Demo devils


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Gaye Adams wrote, “I find that doing demos is extremely challenging as I never know quite where a painting is going until I get there. There seems no time to ponder, to try this and that. The expectation is to just keep painting and turn out something reasonably competent in the given time. I know students benefit greatly from watching demos — I just don’t know if I will ever get comfortable giving one. It’s not getting any easier. I once watched you do a demo and you seemed very relaxed. What’s the secret?”

Thanks for that, Gaye. I’ve been curious about demos too. My apparent relaxation is just a facade. But doing them gives a few clues to the nature of creativity. The elements you question — expectations, need for private pondering, time constraints, over the shoulder discomfort all add stress to the job. Furthermore, as every demo-doer knows, having to talk about what you are doing tends to derail the flow.

I’ve noticed that technique-oriented artists do well when they are simply demonstrating their systems one after the other — which may not include producing a winning painting. This system may be of more use to the students. The observers simply grab what they need and adapt it for their own work. Having said that, a lot of us seek the “wow” that we get when we do manage to pull off a good one. It’s hard to resist. Recently, as an experiment, I completed three 11″ x 14″ demos one after the other with the same group — one while explaining and taking questions; one while babbling anecdotes from my life; the last in total silence. Which turned out to be the best? In the silent one I was still wondering what they were thinking, feeling guilty about not explaining, and it turned out to be inferior to the babbling one. The explanatory one was a complete dud.

In the babbling one the word flow had the same effect as Mozart has in the studio. I had the feeling that my observers were relaxed and entertained. As the old right brain was free to flow, that painting turned out the best of all. I’ll never know which demo was of most value to them. There’s no secret, but sometimes I think it’s good for people to watch someone trying to struggle out of a quagmire. I’ve found that my quagmires give confidence to others.

Best regards,


PS: “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.” (Gail Godwin) “A true teacher does not explain — he invites you to stand beside him and see for yourself.” (Raymond Inmon)

Esoterica: In the “bag-of-tricks-type-demo” you attempt to show what might be useful to your students: They’re interested in your systems — your imprimatura, palette, impasto, lay-in, brush handling, compositional ploys, glazing, scumbling, patterning, gradating, coming to light, self-critiquing, finishing, etc, etc. There’s lots to show and we all have our specialties. As Robert Henri said, “By my teaching I hope to inspire you to personal activity and to help you find your way.”


Demo relays information
by Mindy Lighthipe, Warren, NJ, USA


Blue Morpho Butterfly (Underside)
colored pencil on mylar
by Mindy Lighthipe

As a teacher I demonstrate all the time. It does not bother me at all. It used to. I got over it when I put it into perspective. The demo is for the student, not for me. It is not about doing a good painting. It is about relaying information to another. It is about giving, nurturing and supporting. If I demo with my ego and expect results for personal achievement, my goals are misdirected. My work does not have to be a work of art. It needs to convey a thought, technique, expression, etc. If I am able to do this I have done my part.


Happy babbling
by Sue Bussoli

I chuckled to read of your triptych experience with the demo paintings. It reminded me of a time when I was trying to teach watercolour and as I was painting and talking, the student was listening carefully. Her cell phone went off and she started to explain to her husband the demo I had just done. She used the same language that I had just spoken, but it made absolutely no sense. After she got off the phone I laughed about how I needed to clean up my act on what I was saying.


Watching the artist’s hands, body
by Susan Easton Burns, Atlanta, GA, USA


Susan Burns

The best demonstrations I have ever experienced were those of Irving Shapiro great watercolorist from Chicago. He was Director of the American School of Art in Chicago in the early 1980s. Mr. Shapiro is no longer with us, but many of his students are making good art for a living.

When I give demos, I try to remind the onlookers to watch my hands, not just the painting. Watching the artist is at least as interesting as the painting. The body is doing things in a split second that we don’t really think about. One student asked me why I painted with my eyes closed, and I realized I hadn’t explained about squinting to see the balance of values.


by Dick Nelson, Maui, Hawaii, USA

Gaye Adams’ anxieties over demos will carry less of a burden if the priorities change from one of “…where a painting is going” to “where I am taking the student.” Pontificating, as usual, but for those who demonstrate, a very big price is paid in educational benefits if personal style, running commentary and facile brushwork feeds an ego while closing doors to unique discoveries.


Arguing Spectators in Spain
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA


“Comet Neat”
digital airbrush
by Julie Rodriguez Jones

My hat’s off to anyone who can give a demo. Personally, having someone stand over my shoulder as I begin a work just makes me nervous. It is different though if I’ve already begun in private and then work or complete with others watching. When I was in Spain a few years ago and several of the village’s elderly residents gathered to watch me sketch the entry to a fifteenth century home, an argument broke out among them. They were all providing me with the history of the building and its prior residents and arguing about whose memory was worse. One gentleman stayed after the others left just to make sure he told me that the others he was arguing with were senile.


Teacher student connection
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada


“Looking at Pink Lake”
oil on canvas
by Mona Youssef

Establishing the flow of connections between a teacher and a student is essential. A baby can learn to swim and float over the surface of the water probably by only one supportive finger. Learning when and how to press harder or less with that finger, in order to free a baby from the fear of water and become a professional swimmer, is an essential requirement.



Weird bond
by Patty Grau, Redondo Beach, CA, USA

Very enjoyable sculpture classes were ones in which the teacher talked about physics (lets say) or something currently in the news. We were all working with clay, with a live nude model who joined in the conversation/debate. The teacher still milled about helping, suggesting, criticizing, instructing, but the class was relaxed, unself-conscious. Ideas and opinions would fly around the room and the isolation of the work we were doing would disappear. We all bonded in a weird way as everyone was more open.


End results not important
by Nena Richardson

As a student I have to visually see what the hands and accoutrements are doing, so demos are of great importance for me to grasp a concept/technique. What I have discovered is that the teacher who can explain the nuances while they are doing them gets through to me. And, on the totem pole of learning, I’ve discovered that if a teacher can get through to me during the demo, they get through to 99.9% of the students. Many of those teachers have been mediocre in their technique results but they got the point across and the concept was understood. The end results of the demonstration are not important.


Double-edged sword
by Lori Lukasewich

Your comments about demos reflect the experiences of most of the artists I know who teach. I find it a bit of a double-edged sword; beyond all my inner flopping about, I can almost make it look too easy and the student is mislead. So I have come to enjoy making a fool of myself because that seems to give the students a little more confidence – it kind of evens the playing field. The technique demos work best for me, and even though they want the full meal deal, I have to be honest and tell them that I work best alone, it’s just the nature of the thing for me. And that, I think, is enticing to the student, because it sounds like a great mystery that they too can participate in.


Left brain entertains; right brain paints
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“NE 7th Avenue”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

Before I do a demonstration painting, I ask my audience a few questions. If the room is full of aspiring painters, I focus on simple things like getting the paint off the brush in the right place, and keeping the medium clean. I overcome my own insecurities when I’m in front of serious painters with a reminder to myself that some of my favorite paintings have been done as demonstrations, and I enjoy the challenge of answering questions no one has ever asked me before. Non-painters make a great audience; there’s no pressure to provide a coherent commentary and my left brain happily entertains the crowd with funny stories while my right brain paints away.


Portrait demo
by Charles Morris, Grand Junction, CO, USA


original painting
by Charles Morris

Just yesterday I did a “portrait” demo for a local visual arts guild and suffered through all the emotions and angst described in your letter. I consider portraits the most challenging subject for me to do because in addition to all the usual qualities of values, color harmony, drawing, etc., I have to get a likeness too. Without a likeness, a “portrait” fails. Even when working with just my model in the quiet of my studio, with all the time in the world, it is still a hit or miss proposition. In the time allotted I knew that the most I could hope for was an indication of my approach and so I had several finished examples of my work. But panic set in when about half way through my demo, I started to hear conversations going on behind me and I realized I wasn’t giving them the “magic” they were expecting. I struggled on and had a fair “start” going by the end of the time, but I didn’t have a likeness.


A long term demo
by Phil Irish


original painting
by Phil Irish

I have done some teaching, and always found demos useful. Showing is much better than words, especially with students who are just beginning. It can open up so many options. I had the pleasure of teaching in the education department of an excellent gallery (Art Gallery of Ontario), so I structured each course around the exhibition program — we spent a lot of time looking at inspiring and challenging art, and taking that knowledge back to the studio.

When I was in university, one professor allowed me into his studio repeatedly, so I could see several works develop over time. While I didn’t see him with a brush in his hand, I saw the process, the transformations, and the decision-making. It was this professor that opened my eyes to the sensuality of paint, to how painterly choices determine the meaning of the work.

I am now embarking on another kind of demo: I will have a co-op high school student working in my studio as of next week. While I am a little nervous about it, I think it will be good for my discipline and productivity — and a good education for the student to see my projects unfold over a 3-month period. A 3-month demo, if you will.


Bumbled Brumbies
by Robert Wade


“Katherine Gorge”
watercolour demo painting
by Robert Wade

I don’t have any idea of the number of demos that I have painted over the years but it would run into hundreds. I well remember the nervous times in the early demos, and I believe that was when I worried more about the result than the actual performance of creating a painting.

On one occasion I was going to demonstrate before some 300 people and I was very anxious to paint a good one, (or a very good one) if that were possible! I certainly did not want a disaster. So after much thought I decided to paint wild Brumbies (horses) in our Australian Outback. Brilliant light, bright oranges, reds and yellows and a sky so blue that it could be cut with a knife, white-trunked gum trees and capped off with three grazing Brumbies! “Wow! This will knock their socks off I thought.”

On the actual night of the demo I felt very confident, as I had planned thoughtfully and was sure that I had it tossed. Alas! The spotlighting was hot, the temperature about 35 Celcius on the stage and humidity like you could not imagine. Watercolour does not respond gladly to any of these circumstances and decided not to co-operate with me at all. The colours would not flow, the washes dried where I wanted them to stay wet and stayed wet where I wanted them to dry! I fought the full sheet from Go to Whoa but it was still reasonably acceptable up until the last thing, when I added the Brumbies. Totally impossible to control; instead of looking like horses they looked like Wombats!

I guess my face was as red as the Australian soil of the Outback. I just had to laugh my way out of it by being honest and admitting my failure to the audience. I discovered later that they had just loved the failure and the honesty because they felt very much at home with a situation that many faced every time they painted. Many had not realized that professionals can fail, that watercolour is no respecter of persons. This in itself made the demo a success in its own peculiar way even though the painting was one I wanted to forget as quickly as I could. I realized later that I had allowed “The Fear of Failure” to take over and had tried to correct problems as the painting proceeded and not listened to what the painting had to say.

The important thing that I learned from the experience was:
Do not pick a subject that is too difficult for you, in order to “Show Off” a little!
Don’t forget to enjoy the physical act of painting while you are performing.
We are all only human and any painting can go awry at any time for any painter.
Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong it will!

The late Mario Cooper said, “Painting a demo is 10% ability, 10% showmanship and 80% luck.”

(Andrew Niculescu note) Robert’s book, Watercolor Workshop Handbook is available at






Red and Green

oil painting
by Anthony Ryder, New York City, NY, USA


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 Jeanine Fondacaro who wrote, “I seem to do my best work fresh after a demo… it is so stimulating. I could take a whole week of demos only, by different artists every day… do you know of such a class?”

And Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki who wrote, “It seems that you were not getting feedback from the participants while you did your demos — maybe you should have asked? I would have told you which demo was the most useful, if I was lucky enough to be there.”

And also Susan Holland of Issaquah, WA, USA who wrote, “I have done a lot of on-site painting outdoors which always attracts onlookers, often commentators, and sometimes hangers-on. It helps if you don’t speak the language. At least you have the option of not babbling.”

And Todd Plough of Napoli, NY, USA wrote, “The most important thing in demos is demonstrating confidence. It is contagious, healthy and fruitful.”

And Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “Each work is a demo to me and I have no audience but myself.”

And also Sylvio Gagnon who wrote, “Doing demos can make you a hero or a zero! It’s a risky business but Oh! How rewarding!”




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