Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about workshops recently; not only my own, but those I've taken in the past.  I always held the idea that if I could learn one unmastered skill, or have just one good aha moment, it would be worth the cost.  But really being practical during these tight economic times, is one skill in a three day workshop worth the total cost? That's point one!

Thinking back, I wish I could say that every workshop I took made a big difference in my painting skills, but sadly I can't. Most of the time the workshop consisted of a demo, personal anecdotes, a few questions asked by the audience, followed by the artist dobbing some paint on my canvas, saying very little if anything significant or helpful.  In one case, I had to ask the teacher to stop by and give me advice.  I have to admit though that workshops are my kind of fun. Being with other artists and sharing a common interest is rewarding.  Maybe just the experience is justification enough; that's one way to look at it!  That's point two!

So lets take a deeper look into the idea of taking a workshop away from home.

There are some really good master artists offering workshops these days at various locations all across the United States. But be prepared to pay big money for big names. Such workshops can run as much as $600.00 to $1,200.00 for a three day workshop and sometimes more. Then there is the cost of travel, lodging, and food costs to consider in addition to the cost of the workshop bumping the daily cost to nearly a $1,000 per day sometimes. If you can afford it, a workshop with a big name can be lots of fun and you get the bragging rights to say that you have taken art lessons form Master Artist (put your favorite artist's name here). In addition, your get to rub shoulders with the big name and the people that the big name attracts.

With regards to my point two; don't be offended if you don't get one-on-one attention by the workshop presenter! Most, if not all, workshop presenters know very well that many of their attendees are there for the experience and to have a good time (I'll have more to say about that a bit later in this post).  They don't know whom might be a budding new discovery artist and in some cases they may not even care. I have found that if the presenter is a Big name often times there are other big names attending the workshop too, and the big names tend to associate with one another; certainly not the novice painter.  It can be very difficult to break in to the inner circle unless of course you are an attractive young thing.  Sorry if this offends some of the male instructors but it comes from personal observations. The other way to be ignored is to be over a certain age.  Some instructors view you as a "Sunday painter" and are treated as such.  You know what I am talking about so I won't say any more.

So what's my point? A workshop may not be what you need.  First, if you are going to take a workshop know why you want to take the workshop in the first place.  For the novice, this might be to get a good start, to have that great experience, or to rub shoulders with a big name.  If any of these is your goal, fine! But, before you spend lots of dollars on the workshop find out if the artist you admire for their style of work has a book or books and/or DVDs that you can learn from, and then do your homework.  Next, sit down and practice, practice, practice.  You should have your basic skills down pat or you will embarrass yourself!  Until you have gained command of the basic skill sets that allows you to put paint to canvas with some assurance you are wasting your time and money with most workshops. Better still, find a good local artist and teacher that will critique your work and offer advice.  And better yet, find a local teacher that you can take classes from on a weekly basis.  With all the great books and instructional DVDs available, you can master quite a few skills in the privacy of your own studio. And nothing is better than long term learning with a good instructor for real progress.

At this point you might be wondering why I am giving this advice since it would seem I am shooting myself in my own foot.  Here's the honest truth.  I gave my first workshop (after teaching weekly classes for years) this summer and I was really excited about giving my students the best instruction I could.  As I planned out the five days, I asked a couple of seasoned instructors for their advice.  And guess what? Their advice was don't go to all that work and trouble.  Just give them an experience that is entertaining, and paint a little on their canvas and they will be happy.  They won't use what you give them anyway when they get back home, I was told.  Really?  That's not my style and never has been as a professional educator for more than 25 years.  Needless to say, I gave it all I had and it was a success (and I was exhausted too). 

So my advice, if I may, is to ask around before signing up for any workshop.  Check with others whom you know who have taken from this teacher or that to see if the workshop is going to give you what you are wanting.  Do your research; read everything you can find about the artist and their style of painting, and then see if they offer something more than just workshops. 

Weekly classes as I said earlier is the best way to go since it gives you time in between to let the information soak in and time to practice at home.  I'm posting here a painting from one of my weekly students who began her study back in February.  She has been coming regularly and works very hard.  Great work Shayna!

Why did I write this?  I have wanted to take a workshop to strengthen my portrait skills from an instructor that would elevate me to the next level.  Each time I start to register all of the above ideas have stopped me.  So, I have decided to take my own advise; that is to practice, read, watch DVDs, and practice, practice, practice. And I mean every day; not just when I feel inspired!  No still life painting for me has taken place for many weeks now.  And here is some of the results --- one of four portraits that I have completed.  And when I am ready I will look for an artist with whom I can study not for a weekend, but for weeks and months --- just as the Old Masters did with their inspirational master artist teachers.

I would like to hear about your experiences (no instructor names please) with workshops.  If you disagree, please let me know.  I would like to be convinced otherwise.


  1. A really thought provoking post. When I began painting as an adult eight years ago, I knew I had to work fast! Time was a'wasting! I signed up for several workshops without, I confess, much thought as to the quality of the instruction.
    One of my first instructors was teaching ideas I was unprepared for because I had not mastered the basics. Another was new at teaching and like you, I had to ask for instruction and guidance.
    Lately I've had two workshop instructors who were worth every penny paid. One gave me a philosophy of paint, a roadmap to visual language that guides me still. The other gave me a few simple ideas to lead me through the morass of value (a bugaboo for me). Both of these instructors set out, like you, to provide a learning experience rather than just a good time.
    Of course, because true learning is the most fun anyone can have, I had a great good time with them both!
    Now I do homework before launching out for a workshop. My homework has primarily consisted of studying up on the instructor's reputation as a teacher. I think I may also incorporate your suggestion of increasing my own skills as much as possible before taking the journey.

  2. Wow… Deborah such an interesting and honest post!

    I done a handful of workshops but only one “big name” workshop. I spent a small fortune to have this guy hand me a photo to draw from and have him “talk” about site –size methods. The second day he painted in the morning for us from life and then had us paint as he milled around flirting with the young ladies asking about the good restaurants and clubs. The last day was more of a fan club day and he reminisced about his “art” experiences. One of the local artists set up a get together at her house that Friday for him and the workshop participates.
    I can not say I did not get anything out of the experience, watching his technique was great, but I would never do it again.

    Not because of the narcissistic attitude of the “big name” but because these workshops tend to be more about playing the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game. That by acquaintance it will help you achieve a place in a inner circle of established artist. As representational we artist talk about the “Realist Revolution” but we are quickly watering down the movement with cronyism and nepotism. I know that with the correct workshops I can have my work recognized by a particular organization of realist institutions and groups. I know artists that have gone this route by laying out the big bucks. It is really becoming a game that you can buy into; remember when you got there based on merit or hard work.

    So I have to agree with your statement about doing your homework, find someone you respect and work with them on a regular basis. You will learn more. The goal is to better yourself as artist you do not need “bragging rights” but practice. I guess that is what confuses me about all of this, painting is hard work and it takes time to acquire the knowledge and skills. It seems most people do not want to do the hard work but just find some magic bullet and quick fix to stardom?

    Sorry about the rant, truly admire your work and blog.

  3. Wonderful post. When I was widowed at 44, 15 years ago, I decided to take all the classes I could find. It was perfect to heal my heart and feed my soul. I found the late Johnnie L. in Italy. She became a close friend and my mentor. She always told me exactly what you have said. "Paint, paint and paint some more. Paint everyday". Thank you for bringing back a wonderful memory. I can't wait to take a workshop with you.

  4. With much gratitude, I want to thank the heartfelt comments. This blog post sat on my draft site for two weeks not knowing whether I should post it or not. There are some fantastic instructors out there who give workshops; I can name two. Just because you can paint well doesn't necessarily make you a good instructor. Maybe we should have an "Angie's List" like they do for finding a business to hire to do a particular job. Times are hard and we all are trying to find ways to bring in extra money. I get that. The flip side to this issue is the fledgling artist who needs to have instruction on the basic skills, i.e. drawing, color theory, composition, and they show up in our class not knowing anything. Again thanks for responding and sharing your stories.

  5. Bravo, Deborah! I totally agree with your post and the comments by others. I have a pleasant local painter who I enjoy taking classes from every couple years, but in addition, he is part of my local plein air group. We paint each week during the season, so he does informal critiques, at our paint-outs as a courtesy, if asked. It is nice to have a local group that you can feel comfortable with - you can learn a lot this way. I also follow a nationally known painter who organizes retreats in addition to workshops. I find I learn much more in his retreat format, than a structured workshop. I have also reined myself in with the finances, by finding DVDs of the Big Shots on ebay for reasonable prices. It is really a good way of learning both the artists' techniques, AND their personalities. Much cheaper to find out if you'd enjoy a class with them in person before making the reservations!


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