It doesn’t matter if you’ve been formally trained or not, or how long you have been painting: if you feel stuck or uninspired as an artist, it can help to take a workshop.
If you’ve never taken a workshop before and are now considering one, start by asking yourself what you want from the experience. Be specific. Do you feel something is lacking in your work? If so, what? Be practical and make a list. Is it something you think you missed in school, or, if you are largely self-taught, something you don’t yet understand? Are you able to travel to a workshop location, or ready to pursue your long-delayed dream of becoming a full time artist? If you are a professional already, have you been grinding away for years and fallen into a rut? Or is it something as simple and direct as raising your game or experiencing something new? All of these questions have applied to me at some point and each time they prompted me to seek out a workshop.
But why not just buy another set of DVDs or the latest how-to book? After all, many of them offer a viable option to the expense and effort of attending a workshop. But books and DVDs are limited by how they are written and can only present a one-way flow of information – even the best of them can’t respond to the way you might learn. When you work face-to-face with an experienced teacher the instruction you receive becomes more fluid and tailored to your capabilities and interests. When you get stuck you can ask the instructor a question, and question the answer, and the teacher has a chance to clarify anything which still may elude you. Painting may not be as complicated as brain surgery or rocket science, but there are times when a little back and forth between you and a real person makes all the difference in the world.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to decide which workshop is best for you. Why? Because you may not know what you don’t know and picking one workshop out of the thousands which are out there can be daunting. It can feel like playing roulette. So again, hedge your bet by asking yourself specific questions such as these: Do you want to learn how to create harmonious color relationships? Do you want to learn how to paint using a limited or extended palette? Do you want to become a loose and expressive alla prima painter, or focus on developing a disciplined multi-session approach? Do you want to learn how to recognize, alter, or transform reality, or do you simply want to paint what you see? These kinds of questions help clarify your goals as you choose a workshop. You can probably come up with many more. (Please post your own questions in the comment section below if you wish to share them with your OPA members. I will read and respond.)
Once you have a better idea of what you want and have settled on a couple of options, contact the instructors and inquire about their teaching methods. Yes, shoot them an email or message them on Facebook. They will respond. Ask for student referrals too. If the teacher you are considering is noted for his or her instruction, then approaching a few students for bona fides will not be awkward. You are just doing your homework like any new student should.
However, once you’ve signed on, show up fully prepared and ready to go. Your instructor is sacrificing valuable painting time to teach the class so give it your all. Come with an open mind and let him or her deliver the voodoo they do. Accept the expertise and advice they have to offer. Keep what works and discard what doesn’t – after the workshop. Arrive with high expectations for yourself but don’t necessarily expect to produce paintings ready to sell or hang on a wall. The things you will be asked to do may fundamentally challenge your previous working methods, or what once felt safe and comfortable, but still, remain open to what your instructor is offering. Accept that there will be moments of exhilaration and moments of frustration, with all of it impacting the way you paint that day and the weeks and months which follow. It may even feel as though the instructor is sowing seeds for a later harvest as you fumble with the present. If so, then you are in the presence of a master teacher.
It also means you are likely to continue reaping a rich reward from a short investment of only a few days for years and years to come…
What you should expect from your workshop:
- An immediate but fair evaluation of your present painting ability.
- An clear and effective set of goals scaled to the length of the workshop.
- An instructor who can demonstrate what he or she teaches, and who is fair with the one-on-one contact time.
- An instructor who creates a critical, yet respectful space for you to take a risk in.
- An instructor who can respectfully identify the negative, yet teach with the positive.
- An efficient and organized itinerary appropriate to all students in the class.
What you want to avoid:
- Vague or ill-defined goals for you and the class, or too much improvised instruction.
- Insufficient painting time for you. Demos are fun to watch but you must paint too.
- Instructors who make the class all about themselves. (Hmm…need I say more?)
A few more thoughts…
Here is a hint: If you are thinking about taking a number of workshops over the next few years then consider attending a few national or regional art events to meet and preview potential instructors. When Oil Painters of America presents their yearly exhibitions they often invite signature painters to come and present demos and quick workshops. The same is true, if not more so, for the folks who host the Plein Air Convention and Expos, as it is true for the American Impressionists Society, the Portrait Society of America, and other groups. These events offer you a chance to meet instructors with little fuss or muss, reducing the likelihood you will sign up for an experience that isn’t a good fit. Sure, most of these events charge fees, but weigh those costs against the time and expense of a couple of bad workshops and you may decide the entry ticket is worth it. Plus, while you are there you can network with your fellow artists and talk to those who have already studied with the teachers who most interest you.
However, be wary of guarantees when speaking to a teacher. Be realistic. Even if you do take a workshop from a master painter don’t expect to become a master yourself after taking a single class. And multiple workshops will not make it happen either. What you can learn from the workshops you take is how to become a better painter over time. The unavoidable truth about becoming masterful at anything is there are no short-cuts. A good workshop may save some time by pointing you in the right direction but you still have to clock in the hours yourself. So play the long game. Don’t measure yourself by the successes you experience along the way, measure yourself by the miles of canvas you cover. For it is only through your discipline and practice that the things you struggle with today become reflexive and unconscious tomorrow. That much can be guaranteed.
I hope this post helps you make a good workshop choice. If you are interested in my approach to teaching, and the methods I’ve developed over the last twenty years while working with individuals and groups, as well developing and running an accredited BFA program, visit www.thomaskitts.com. I’d love to hear from you.