As a young artist just starting out, I took a few workshops — some of which I actually paid for. I just happened to be in Southern Spain and had the opportunity to hang out with a remarkable French painter by the name of Maurice Golleau. Limited in my understanding of French, I had to pay close attention to what the guy actually did. Limited palette, grey scale, grisaille, soft and hard edges, lost and found lines, interlocking gradations, the principles of paucity and adding mystère to dull works were all new to me. Golleau added to my impoverished bag of tricks and helped me to look realistically at the path that lay ahead.
The best workshops are conducted by practicing pros who feel the need to share. Often humbled by the demands and foibles of creativity themselves, these pros can offer sincere studenthood and practical, insider understanding.
Scientist and visionary Rupert Sheldrake notes, “Unfortunately, at present, practically no one under thirty goes to workshops. It’s a system of education entirely for the middle aged.” Sheldrake is mostly right about this — in a recent workshop given by my daughter, Sara, and me, the average age was about 50.
Economics has a lot to do with this perplexing situation. Young people can’t always afford the travel and the high-priced help. Fact is, the workshop concept is an offshoot of the old apprenticeship system where a chosen few were mentored and encouraged. Workshops are apprenticeship-lite, and while they offer less commitment than the four years it takes to get a BFA, they can be a shortcut to professionalism.
One stunning, long-shadowed evening on an Andalucían beach, wired with the spirit of Joaquim Sorolla, I watched Golleau trying to make right the light and shade of a brightly coloured fishboat hauled onto the sand. It struck me that all of us who work in refined art, no matter how talented we may be, are regularly and persistently challenged. It was one of my best life lessons.
Golleau and I corresponded off and on before his death in 2001. While sometimes outspoken and frank, he treated me like a confederate. I had his letters translated. He once told me: “Vous seriez tout à fait un bon peintre, si vous avez inclus dans votre mystère peintures.” — “You would be quite a good painter if you only included mystery in your paintings.”
PS: “When you approach each new work with humility, and try to foresee its unique problems, it will win your love; it will give you joy.” (Maurice Golleau, 1922-2001)
Esoterica: Looking over the Painter’s Keys Workshop Calendar, I see some valuable workshops coming up. One that stands out for next spring is being given by two top-notch pros: Nancy O’Toole and Gaye Adams. It’s taking place in and around the country cortijo El Molino del Conde, near Malaga in Southern Spain. Hosts Mike and Hilary Powell are aficionados of all things Spanish and run a widely celebrated kitchen. Having spent a year in nearby Fuengirola and Mihas, I can attest to the charm, colour and white-painted dazzle of Andalucía. This, and other workshops like it, could be a life changer.
Workshops came late
by Libby Shipman, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Jalisco, Mexico
When I was young I was too busy trying to make a living and supporting my family to take workshops. In fact, even if I’d had the money to do so I would not have had the ability to take the time off work, etc. Even though I knew I was an artist ever since I was a little child and received positive feedback from art teachers in public schools, I never got the mentorship or support from my family. I was basically forced to become a secretary with no hope of college. So, throughout my life I took art classes at night at the community college. It wasn’t until I retired — and I had to leave the USA to do so — that I could take workshops and devote myself full time to painting. That was in 2004. I just had my first one-person show.
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Natural or cooked up?
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA
It’s hard to disagree with Golleau about mystery in a work of art. But there’s a nagging question for me around that point — where does this mystery come from? Is it mostly a matter of the painter intentionally putting it in there (with guile and forethought), or does s/he simply allow it to emerge in the process and remain there as an insoluble puzzle? Or is the mystery just an artifact of the observer’s psyche, including that of the artist him/herself? In my own practice, inscrutable factors come up in working all the time and I’ve learned to cultivate them rather than do battle with them.
I’m mostly a printmaker, and I see that the inherent indirectness of most print media tends to invite features that are hard to figure out. Hemingway was quoted as saying that it’s OK to leave things out that you know, but leaving things out that you don’t know is cheating. That is where I part company with Hemingway. Perhaps he was just deeply conflicted about the writer’s ultimate inability to control every aspect of the product. There’s always an element of mystery in ANY creative opus when you look closely enough into it.
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Touching the mysteries
by Neeman Callender, Safed, Israel
I live in Safed, a thousand year old city perched atop a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Israel. In the 16th Century, Safed was the center of Kabbalah Jewish Mysticism, as it is still learned. As you walk through the old stone alleyways, the echoes of the hidden resonates in silence. Only if you are brave enough to stand on the edge of this veil, and let the wind blow you in and out, will you be able to touch the mysteries.
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Advice to workshop instructors
by Catherine Constable, NS, Canada
Interesting that you extol workshops, as they are exactly what led me to the decision to attend Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University at age 61. (I start there next week.) My experience with workshops, albeit maybe this speaks more to the quality of the instructors than to the medium of workshops itself, was that the instructors taught from 30,000 feet… by which I mean that they had forgotten how much they actually knew and presumed that we students knew all the basics and were merely working on refinements. “Here, just do it like this,” spoken while having taken over the brush. A quick flourish, faster than my older brain could register, then my 30 seconds of personal instructions would be over. I concluded that the only way I could learn the basics thoroughly, deeply, was to go to art school.
The proof will be in the pudding as to whether I made the right choice… but I intend to be the student-from-hell, determined to come out of the experience with the basic skills of painting. Afterward I can work on adding mystère to my paintings. I guess workshops have a place, but my caution to workshop instructors is to be cognizant of the depth of your experience and to recognize that if your students had the same, they’d be instructing workshops too. Slow down, fly closer to the earth; look into your students’ eyes and teach to each of them personally. Not every student will be ready to work on mystère…
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Proper schools not needed
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
As for the young, the concept of going to a “proper school” today is a misnomer. Art need not be learned under a restricted and antiquated system; which turns most young people off to painting. When you reach fifty you see the value of smaller class workshops as very beneficial without need of a four year degree of rigorous traditional training. Many people paint today for the joy it brings, not for fame and fortune. They only want to get an award and be recognized in their community. These people need guidance and a way to make it all work without years of study. Someone who wishes to make art a career will need to go further. Workshops are a wonderful and useful tool to help get knowledge without having to put in those years of agony.
Painting is one of those endeavors where the more you put into it the more you get out of it. Only when you are older do you realize the time and effort it really takes to succeed at it.
Being exposed to masters
by Bryan Dunleavy, Titchfield, Hampshire, Southampton, UK
About 40 years ago when I was young and clueless, I was lucky enough to spend two summers at the Emma Lake Workshops in Saskatchewan. They’ve changed the format a lot over the years, but back then the University ran credit courses as well as shorter workshops. I did the former and was there for 6 weeks. During that period a galactic collection of Eastern and Western seaboard artists came, dispensed their wisdom, and went. I don’t think I can fully convey the excitement of meeting and talking with so many experienced and practicing artists but perhaps I can sum up the value of these workshops with one anecdote.
While I was busy laying daubs of paint on a Masonite panel, the late, great Toni Onley stood behind me and watched for a few minutes, and then spoke: “You’re trying to make it too complicated,” he said. “Paintings get complicated all by themselves; they don’t need your help.” I have never forgotten this, although I haven’t always been able to live up to it, but to me it encapsulates what we poor mortals can learn when exposed to masters. Long live workshops!
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Painting in the Park
by Guru Kaur, London, England
Ten years ago I retrained as a clothing designer by attending week-long summer course intensives at the London School of Fashion. In my late thirties, I was often the oldest in the course and many students were from foreign countries. When quizzed why they were attending these courses many students told me it was to learn the essential skills they knew were needed but weren’t properly taught in the degree courses they were paying large amounts for.
Here in London we have a free event coming up called Painting in the Park. It is all part of encouraging people to come and use Russia Dock Woodland, set in zone 2 of London, in a good way. It feels like a droplet of the countryside which local residents want to keep that way. One thing I got out of that course was the power of artists to change the environment they paint — for the better. So far we already have 130 people signed up!
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by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada
The year was 2008 and I just signed up for my first painting trip abroad. I was to meet a group of artists in Athens then head over to Crete for 2 glorious weeks of painting and exploring. I called the instructor and told her how excited I was to see the white buildings with the blue church domes perched high along the cliffs. It was then I learned I wouldn’t be seeing this area of Greece. I re-booked my flight to travel 3 days ahead of the group and went to Santorini on my own. This was the biggest adventure I’d ever been on and I was determined to see as much of Greece as I could. My first day on Santorini included a hike up the mountaintop to Ancient Thira. The next morning I was on my little terrace eating an apple and sketching the mountain I had conquered the day before. When I looked down I saw that I was actually writing, not sketching! Having never kept a journal before, I found this to be quite a surprise. So I flipped the page and began again. I never thought much of it until the last day of our workshop when the instructor asked us if we had a story to share about our experience. When I finished reading “The Awakening” I knew I was on a new journey with my art.
I have come to this place across the sea. I have been transformed – as if to another world, another life. I feel as though I have been here before. How is this possible? Have I dreamed so big that I have actually lived a previous life? The light is so pure, soft, calm and exciting all at the same time. Have I lived all of my life to finally make my way here? Is it simpler than that?
Perhaps we but have to accept the doors we must cross through in life to be able to accept and experience what it is we have for today. For if I was to come here as a child, without all of my life’s “goods and bads” and see Greece for the first time, I would not be able to breathe the light, the air, and taste life again in a new way. A way that is, I am sure, intended for us each day.
Today I will live in the stigmi (moment).
This was my 25th year since I began painting and had booked space at the local museum knowing I would have a great supply of sketches to work from for the exhibit later that year. I also wrote about each painting and was pleasantly surprised to see what it was I had to say.
Working alongside other like-minded people in a new place, sharing ideas and opening the mind to new possibilities really has catapulted my work to a whole new level. It has changed my life.
The joy of doing it yourself
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I don’t doubt that the workshop you mentioned would be a life-changing artistic experience. However, if you have that kind of money, what is stopping folks from loading up their painting gear, going online and researching cool places to stay, booking a flight and just going? I understand that single women over the age of fifty might want the companionship and relative safety in going with a group, but as a single woman I have travelled all over the world with paintbox and sketchbook and it continues to expand my life and open my mind. I’m lucky in that I was born on the road and my parents dragged our family all over the planet. When I was old enough to leave home I took off for Italy and England and never looked back.
One of the advantages of art school in another country is that it connects you with artists all over the world. An old art school buddy just e-mailed me saying that he had the use of a wonderful cottage in France for 6 months a year. When he comes to L.A., he stays with me. Another advantage in going abroad solo is that you make friends much faster, and with friends in that country, you get much more than the standard tourist experience. The usually stuffy Parisians are all welcoming smiles the minute you pull out your easel and begin to paint their lovely city.
Now that I’m married and have a family, I drag them all over the planet with me. Although a teenager can get bored easily in museums, they are quite handy to have when it comes to carrying suitcases and easels now that I’m a mature traveller. Make sure the person you marry likes to travel! For those artists who have a non-travelling spouse or multiple small children, I’m sure a workshop like the one described would be a welcome change if they can afford it. Otherwise, check out your old friends, artist acquaintances, or summer art schools already set up in some picturesque town. The Internet has made us all our own travel agents, and the libraries are full of books describing how to explore every country in the world.
For a completely mind-bending life-changing experience, try being a solo traveller on a budget. It’s scary and it can be lonely, but the payoff is incredible. If you have never travelled before, a group experience can be a way to dip your foot in the water. But don’t let the fact that you are a female over the age of fifty stop you from venturing forth. Think of it as a sort of “Outward Bound” for the creative set. Personally, I detest the group experience and wild horses couldn’t drag me onto a cruise ship, (unless I had a personal invitation from David Hockney & friends). I can’t handle group tours, tourist excursions lasting more than an hour, or being herded about like a gaggle of sheep by a man carrying an umbrella pontificating endlessly on obscure architectural doo-dads. With an i-Pad and a chip for each country, you can pull up a city map from anywhere in the world and read about the history, art, food and people while tracking exactly where you are and how to get to anywhere else. You can carry the equivalent of a library of travel books on a Kindle, take public transport like a local, stay in a small cozy pension and eat in out-of-the-way restaurants, well away from expensive tourist traps and their exorbitant bills. We just spent six days in Budapest and only had to take a taxi once! Also, there’s so much fun in planning, researching and saving money by constructing one’s own personal itinerary. You may start out alone, but before long it’s easy to hook up with other ex-pat travellers, making new friends as you go. Women over the age of fifty may not have the physical stamina that they had in their twenties, but they have the wisdom of experience and are better able to blend in with other groups of local women and their children, where sign language and body language make for the best communication of all.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Life-changing workshops…
Heading Home, Spirit of Bermuda
oil painting, 24 x 36 inches
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 Raynald Murphy of Montreal, QC, Canada, who wrote, “The French quote should have read: ‘Vous seriez tout à fait un bon peintre, si vous avez inclus du mystère dans vos peintures.’ ”
(RG note) Thanks, Raynald, and everyone else who helped me with my French. I actually reverse engineered that quote — that is, I remembered the translation but took it to Google Translate which gave it a bit of a bad curve. I’ll do better next time and yes, Raynald, I’ll ask you next time.