders.
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Safe to experiment
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Robert, you are so correct when you stated teaching a workshop is a serious obligation. Being prepared takes time and lots of love of the subject. Being prepared also allows the teacher to be able to really listen to the needs of the students. Each student comes with different fears, desires and focus. I begin my workshops letting my students know they are in a safe environment in which to experiment without the fear of judgment from me or the other students. In other words, I want them to be able to view failure as growth and not the end of their painting ability. This sets the tone so everyone relaxes and they are then free to step out of their comfort zone. Learning solid principles of art is essential, but it is also important to understand our artist mindset. When we leave a workshop we want to leave a better artist and a better person.
A most interesting lesson
by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I was a public school teacher for thirty five years and I learned to respect every individual student for their particular talent and ability. When asked to conduct a workshop for adult artists, I was challenged like never before in my professional life. I spent long hours designing ideas for each level and ability of the class, not being sure of how much they could absorb. The class was planned for a week long and I had probably the most interesting lesson of my life as I applied all the skills I had learned from my students over the years and applied them in this plan for my adult artists. I soon discovered that there was no fixed way to teach such a diverse group. For some it was an early morning demo that occupied them, others were bogged down with ideas to create what they hoped to achieve and they needed special time because of their choices. A few were ill equipped to be in this level of a class, but the enthusiasm and camaraderie carried us all through. I had to individualize the program and diversify. I needed to work hard at my lesson plans and have so many alternatives to get the class motivated. I think it was the most amazing class because I had real doubts that I would succeed as a teacher and the class were so reassuring in their response. We really did have a wonderful experience.
Teaching teaches you
by Vie Dunn-Harr, San Antonio, TX, USA
When I was 19, I was painting and actually showing in a celebrated gallery in my city. An older woman asked me to teach her to paint. She was an art teacher with an art degree and I was intimidated with her experience. When I told her I had never taught, she informed me that she would be at my house the next Tuesday and she was bringing 3 friends. She said she would come for no charge and her friends would pay. She was a pushy woman and was not taking NO. Today I am grateful for her confidence in me and then her insistence. I spoke with my teacher who said, “Violet, as long as you know one thing they don’t, you can teach them. You just have to run in front of them.” Teaching certainly taught me!
One thing I would add to Robert’s advice is to recognize each person’s individual expression. I have those who come to study with me and their goal is to paint just like me, which is not practical. The moment I see a consistency in a brush stroke or uniqueness in color combinations, composition, etc, I embrace their expression and try to help them understand the beauty of what comes natural from them. They can build on this their own style. Of course, this moment can be a long time coming, but to recognize it when it arrives is the sign of a good teacher.
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by Ted Martinez, Trinidad, CO, USA
What I personally have found useful in teaching is to put myself in the student’s place and mentally go back in time and remember the frustrations, doubts, determination, and desires I felt when I was going through the initial learning process. The things we now do automatically such as perspective, pencil control, values and composition were as unfamiliar and intimidating as a foreign language.
One of the most fulfilling parts is when the student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student. Learning is a lifetime experience and even familiar things viewed from a different perspective, become new again.
Before I started teaching, I was sure I wouldn’t like it but soon found I really enjoyed it as it is also a creative process. When I feel I can be of some assistance in helping someone explore and expand their capabilities, I am doing the same for myself!
‘Messing’ with a student’s painting
by Heather Bruce, Snohomish, WA, USA
Long ago, I conducted a workshop where the instructor spent time “improving” each student’s painting and even quipped at the time that they could lie and tell their friends they painted the whole painting. Interestingly enough, almost all the students told me later that they didn’t like having their paintings “messed with,” but felt compelled to say “Yes” when they were asked for permission to paint in their paintings. From that point forth, I made sure that small pieces of watercolor paper were available alongside each student, so instructors (including me) could demonstrate without painting in the student’s painting. I can count on one hand the number of times I have done that.
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The joy of empowerment
by Robin Baratta, Belmont, ON, Canada
One of the greatest joys as an artist is teaching. I’m incredibly proud of all of my students and their accomplishments. The ‘joy of empowerment’ is addictive as any drug. The key to good teaching is to find that place between encouragement and critique where the student learns what they must do and gains the confidence to do it. Another aspect of teaching others is that it forces you to define your own experience, to distill it into teachable chunks, therefore making you a better artist. The long tradition of artist-to-artist training is still the most accessible form of training for many. New artists are trained, ‘old’ artists become more focused, and many a professional artist is able to continue as such with the added income.
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by Fred Hulser, Houston, TX, USA
Before I opened today’s letter, I had already received several emails commenting about it, from both friends and people I’ve never met, including another artist here in Houston who was thinking about organizing a plein air workshop. Small world. I, for one, am grateful for your efforts to connect it.
While I’m writing you anyway, I’ve wanted to ask if I could get a digital image of the complete painting a portion of which appears on the dust jacket of The Letters. Analysis of that painting clearly illustrates a lot of important painting points and I would love to use it in my workshop.
I don’t use this phrase often — in fact, I cannot remember when I used it last — but it comes to mind and feels appropriate, so “Bless you.”
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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 Gera Benoit of Burns Lake, BC, Canada, who wrote, “The instruction of art in a workshop needs to be open to process, allowing form to unfold rather than forcing it through a narrow doorway, in my opinion. If a workshop is not going to allow for this diversity, it would be helpful to state this up-front to discourage those who rebel or defend against a ‘truth’ that is not their own.”
And also Karen Lynn Ingalls who wrote, “I studied with a number of excellent painters – several were good, in differing ways. One, a noted contemporary painter, was one of the worst teachers I ever had. Another taught me not only to paint, but to see. Ahhhh! Now THAT is a gift. It is one I try to emulate in my own teaching.”
And also Sandra Bos of Cookeville, TN, USA, who wrote, “Learning color, value, shape, texture, and line, is only PART of learning to paint. To me, learning to respect Art (with a big ‘A’), falling in love, and showing passion is most important. Talent is wonderful, but if there is no love and passion in the work, it becomes a ‘picture,’ and we have plenty of pictures in Wal-Mart.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Preparing to give a workshop…