Thrive In Your Art Classes with Guidance from Four Seasoned Instructors
Art classes and 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, whether you are looking to grow your skills as an extension of your creative passion or you’ve got an eye on turning your artistic skills into a career pursuit.
To go into your art class and get what you came for, 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 in art classes are best positioned to succeed.
How to Select 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? Eric Wiegardt — author of Painting Without a Net, a book that teaches you how to navigate the painting process with clarity of thought and purpose — 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 art classes 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 an 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,” Das adds.
O’Connor agrees on the value of peer recommendations. She advocates getting fellow artist friends’ reactions from art classes, reading testimonials or getting information from art organizations.
Once you’ve selected an instructor, start checking out their schedules. 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. Art classes that you are taking at a local art college or association tend to have foundational or fundamental classes every season or semester, depending on their scheduling.
What to bring to your art classes
Aside from items on your materials list, which O’Connor advises buying at least three or four weeks before the art class starts 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 art classes, 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 course 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 art classes 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.”
Plein Air Art Classes
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 or sketchbook and a camera or camera phone, for your own photo references and images of the instructor’s demonstration.
To an instructor, the right mindset 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 class is not the place for competition or making a masterpiece.”
How to act in your art class
Common sense and rules of etiquette apply. Arrive on time (10 to 20 minutes early, if possible). Turn off cell 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 in art classes 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 overnight art classes 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 art class 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.”
What to do after class is over
When the art class or workshop is over, the real work begins. 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-class 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.”
When to take another class
As for when to take the next art class, the consensus is clear: Give yourself some time in between sessions. O’Connor says most students like to take one big workshop or intensive art class 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.”