On Saturday and Sunday I conducted an acrylic workshop. Seventeen painters in all stages — eager, shiny faces at 10 a.m. — folks who could easily be doing something else.
Artists come to workshops with different expectations. Some are clean blackboards on which an instructor may choose to write. Others arrive with a complex of previously tested processes and systems — often bubbling with fine ideas and a unique style force. The challenge is to work with the artist in the direction he or she is going, at the same time introducing potential windows. An instructor can feel like a fly between many swatters. Moving between workstations; a thought here, a suggestion here, a stroke there. I ask permission in advance if I can be a brush-grabber.
Life as a demo: I’ve always found that I can learn something by watching an artist at work — any artist. It’s necessary to eclipse precious egos. Workshops are more than a bundling of tips — pushing impasto, the miracle of glazing, late-painting compositional fix-ups — they’re like encounter groups — at their best they bend the mind. At the same time there must be the feeling of “You’re okay, I’m okay.” It’s a delicate business. “We’re all friends here,” I tell them. While the actual work at workshops, theirs and mine, tends to be substandard, the demo of possibilities is not. We all stand on each other’s shoulders. It’s what’s done later, in private, that counts.
Workshops pass by altogether too quickly. As time runs out I wonder if I’ve covered enough, given enough. Workshops are archipelagoes of solitary islands in the process of opening diplomatic relations. They are opening at different rates. There will always be the shy as well as the demanding. To me it’s a phenomenon — the democratization of art. Everybody can do it. Everybody has the right to get good. Everybody can flourish. It’s a teacher’s education.
PS: “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.” (John Cotton Dana)
Esoterica: Once in a second-hand store, an hourglass caught my eye. When timed at home it turned out to be a 37-minute-glass. In my solitude I’ve been using the instrument to paint small paintings. I wanted to try it on a group. “Only an exercise,” I told them. Everyone was issued with a ready-to-go, 11 x 14 inch wood panel. Ideas were quietly and privately assembled, paint squeezed, brushes poised. The glass was turned. Several artists finished well before the sand had run its course. Several overworked. “What a long time,” said one. I think I heard brain-cells shuffling. Nobody got hurt.
Grace of interaction
by Linda Muttitt
There are many who know but cannot teach. Workshops are an art unto themselves, challenging, rewarding. After having taught for over 20 years, my feelings are that there is a dance between the learner and the teacher — a gentle, honest interaction with a grace all its own. So much of the quality of what we do as teachers is in how we respond. You need a sensitivity toward individuals, as well as respect — and in that respect a genuine belief that we are there as guides, not as proclaimers of right and wrong. The grace of interaction is the key to providing a safe place to learn, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, to explode with ideas and personal expression, as well as to have laughter and joy!
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA
Workshops are a favorite activity of mine, as well as considered a ‘vacation.’ Many workshops are held in exotic locales or just down the street, but all have given me some new insight on techniques, attitudes, and the pleasure of meeting/working with artists. I’ve also made long-lasting friendships. Most of my instructors, nationally renowned watercolorists, have been approachable, down-to-earth and generous with their successes and failures as professional artists. It’s also comforting to students to know, early in the workshop, that a ‘masterpiece’ should not be expected by the student — as it’s not expected by the instructor. Out of our studio environment, the idea is to work comfortably, have fun and learn.
by Jacqueline Baldini, Niagara Falls, Canada
There is as much psychology as painting going on in the average painting workshop. Generally, the participants with the largest egos get the least out of a workshop. It saddens me sometimes not to be able to break through the barrier built around the ‘performance.’ ‘We’re all friends here’ is the right idea. But like other things in life, some keep that three feet of personal space between themselves and constructive criticism. Fear of proving that inner voice right, that they’re not really an ‘artist,’ or fear of looking incompetent to others, unwilling to step outside of the box.
(RG note) Jacqueline’s “10 Secrets to a Great Workshop Experience” are at artworkshops.homestead.com/secrets.html
Democratization of art
by Helmut Riis, Germany
In North America, the opportunity to become an artist is thought to be a right that can be claimed by taking workshops. In Europe it is a privilege granted most often to those few who proceed successfully through a long obstacle course of academic rigor and who are at the same time genuinely talented.
by Marlene Howell
I am currently living in New York, where I attend the New York Art Student League. In October I started my first watercolour figurative class with Irwin Greenberg. After working in watercolour for a few years on my own, I knew very little. During classes he made sure that everyone received his undivided attention. He always asked permission to make any necessary adjustments to your work with one of his brushes that he carried in his shirt pocket. I realized the need to take more classes in order to develop. It became an addiction, as I progressed to include Costa Vavagiakis drawing, and Susan Shatter’s watercolour, which opened a whole new world to the medium. I also took Timothy J Clarke’s watercolour course. His style was different from Susan’s, but I was able to take away new ideas. My current instructors include Sherry Camhy, who has written an excellent book The Art of the Pencil, which has opened my eyes to using the pencil again, and Richard Pionk, who’s on the front cover of February’s issue of The Pastel Journal. There’s excitement in the air at the League as we prepare for Pionk’s and Camhy’s Class Art Exhibition for a week in March, and April. The best teachers leave you with the thirst to learn more.
by Brandy Stanwood, Castlegar, BC, Canada
I remember my very first workshop, I was so scared, and the teacher was so rude and presumptuous. He said things like, “You have to try new things, stop what you’re doing and do what everyone else is doing.” I didn’t have the nerve to say anything back, for here I was doing everything foreign to me. It was scary ’cause I’m the ultimate hermit artist. And here he was, showing us his ‘new’ techniques that he ‘invented’ and I have been using those techniques ever since. It was nice to see proof positive of the collective creative pool we all dip into. He gave me “chiaroscuro” which has changed my life. Much as I felt totally ripped off by the whole experience, and as much money and time as I spent to go see this chauvinist, crabby guy, it was worth it. Even if your teacher stinks workshops are totally worth the time. You never know, even the ‘worst’ workshop could change your life.
by Mary-Anne Philips
I am enjoying my new found passion — painting with watercolours. My husband and I spent two glorious weeks in Mexico at Richard and Nancy Lennie’s La Paloma in Melaque, Jalisco, Mexico, and I took art lessons with Nancy Lennie! She is a great teacher and would not let me give up! Now that we are back home I am continuing with lessons and am a painting fool!
by Sheila Parsons, Conway, Arkansas, USA
The challenge for me is to find a different way to say or show what I just talked about so that it hooks into what that person already knows. I’ve found myself taking mirrors off the walls to talk about reflections, climbing up into a window frame to demonstrate negative shapes, talking about “what time is that line” to demonstrate angles in perspective (what will I do when all clocks are digital?) God knows talking about getting a decent green can get deadly after 25 years. The best so far on that has been “pretend that nature’s green is like mixing a very dry martini where gin is burnt sienna and vermouth is phthalo green.” Or for the engineer/student 82% brown plus 18% Phthalo green.
Together in harmony
by Gail Wiseman Reed, Holland Creek, BC, Canada
As a retired grade one/ kindergarten teacher I know from years of watching children that we are all born artists, innately and confidently primed to give and receive joy as we add our voices to the world’s chorus of creative expression. While many of us lose our vision of this as we learn to become self conscious and self-judging, our gifts are still within us and it becomes our job to encourage and support the giving back of such expressive joy to the world. As Shivon and Dennis of “The Gettin’ Higher Choir” of Victoria, B.C. Canada, would put it… “to help one another to see and hear both our own voice and the voices of others as we raise them together in harmony.” What a gift to the world’s peace, beauty and richness to be able to do this.
The danger of brush-grabbing
by Elfrida Schragen
My father was a professional artist. I adored him and used to paint and draw like a fiend to impress him and elicit a kind word. When I was about ten my work suddenly caught his interest. He started demanding in a somewhat accusatory way, “Where did you get that image from?” Any copying or anything less than the full imagination was not acceptable. When the time came that he felt my picture worthy he would grab my brush and take over. Needless to say I gave up any art interest at about eleven years. It was the only way he knew how to help.
My art started again at 40, where I have flounced from wildly imaginative acrylic painting for several years, through erotic sculpture for several more, to brazenly copying photos and finally settling (for the time being) into some quiet pastel work that is beginning to take off for me. My point is that I am very glad that you ask permission to brush grab. It’s better than just grabbing. But I would recommend that helpers demonstrate on a separate piece of paper. One cannot assume that all adult learners have a strong sense of self, that they will have the courage to say “no” to a professional (I often feel as a ‘mature ‘ adult I should be beyond having feelings about a teacher messing with my work, but I’m kidding myself) and once you touch their work they may cease to “own” it. It may be better to demonstrate and let the learner interpret.
“X” rated work
by Eleanor Parr
I am attending acrylic classes and we have a new painter. Last night the instructor told him: “Maybe you should try photography since you do not seem to be grasping the painting process.” After listening to the instructor shoot this man down for 20 minutes, I decided to leave as I could not believe my ears. On the way out I noticed the instructor had taken the painter’s brush and proceeded to mark large X marks all over his painting. I asked him “what are you doing?” We got into a confrontation. I told him he had no business marking the student’s work this way. The instructor felt I was out of line. I am a third year student and need some professional clarification. If I was this new student, I would probably never come back. I do not feel the instructor inspired anyone, least of all the artist in question.
by Sandy, USA
I’m interested in your comment about putting subconscious images in your paintings — “dogs” in your case. I paint automatic paintings, like surrealist works derived from frottage, but I just use paint and random pattern to look for my images. You can imagine that this process can lead to lots of unintentional images and I too work to avoid that (unless they are interesting). My question is do you think people are prone to repeat certain images like your “dogs”? I find this a fascinating aspect of the subconscious.
(RG note) You can get an understanding of this condition by looking at your phone-doodles. I’ve noticed that some of these shapes tend to appear in my paintings. Another condition happens when you continue to work on a passage beyond a natural length of time. Overworking “tortures” inexplicable boogies from some part of the brain. For some artists these boogies are fair game and worthy of representation.
by Renato Muccillo
In response to Karen Pettengill’s “5 questions on glazing” Gamblin Galkyd is primarily what I’m using now. It is very shiny, glassy — but it can be knocked down by adding a little Gamblin cold wax and odourless mineral spirits, but I personally like the sheen because I can gauge accurately what the painting will look like when it’s finished and varnished. I do a lot of monochromatic underpainting with gessos then apply glazes of galkyd and pigment mixed fairly thin for my underpainting. The paints will have a tendency to lift off if they’re overworked or overbrushed so you have to be fairly sure of what you want to put down as far as your underpainting goes. But after it dries I’ve never had a problem with it lifting off unless I use pure turps. I like to use pure turps if I’m doing washes for my underpainting or rubbing back with a rag but only on my bottom coats. Anything applied over my underpainting is usually mixed with odourless mineral spirits because of its weaker cutting qualities.
Daylight lamp snaps doldrums
by Jan Yeb Ypma, Dodge Cove, Digby Island, BC, Canada
A friend lent me a daylight lamp to paint by and while I cannot really detect a big difference in the colour accuracy of my paintings, I must admit to (quite quickly, too) snapping out of the doldrums and getting the drive to pick up the brush once again. As with most things quasi-scientific, however, I am not sure whether to attribute the sudden zesty feeling to the damned lamp or to the longer daylight hours owing to the later date. If you or your readers have experience with these lamps, I’d be curious to hear. I also know that in winter I prefer to paint summer themes and the reverse is true, too, strangely enough.
Astronomical digital art
by David A. Hardy, Birmingham, England
I’m probably the longest-established (living!) astronomical artist, my work being first published in 1952. I made the move into digital art in the 1990’s, and now use a PowerMac G4 1.25. I work mainly in Photoshop, but because I had to produce over 35 new illustrations in a fairly short time for a new book with Sir Patrick Moore, Futures, Fifty years in Space, The Challenge of the Stars, which celebrates 50 years since we first worked together, and the changes we have seen in space travel and our views of the universe in that time) I began to use Terragen. Cheating, some would say, but far from just ‘pushing buttons’ one has to create the terrain one wants (not just something the program turns out), often by first producing in Photoshop a grey-scale height-map, with light areas for high ground and mountains, dark areas for valleys and craters, and so on — and then see how well it works. Quite a lot of effort, actually — the computer is just another tool; the airbrush is still frowned upon by some, but the purists are still free to do as they prefer. Personally I still enjoy painting in brushes on canvas, but I also enjoy the sheer fun of seeing what I can do on my Mac. Live and let live!
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, 2004.
That includes Jeanne Rhea who sent this quote and asked a question: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming… WOW… what a ride!” Who said it?”
And also Barb Rees who wrote, “Joseph Chilton Pearce said, ‘To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong.’ ”
And also Circe Bileschi-Jones who wrote, “I wish you lived near Krum, Texas. I would love to attend one of your workshops. My husband and I are both wood-turners. I am deaf.” (RG note) Thanks to everyone who wrote to ask if I was giving another workshop soon. I have no plans to do another this year.