Choosing the right workshop

Dear Artist, “Should I go to an art school, should I take a workshop, or should I just work on my own?” Questions like this come in here every day and they’re often tough to answer. Needless to say, I always appreciate a few photos to help me with a properly considered opinion. Sometimes my answer is, “Take a workshop.” But that’s when the fun begins. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right one. While students often choose courses that take them in new and uncharted directions, it’s also valuable to invest in instructors with a somewhat similar vision to yours. If you don’t know her work personally, it’s a good idea to thoroughly check out the website. Some instructors are whiz-bangs at plein air, others excel in colour theory or drawing, still others can be counted on for foundation basics. For folks who are not sure what they want — but just feel the urge to get going — a week in a church basement with an enthusiastic pro can really charge up your lithium-ions. Fact is, many part-time workshop instructors are simply dynamite at hands-on awakening and enabling. “The supreme art of the teacher,” said Albert Einstein, “is to awaken joy.” Working artists tend to know a bit about joy. Here are a few thoughts: First-time students need not fear the prospect of judgment and comparison. Individual boundaries are respected. Most instructors I know are fully loaded with humility and empathy. The greatest teachers are perennial students themselves. “Every professional was first an amateur,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. That quote, widely repeated, helps. One of the most effective types of workshop is where two or more instructors or mentors alternate between different groups on different days. Students positively buzz with excitement as they vacuum up a bit here and a bit there. Then there’s location. The idea is to get your brush around new places. North American painters lug their stuff over to Brittany and Provence — and European painters hang out with cowboys in New Mexico. Go figure. Notwithstanding volcanic eruptions, the world’s your canvas. These days, many who take workshops are already top-notch painters. New challenges and the benefits of group dynamics are the main reasons these folks join in. Just another reason why workshops are so enriching. Great places to make buddies for life. Best regards, Robert PS: “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” (Mark Van Doren) Esoterica: A couple of days ago we put up a new feature on the Painter’s Keys site. It’s called The Workshop Calendar.  We’ve kicked it off with four events where I happen to be part of the action. Instructors, teachers and associations can now take advantage of our large readership to advertise their own. We’re charging a fee for this service, but needless to say we can pretty well guarantee your workshop announcements will be seen. It’s self loading so you can do it yourself here.   Editing out the losers by Anonymous   There are too many instructors out there who do not know what they are doing themselves. I know, I got stuck for a whole week with a person who fiddled with very basic stuff that she herself did not fully understand. Her own work showed it. She was unable to make a living with her work and yet she had been at it for a decade. I should have been more careful. Actually, apart from the fact that you can’t socialize and meet new people, books are as good as anything. With books you can edit out the losers. If you can find a book written by an instructor who also gives workshops, and you can see depth in the method, (Stephen Quiller and Scott Burdick come to mind) then you might consider going there.   Fumble fisted paintings by Frederick Winston, Havelock, ON, Canada  

watercolour painting
by Frederick Winston

Yes, a good teacher imparts joy in a subject, but I think a good teacher goes one step further. A good teacher implants a vision and a faith in the learner, that she/he can achieve great things. When I was in Barbados, and was as near to being a total beginner as imaginable, my art teacher walked up to me and asked me if I could see myself as an artist, a real artist, painting and selling my works in galleries? This was in my 3rd lesson. I looked down at my clumsy little drawings and fumble fisted paintings and looked at her and said. “I can’t imagine saying this for I don’t even know how to hold a brush in my hand.” She planted a seed or a vision within me and within five years I realized that in every way; in sales, in having my works in a gallery and in my development of skill. She gave me a dream and a vision and that has made all the difference. There are 2 comments for Fumble fisted paintings by Frederick Winston
From: Jamie Gray — Apr 28, 2010

Absolutely. We had a visiting artist in our department who said, rather abruptly, the first day, “Who of you thinks you’ll be a famous artist someday?” Being good, humble Canadians (and beginners in our craft too) only a few people put up their hands and those did so sheepishly. That wise man then said, “If you don’t actually believe that someday you’ll be a famous artist, then what are you doing here? Determine NOW who you will be.” Wise, wise seed-planting words.

From: Mhairi Millar — Apr 28, 2010

Dear Winston, It would be nice to know what it was she did that instilled the dream and vision that amde all the difference. Regards Mhairi

  Aiming to learn by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA  

original painting
by Dorenda Watson

My advice to students is to monitor a class for one session before actually taking the class if you are unsure of the instructor’s reputation or methods. Normally this is free, however you may not be able to work, just observe. Most programs are receptive to this. I also inform students that you will never produce your best work in a workshop situation; in a workshop your job is to glean info and practice what you are learning, ask questions, converse with others, and enjoy yourself. There is much too much going on in the room and in your head to create a masterpiece. I then pray that they will go back to their homes and that will be where the spark really ignites, where the real work is done, and that they will bring these works in to share with the rest of the class; which, in turn, sparks a few more students to do the same.   Horror stories by Ilene Rubin, USA  

“The Road to Prallsville Mill”
pastel painting by Ilene Rubin

Just read your post and imagine my excitement as I applaud and say YAY while I read your letter. Please do take a look at my website to see what we do and how we do it. We provide a service that takes the taking out of the house of the artist so WE take care of the details. We heard so many horror stories from artist students — “He showed up drunk” “(He/she) didn’t show up at all” “He didn’t have a plan B and it rained all weekend” “The hotel was terrible” “The hotel didn’t have the reservation for all of us only half of us” “The students whom the artist knew took all the attention and time of the instructor” etc, etc, etc.   Incorporating feelings by Jean Nelson, Oregon City, OR, USA  

original painting
by Jean Nelson

I have just registered for my first workshop, a little nervously. Your comments have helped to ease the butterflies. I just started painting about 5 or 6 months ago and wanted to learn more about plein air painting. I travel, and would like to paint what I see along the way. I have always taken pictures, being an amateur photographer, but sometimes felt there was something missing in the photos, no matter how good they turned out. I realized one day, that what was missing was what I ‘felt’ about the scene, that intangible something which I remembered but the photo didn’t convey. So I took up painting. I am hoping that I can begin to put the ‘feeling’ into the pictures by gently manipulating the scene. There are 2 comments for Incorporating feelings by Jean Nelson
From: Marney Ward — Apr 27, 2010

Really like your painting, your experience in photography has given you a good sense of composition and I really feel the wind, so do keep painting! I teach floral watercolours and I always tell my students that the most important thing is to capture how you feel about the flower in the painting. Marney

From: Loretta West — Apr 27, 2010

I hope you have a good first workshop experience. Well done on this painting, superb for a novice! Great composition.

  Contact with the artist by Sandy Gorski, Australia   Yes, good question. I tend to take workshops now, as working, teaching and creating take up most of my time. I find I can choose a subject that I need more skills with and find the appropriate teacher and workshop. Then I have the ability to be in contact with the artist if I need more info on the subject.   Plan B: DVDs and Videos by Judi Pedder, Comox, BC, Canada  

“October Surprise”
oil painting
by Judi Pedder

Speaking of workshops: I recommend research and asking people who have been ahead of you before signing up. I have in the past wanted to work with a few well recognized artists and later found out none of them actually teach anything. They are there, paint, but do not help unless asked, and then stick just to the question. Fine, if you are happy with that approach. Fortunately most of the workshops I have attended have been reasonable, good and a few really excellent. Another idea that works if you cannot dash hither and yon on expensive trips is to spend your money on DVD’s or videos. They are better than books because you hear the voice and see the hand and brush movements. Again, some are better than others and Stephen Quiller’s are fabulous.   Narrowing your options by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA  

“Quiet Heart”
oil painting
by Gwen Fox

Taking a workshop to learn new skills, regain your creative edge or to just get away and see things in a different way — all these are important elements in an artist life. I have been teaching art workshops in Taos, New Mexico for many years and I love it. I love my students, I love teaching but most of all I love watching artists grow. Students arrive from different environments and thought processes yet they all come to learn, to stretch beyond where they are, be inspired while discovering their unique creative voice. Here are a few suggestions I would make when trying to decide which workshop to take. Decide what you want to learn and in what medium, don’t be afraid to pick a workshop that is beyond your current ability, decide how far you want to travel, go to the instructors’ website and read their philosophy, look at their art. Call or email the instructor and talk to them, ask questions. You want an instructor who will push you to another level in your art, one who is knowledgeable, understanding and one who will give you a good honest critique of your work. You want an instructor that encourages you to honor yourself as an artist. Once you have decided on your workshop, go with a beginners mind no matter your current artistic ability. Don’t try and paint to impress the instructor — this workshop if for YOU. Be willing to get out of your comfortable creative box, explore, and be willing to fail. Smile. Workshops are a gift we give ourselves when we are serious about our dreams. There are 3 comments for Narrowing your options by Gwen Fox
From: Virginia Wieringa — Apr 27, 2010

Good list, Gwen. Somehow I missed Robert’s letter last Friday. In my Michigan experience, Linda Baker and Kathleen Conover are topnotch workshop leaders whose workshops were a gift I have given myself a couple times each! They also teach in other places in the country. Maybe I’ll come to CO and take one with you!

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Apr 27, 2010

Gwen, your philosophy for workshops is spot on! I always tell my students in the info about the workshop “you most likely will not complete a painting in this workshop.” I want them to come into the workshop and try different methods, or thought processes. And, I totally believe in being as positive as possible. You can always find something good to say and then gently talk about the issues you see without overwhelming the students. I usually ask more questions of the artist than give ultimates. I want them to be able to evaluate the parts and the whole of the piece they are working on. I think they remember it more than what I might tell them. You did a good job here of explaining!

From: Wayne Hatcher — Apr 27, 2010

Gwen, I remember taking a workshop in Parker CO about 8 years ago that you taught, and I can still remember (and use) some of the take aways and pointers you gave from that day we spent together. A good workshop, whether it’s several hours, or several days can be very important to an artists growth and development.

  Trust your instincts — damn it! by Alice Helwig, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“Winter’s last hurray”
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Alice Helwig

I just got home from your talk at the Leighton Centre. I’m glad I went. Your talk reinforced an epiphany I had earlier on in the studio. That was — to Trust my instincts. A few years back I had one gallery owner (also a painter), who wanted to mentor me. I now know and understand the advice she gave but at the time it impeded my work. I couldn’t paint without her voice in my head. I now realize that we both work differently. She is much more analytical throughout the painting process. I find that I need to learn and read and absorb the material. But then I go to paint and reach down deep and work very intuitively. If that’s not happening I know I’m not committed to the painting. I have now established a mid-way checklist for myself where I can access how things are going. I’m now thankful for the experience I had with her, even though it meant that I couldn’t paint for a couple of months. In the end it made me a better painter as I had to examine my own painting process. I know of another artist who paints in the latest style of the workshop he has attended. In fact, this was so blatantly done, that the artist who gave the workshop mistook the student’s work for his own. Lately I’ve noticed his work tightening up, but it doesn’t seem natural. And so at my easel today with brush in hand I thought — I’m just going to do what I do. I’m having a good time. I am going to paint what I want to paint. Later I’ll choose to market whatever painting to where-ever. I should trust my instincts. The line was drawn — I will sometimes refine the work but I’m not willing to add more detail. It’s not what I’m interested in. My work that gallery owners are drawn to doesn’t have a lot of detail. It does have a lot of texture though. I’m realizing that part of being an artist is to develop a stubborn individualistic backbone. I’m going to do what I do-damn it! There are 4 comments for Trust your instincts – damn it! by Alice Helwig
From: Helen Painter — Apr 27, 2010

Alice – your expressed yourself beautifully. Why did you add “damn-it”

From: Karen R. Phinney — Apr 27, 2010

The fellow who copied the style of each workshop teacher needs a stronger sense of self. If he had a strong sense of self, he would incorporate what he learns from the teachers and it would still be essentially his own. It can be a struggle sometimes to find your own voice, or perhaps, “hand” in the case of painters!

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Apr 27, 2010

Alice, beautiful painting! I feel as you do, and paint what feels right to me. It changes and evolves. I can’t afford workshops, but take every chance I can to learn from other artists, either directly or through galleries. I’ve found some videos useful. But mostly I just play, and see what happens.

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Dance of Blues

mixed media painting by Bonnie Tomlinson

  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 Norman Ridenour of Czech Republic, who wrote, “I have a motto — Teaching is impossible but learning is not. The job of the so-called teacher is to aid the learning.

And also Isa Benson who wrote, “Come on folks. How to hold the brush indeed. None of you ever seen any of the mouth or foot paintings? Just do it!”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Choosing the right workshop

From: Gina Lento — Apr 23, 2010

I would also ask around about a specific instructor as well before you pay to take a class or workshop. I’ve heard from my artist friends of one workshop instructor who insulted their students and told quite a few not to quit their day job. You are paying your own hard earned money to sign up for the workshop or class to learn new things or enhance your technique, not to be insulted or ridiculed. So ask around first if you don’t know the instructor.

From: Faith — Apr 23, 2010

I went away again so that I would not be the first to comment, but 4 hours later….. In Europe the day is half over and the perennial what-shall-I do-to-improve-my-art problem has loomed up again. Of course, it must be a good idea to join a workshop now and again. It would be refreshing to meet new people and wonderful to try out new techniques etc. with sparklingly inspired mentors. So why is it than any workshop I’ve attended up to now is dominated by older females (like me)? And quite apart from the predeliction of older females to indulge in self-improvement, where are the men? Don’t they need workshops? Can’t they improve? Is it just my bad luck? At my very first workshop somewhere in Derbyshire, UK, there were 10 (female) students, 6 of whom had never painted before. The advertised workshop did not happen. Instead we all learnt how to hold a paintbrush, mix blue and yellow to make green and we eventually painted a tree, but were instructed to leave holes in it for the birds to breathe. At a later one we were informed on authority that Malewich’s black square was the only painting worth imitating. I could go on…. There is another problem, however, and that is the exhorbitant price of many of the workshops on offer, which makes them unavailable to me and probably many others. But maybe we are all having a lucky escape….

From: Darla — Apr 23, 2010

I’m all in favor of workshops as exploratory and recharging tools. But how does this mesh with the recent letter about not helping artists — that teaching somehow holds them back; that fired up artists will succeed without any guidance?

From: Tatjana — Apr 23, 2010

Hi Robert, I appreciate the mixed messages in your letters. You expose your audience to a variety of (sometimes conflicting) stories from the art world. That makes your letters worth reading. You are not defining a dogma, but opening all doors that you come across for all of us. We are free to walk through the door and check out what’s there.

From: Bill — Apr 23, 2010

My experience has been that the instructors who offer to teach me could probably be better off taking my classes. The good ones from whom I learn – I have to chase those down myself.

From: Isa Benson — Apr 24, 2010

Come on folks. How to hold the brush indeed. None of you ever seen any of the mouth or foot paintings? Just do it!

From: Dore’ Anderson — Apr 25, 2010

As artists and artists-in-the-making, sometimes it is good to go back and study what we think we know. Every class I have ever taken I have gleamed a golden nugget. I teach small classes. I see my students progress. That is satisfying.

From: Nancy — Apr 26, 2010

I happened into an artist owned gallery in Cambria, CA. I have admired her work for many years and asked if she taught in any work shops. Melanie Sylvester’s response was that if she taught, she would have less time to paint. She said that the best way for a new artist to learn was from videos. Techniques taught in them can be returned to repeatedly, whereas in a workshop, the technique can be taught and that is the end of it for that session.

From: Jackie Ivey-Weaver — Apr 26, 2010

An out of town workshop, with an artist Friend is the greatest, if you can afford separate rooms.There is something about the quiet time to absorb as much as possible about the day you both have experienced. Of course you need to go out to dinner to discuss the views of each person. It’s a plus if once in the workshop, there is a small group of the other artists to participate in the dinner or in someone’s room for a limited time to discuss their take on the day. The beautiful thing about the out of town workshop is you a not responsible for any one but you. You can focus on art. Of course you have to research the teacher, first. Absolutely the very, very first thing is the money.

From: Rosie — Apr 27, 2010
From: Asta Dale — Apr 27, 2010

In my life I have attended may workshops at ‘Emma Lake’ 3 times and ‘Atlin Art Centre’ 5 times. I always came away with refreshing ideas but deep in my heart I knew that I could only paint what is within me. I tried to go to that ‘Talk’ you gave last Friday night but was turned away because ‘it was overbooked and fire regulations would not permit any extra person’. I would have liked to ask you a similar challenging question, because I see ‘Art’ as a mirror to our world, the real world – to help us understand and cope with its complexity. I like Charlie Isoe and I also like Robert Rauschenberg. It shows the beautiful and the ugly. We all need to accept that. Asta

From: Elihu — Apr 27, 2010

Charlie Isoe reminds me of Francis Bacon, but not nearly as good (deep).

From: Delores D. — Apr 27, 2010

I just read up on the workshops or working alone theory of artists. Both are appealing to me, depending where ‘my world’ in life is at in different times. Just now I am making a connection with a workshop again, and my gut feels good about it. I find with too much time in between and mingling with a lot of non-Artists I loose something special and it is not uplifting nor inspiring not to have people of my own interest and enthusiasm around me.

From: — Apr 27, 2010

I would like to ask Asta Dale how to get in touch with Emma Lake to sign up for a workshop. Have seen some work produced there and would be interested in going there sometime , possibly next summer, if it ever comes.

From: antoinette ledzian — Apr 28, 2010

RG, your sense of humor is part of my daily food group. If you decide to go commercial with your gnome, please put one aside for me . . . I would bow to it every time I go into my garden!

From: Bobbie — Apr 28, 2010

I taught art at a community college for seven years. I believe that one of the most important things to give students (besides the technical part) is a sense of what they have that is unique to them. You keep turning them back to themselves by showing them where their strengths are, by introducing them to artists work that relates to theirs, etc. And there is an additional benefit; It will give them the strength to push through the doubts that will be piling up in front of their paths.

From: Deborah Leigh — May 03, 2010

I don’t get it, who would want to hang a painting of ugly distorted bloodied up faces, and guys with horns? I think blood is in right now, because of the big vampire phase that it going on right now. Of which is of interest to mostly young people and teens. The guys with horns, huh? Oh well to each his own…………yes but still……………


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