Eleven Ways To Get The Most Out Of Your Next Art Workshop

Come On In, The Water’s Fine,  an advanced beginner watercolor workshop series I’m teaching, has its first session on Fri., Jan. 21rst at Artists League of the Sandhills www.artistleague.org in Aberdeen, NC.  I’m excited for my students. There’s nothing like the anticipation and high hopes of beginning something new.

I believe the art of teaching is the art of assisting in discovery. My desire is to provide a safe, encouraging workshop environment that builds confidence and fosters risk-taking to help each person get in touch with her own inner artist.

Teaching is hard work for me. My reward is when I see the light come on in students’ eyes and share in their delight when they create art they thought was beyond them. But I need to be candid here, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.

"Not So Sure," By June Rollins, Watercolor on Arches 140 lb CP using American Journey Alizarin Crimson and Joe's Green ( Yes, just two color opposites, red and green)

How does one get the most out of an art workshop? I’ve had some disappointments along the way, and from what I’ve heard; I’m not alone. Based on my experiences as a student and an instructor, here’s what I’ve discovered:

1)      Ask Around – Before enrolling in a workshop talk with others who have studied with the instructor you’re considering. Get feedback from more than one person. Weigh what the majority says. Any one person may have a skewed perspective due to personal preferences. We’re all different. For example, some of us want structure. Others feel their creativity is restricted by structure and want freedom.

2)      Make Contact – Many instructors extend invitations to answer questions beforehand on their blogs, websites or supplies lists. Take advantage of the offer. Some instructors take the initiative and touch base with students before class via e-mail. A good sign that someone has your best interests at heart 🙂

3)      One Size Doesn’t Fit All – I’m a little suspicious of workshops that say “For All Levels.” I enrolled in a three-day-one-of-those when I had only been painting about six weeks and got so discouraged I almost gave-up watercolor. It was beyond my skill level and the instructor wasn’t able to give me the extra guidance I needed out of fairness to the other fourteen more skilled attendees. And on the flip side, if you’ve been painting for several years and want to be stretched and challenged with intermediate techniques…it could be one lon-n-n-n-g class.

4)      Check Your Baggage – We’ve all got it. Stuff that’s better left outside the classroom. From the student’s point of view, X number of dollars have been spent in good faith for an instructor that’s got her act together. And from the instructor’s point of view, X number of hours have been spent in planning and in anticipation of students who are punctual, prepared and present.

5)      At Least Try It – A few years ago I attended a watercolor workshop by a nationally known artist. The class member on my right was a fine draftsman and spent most of the day drawing an intricately detailed pen and ink and never put paint on paper. The class member on my left used the painting method she was already comfortable with instead of trying what the instructor had spent two hours demonstrating that morning. I was this little sponge sitting between both of them; soaking up everything the instructor did. Now, I know we aren’t supposed to compare, but I couldn’t help wondering,  why are they here?

6)      Don’t Fight It – You signed up for an art class, not a karate tournament. One of the blessings of teaching a beginners class is I don’t usually have to wrestle someone to the ground to get them to, for example, mix red and green to create lovely, mingling neutrals, not found in a tube that cause their friends to gather around in awe asking, “What color is that?”

7)      Don’t Beat Yourself Up – Some of us have vicious, unrelenting, damaging inner critics. I’ve seen numerous students with promise and potential self-sabotage. It’s painful to watch and often difficult to stop from the outside. Be aware of how you are talking to yourself on the inside as you paint. Affirming or brow beating?

8)      Having Fun Yet? –Your inner artist loves to play and often goes into hiding when things are taken too seriously. Delight in observation and discovery. As one beginning teacher once told me, “It’s only paper, flip it over.”

9)      Enjoy Being With Other Artists – Taking a workshop is not just about learning new techniques. It’s also about meeting other artists and sharing ideas. Take the initiative and break the ice during free times and lunch. A good icebreaker question: “So, what other instructors have you studied with?” There are also the enriching friendships that can be formed. An artist I met in a beginning watercolor class in 1999 is still one of my closest friends today, eleven years later.

10)       High Expectations VS Realistic Expectations –Don’t expect to paint any masterpieces during a workshop. The purpose of a workshop is to receive new information, try different techniques, make mistakes, accept suggestions, and to try again. Always, to try again, preferably in solitude, after the workshop. No workshop can magically turn you into a better painter. The key to improved skills is painting on a regular basis, as often as possible. In an ideal world, that would be daily.

11)      Did This Workshop Meet Your Expectations? – There’s that word again. Expectations. This question has been on almost every end-of-workshop-survey I’ve ever received and it’s a tough one. Why? Because it’s so easy to blame if we’re feeling frustrated or disappointed.  I’m beginning to believe it’s better to be open to receiving what the workshop offers than limiting it to what we think it should offer. We don’t know what we don’t know and if we can reign in our sometimes-limiting, pre-conceived ideas, we might gain a fresh perspective or a new awareness, which is priceless.

"Just Us Onions," 7x10 Watercolor, Arches 140 lb CP, using American Journey Alizarin Crimson and Joe's Green (yes, that same red and green)

 Nothing can be done except little by little.

–Charles Baudelaire, a 19th century art critic who had a profound effect on the Impressionists.

 Have anything else to add that would help others get the most out of their next workshop? If so, please click on “Comments” at the end of this post.

Enjoy the journey!

4 thoughts on “Eleven Ways To Get The Most Out Of Your Next Art Workshop

  1. Hi. I have studied art, from the painter’s standpoint, since 2007. This is not a long time. And so much of what is said here is right on.

    But I think if you are intermediate and beyond you have to think about perhaps another list. I would love to hear from others.

    Why other artists are there doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I try very hard to do exactly what the instructor says. This turns out something awful. But if I interpret what is said and do my art with SOME of their instruction, I do better.

    I wonder more about people who only do exactly what the instructor does and gets nothing.

    Be yourself. Don’t wonder why others are there.

    Be respectful of the instructor even when their critique of your work has only to do with what they think you didn’t do that they taught and not the painting on its own.

    Try to ask what books the artist thinks are important. Ask if you can send email questions even if just once for awhile.

    And finally if you like the instructor tell her or him personally. So often the critique we write in class is not what we think a day or week later.

    I definitely recommend June’s classes. She says this class is not for me. I respect it. I want an advanced class perhaps where students send two or three things to cover. Not how to so this but …


  2. June, you are right on in your observations. I don’t have too many problems with those around me, but then I really don’t pay attention to what they are doing until critique time. I work independently and don’t do well in workshops as I prefer to paint in the quiet of my own studio without interruption. I enroll to learn and usually learn something I did not know but I do want to be challenged beyond my comfort zone. I don’t want to go to an all day class and feel I am done by 1:00 p.m.

    I like constructive critique as feel this is the only way to go forward from where I am.

    I appreciate that one should be ready to go at the start of class, that means getting there ahead of that time,setting up, and being ready to learn/paint. I also like to have a level in class that is appropriate. Beginners don’t feel comfortable with accomplished artists and the later are held back waiting on those less accomplished to catch up or ask questions. On the other hand, beginning artists do sometimes surprise you and do better than anyone as they are less restricted in their thinking and actions. They just “play” and come up with some great work. Children teach us a lot about freedom as they are less inhibited than we older people.

    I look forward to taking an advanced watercolor class from you.

  3. Hi June,
    I found you through Donna Zagotta’s blog 🙂 You’ve made some excellent suggestions for anyone wishing to study art! Fun to see your slideshows too 🙂
    best, Ruth

  4. Hi Ruth,

    Thank you for commenting. I was thrilled to have my blog listed as one of the top 29 blogs to watch in 2011 on Donna’s Blog. I visited your website and am especially drawn to Possibility. Best to you too, June

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