Workshops 101: Tips From Today’s Top Instructors, by Jessica Canterbury

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Ratindra Das and the Southwestern Watercolor Society

Ratindra Das demonstrates his loose watercolor style for the Southwestern Watercolor Society. Workshops provide good opportunities to challenge yourself; Das advises attendees to “be prepared to enjoy the struggle and frustration that come with creativity.” Photo courtesy of Ratindra Das

Painting workshops aren’t inexpensive—a two-day session will cost about $175 to $200, and a weeklong workshop typically starts in the $500 range, not including food and lodging—but they’re an investment in your fine art future. To really get your money’s worth, it only makes sense to prepare as much as possible. We asked four popular  watercolor workshop instructors—Mary Alice Braukman, Eric Wiegardt, Birgit O’Connor and Ratindra Das—for their take on how students should enter into a session. According to them, a little pre-planning goes a long way.

Selecting an instructor

Is it best to study with an artist whose painting style is similar to your own, or is an opposites-attract approach more helpful when selecting an instructor? Wiegardt sees both options as beneficial: the former for “reinforcement and fine tuning,” and the latter for breaking out of a rut.
Braukman advises prospective attendees to look in all directions. “Students should be looking at various instructors’ work that they like—from exhibition catalogs, juried shows, books, videos and even Google,” she says. “This includes work similar to their own, as well as work different from theirs that makes them think and want more. If the class focuses on a technique that you definitely don’t like, then don’t take that class. Choose one that will open you up and make you grow.”
Often artists will study with the same instructor, says O’Connor. “Sometimes there’s one instructor and style that resonates with you and studying with them helps to reinforce what you’ve already learned,” she says. That certainly was the case with Wiegardt in his student days. “I studied under Irving Shapiro for two years, daily at the American Academy of Art, before I felt I had a grasp of what he was conferring upon us,” he says.
The search for a workshop instructor starts within, according to Das. “A potential student should make an honest assessment of his or her painting level (beginner/intermediate/advanced) and check the compatibility of the instructor’s personal philosophy,” he says. “A bit of research about the artist’s credentials will help; most instructors have a website, and published articles, blogs and books can also provide insight. Above all, word of mouth is the most helpful way to get an idea about an instructor.”
O’Connor agrees on the value of peer recommendations. She advocates getting fellow artist friends’ reactions from workshops, reading testimonials or getting information from art organizations.
Once you’ve selected an instructor, start checking out their workshop schedules. Note: Schedules are typically made two to three years in advance, with registration opening six months to one year prior, so looking at least one year out will give you a good start.

What to bring

Birgit O'Connor workshop

Birgit O’Connor’s workshop students typically work on the same composition, but each artist is welcome to paint whatever she chooses. Photo courtesy of Birgit O’Connor

Aside from items on your materials list, which O’Connor advises buying at least three or four weeks before the workshop to allow for delivery time, there are some other items you might want to bring with you. Old or unfinished paintings are useful in Braukman’s workshops, as they can be recycled in the form of a collage or simply painted over. Braukman also advises bringing a familiarity with basic design rules—“because we will be breaking many of them,” she says.
It’s a good idea to experiment and familiarize yourself with the recommended materials. This will save lots of painting time in the session. And don’t be afraid to contact instructors if you can’t find an item or if you’re confused by something on their list; in many cases, they’ll have items available for purchase. O’Connor, for example, offers large sable/synthetic blend and natural brushes that are hard to find in stores. “I’ve seen too many students go to the art store, spend too much money on the wrong products, and then ultimately return them,” she says.
That said, she doesn’t recommend skimping on supplies either. “If you’re going to invest in a workshop it’s a good idea to have as many of the suggested high-grade materials as possible,” O’Connor says. “The right kind of paper, paint and brushes make all the difference in the world for a successful experience.”
Das and Wiegardt recommend bringing a portable easel for painting on location, and Das adds a backpack, for convenient transportation of materials. Also recommended: a notebook; a camera, for your own photo references and images of the instructor’s demonstration; and possibly even a video camera, if permitted by the instructor (although most have their own videos available for purchase, so they may not allow video recording).
To an instructor, the right mind-set is the most essential thing an attendee can bring. “Attitude is all I care about; I can help a student at any skill level,” Wiegardt says. Das agrees. “And be prepared to meet fellow artists whose goals aren’t necessarily the same,” he says. “A workshop is not the place for competition or making a masterpiece.”

How to act

Birgit O'Connor painting demonstration

O’Connor takes her students through her painting process step by step. Photo courtesy of Birgit O’Connor

Common sense and rules of etiquette apply: arrive on time (10 to 20 minutes early, if possible); turn off mobile phones; don’t talk over the instructor; and don’t hog the instructor’s time. Be ready to work, challenge yourself and handle constructive criticism.
During a demonstration, you want to soak in as much as possible. O’Connor and Das recommend taking notes; Braukman and Wiegardt advise just relaxing, absorbing information and asking questions—but only those pertinent to the demo.
The issue of individual attention is always tricky. “Paying attention to everyone with an equal amount of time isn’t always possible, however desirable it may be,” says Das. “Overall, my class can expect about half a day for general guidance. Demos and lectures take up the other half.” Wiegardt feels the same. “A student who expects hand-holding is hard on me and the rest of the students,” he adds.
If you’re convinced that working extra hard each night after the session will help you get ahead, think again. Instructors recommend taking it easy. “Read about an artist or simply unwind,” says Das. The most you want to do, perhaps, is prepare your supplies for the next day.
Braukman simply advises students to study their own work at night. “Placing the work in a different setting will give new insights into necessary changes,” she says. Wiegardt’s workshop nights are homework-free. “We’re all too tired from a full day; relaxation is needed for the next day. Painting demands a fresh mind, not a tired one,” he says.
Critiques are a significant part of the workshop experience, and rightfully so, but that also means voicing your thoughts on others’ work—and hearing comments about your own. Fear not, says O’Connor. “The critique is to show you what’s working and what isn’t, and when it’s done in front of a group it can be very supportive.” It’s all part of broadening the learning experience, according to Wiegardt. Das concurs. “It’s not meant to salvage a piece or shower a student with praises. It’s how to take the next step forward,” he says. Self-assuredness is key to Braukman, who adds, “It helps when the student whose work is being critiqued doesn’t take anything personally and holds onto his or her confidence. Constructive criticism is good for everyone and is needed.”

Keep it up

Mary Alice Braukman painting workshop

Mirrors placed strategically in the room in a workshop in Venice, Florida, help students see what Mary Alice Braukman’s doing at her demo table and help her keep tabs on their progress. Photo courtesy of Mary Alice Braukman

When the workshop’s over, the real work begins. But paint on, say the instructors. “It takes time to assimilate the information given during a workshop,” Das says. “Just dive in and use the information to paint instead of waiting for weeks and months. Allow yourself sufficient time in your studio to work at your pace.” Wiegardt warns about a post-workshop slump. “Students should be prepared for what appears to be a drop in quality in their paintings,” he says. “This usually follows a breakthrough in painting as the new ideas are getting sorted out. Continue to paint and don’t demand too much of yourself. With continued effort, the paintings will work themselves out.”
Keeping at it and giving yourself space are paramount during this time. “Continue to push and experiment,” says Braukman. “Study other artists’ work, go to galleries, museums, art centers. Put past paintings up and compare them to what you’re doing now. Have they changed, and do you like what you see?” O’Connor advocates carving out windows of work time. “If it can’t be every day or a few times a week, make an appointment with yourself when you can have at least three hours of uninterrupted painting time. The more time you have to practice, the better painter you’ll be.”
As for when to take the next workshop, the consensus is clear: Give yourself some time in-between sessions. O’Connor says most students like to take one big workshop each year, and Das recommends waiting at least six months before taking the next one. “Before I was teaching,” Braukman says, “I took three workshops a year and spread these out during that time. I believe you need space between sessions to apply what you’ve learned. If you see yourself repeating or are in a rut, this may tell you it’s time to take a class. Don’t stagnate, create! And stay excited about art.”

Art Workshop Checklist

Jessica Canterbury is managing editor of Watercolor Artist magazine.
Excerpted from the April 2010 issue of Watercolor Artist. Used with the kind permission of Watercolor Artist, a publication of F+W Media, Inc. Visit to subscribe.

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