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What to Expect from a Workshop: A Finished Painting?

by Carolyn Henderson on 5/1/2012 8:51:27 AM

This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She is a Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews and her  freelance writing appears in regional newspapers, online magazines, and her humor blog, Middle-Aged Plague.


One of these days, you may decide to take a workshop, or maybe you already have. When you find the right workshop for you (we talked about this last week), you want to get the most out of it, and one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that your expectations line up with reality.


The Norwegian Artist teaches regular workshops throughout the region, and because we like happy participants, we try to address major misconceptions that people walk into the room with, one of the most major of these being that they will walk out, two days later, with a polished, finished painting, suitable for entering into a show or exhibition.


Not reality, and not just in our workshops.


First of all, if you’ve read through the prospectus of any major show or competition, you’ll usually find the clause that work done under the guidance of an instructor – whether in private lessons or through a workshop – is generally not admissible. The obvious reason for this is that the painting is a fusion of two artists – you, and the instructor – and it is not 100 percent representative of your own independent work.


Secondly is the place factor: most workshops last anywhere from one to five days, and they are not run around your inner biological painting schedule. While it’s exhilarating and energizing to work in a room of colleagues, it is daunting as well, and rare is the human who fully unwinds and loosens up in this environment.


This is not the mindset in which you normally produce your best work.


Third: time. Even a two-day workshop does not consist of 16 hours of solid painting. You set up. You chat with the person next to you. Somebody across the room can’t get his brand new easel standing. The instructor instructs. You break for lunch, come back a little sleepy (you’ve been standing on a strange floor in a strange room the entire morning); you walk around the room and look at what other people are doing. There is no way, in a room full of disparate and diverse people, that you can replicate uninterrupted painting time in your studio. You are simply surrounded by too many distractions. Rather than begrudge these distractions, however, enjoy them – they’re part of the experience.


Fourth is the most important: the primary goal of the workshop is not to produce a finished painting – it is to try different techniques that you’ve never encountered before; it is to listen to someone who does things a particular way and who is explaining these ways to you; it is to suspend the way you think things should be done – just for the duration of the workshop – and experiment.


There is a reason each workshop instructor teaches the way he or she does, and the exercises put before you are part of that instructor’s lesson plan – something thoughtfully developed to impart specific information that the instructor considers important. If you are unwilling to fully jump into what the instructor is advising because you’re afraid of “ruining” the painting, then while you may come out with an acceptable work that sort of looks like what you generally produce, you will not have pulled out the most you could have from the workshop experience.


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Related Posts:

How to Maximize Your Return on Art Workshop Investments

5 Things to Ask Before You Take a Painting Workshop

Artist Etiquette: The Workshop Environment

Artists Teaching in Art Tours

Topics: advice for artists | art education | Carolyn Henderson | creativity | FineArtViews 

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Margie Guyot
You are so right! Earlier this year I was asked to teach a workshop. I'd always wondered by artist wannabes around here never would go take a "real" workshop. After realizing that maybe it's because they couldn't afford it these days, what with homes in foreclosure, jobs lost, I felt obligated to share some of the things I'd learned in "real" workshops. Back when I had a job at Ford Motor Company, I was able to afford to fly out west to study with some of the "greats". So I taught my class the way I was taught, covering subjects like composition, working from life, atmospheric perspective, etc. Oh, good heavens -- the whining!!!! They wanted to be handed a photograph to copy. Or to copy one of my paintings. And they expected ME to provide all the materials! I was told that everybody expected to take home a masterpiece. Uh-oh! Needless to say, it may be a looooong time before I agree to teach another class. Hey -- I'm no babysitter!

Cathy de Lorimier
Your article is interesting to me, because I am frankly surprised that an artist would expect to actually walk out of a workshop with a finished painting! Call me naive, that is probably all it is. But when I choose a workshop to attend, I do it very thoughtfully. For example, I will be attending one later this month with pastel artist William Schneider, whose pastel portraits and figurative pieces I admire very much. I have only one major goal for myself during the workshop, which is to discover how to produce glowing skin tones. I do not for one minute deceive myself into thinking I will walk out with a perfectly gorgeous painting, but I DO expect to learn better what I set out to learn, and will probably learn other tips he employs as well. I will also let him know my hope right at the beginning of the four days, so that he can help me to grow in this way. Workshops are a way to recharge our batteries and gain a couple of tools to tuck away in the old trusty toolbox. They are also wonderful for the fellowship aspect, and observing what other artists see and do never ceases to inspire and amaze me.

George De Chiara
I have to admit I've never taken a workshop, but while in school, many years ago, occasionally our instructor would need to miss a few classes. When this happened he would bring in guest teachers. Sort of like mini workshops. It was great to see how others approached similar problems. It was just like your fourth point - learn, try different techniques, experiment! I was always amazed how much I learned during those short sessions.

Thanks for the advice. I went back and read your advice on related subjects too. I enjoyed the etiquette one as well. I just took a week long workshop, no finished painting. I didn't expect one, but I was faithfully following the new approaches and exercizes, and I don't normally paint fast either. I got a lot from the class, and continue to work on the approach and techniques learned. I've been painting for a long time and I think that every artist has strenghts and weaknesses. Right now I'm trying to take classes that help me out with my percieved weaknesses, and only from artists with a rather loose style that I am striving for.

Donald Fox
Ah, those expectations - especially the unvoiced ones. Hopefully these can be minimized by clearly communicating in a propectus what the workshop will include. It's great to address misconceptions when people come in the door but even better to do it before they sign up, which I expect you do. In my experience, though, someone can read a clearly expressed descritpion and still come away with their own spin on it. Maybe a pre-workshop questionaire would help.

Carolyn Henderson
Margie: I am sure that you taught a "real" workshop -- which begs the question -- is a "real" workshop one that is taught only by a recognizable name, one that we see repeatedly in magazines?

I think not. There are superb, working artists out there who are or are not known beyond their region, but they 1) paint well and 2) teach well. Many the horror story we have all heard of the Big Name who charges the Big Price and present little more than his or her Big Ego.

I encourage you, based upon what you learned in your debut effort, to keep at it -- finessing and perfecting your presentation -- and offer the artists around you an opportunity to move forward with the teaching that you have to give them.

Cathy: Your attitude of excitement about learning is the key component to a student's success in a workshop -- but it's such an intangible thing, we often discount its importance. I wish you a most excellent time at this workshop!

George: It is indeed amazing how much we pick up from a different person, a different attitude, a different point of view when -- and you clearly live the importance of this -- when we are open to it. What a smart instructor you had!

Jane: wise indeed -- to look at the artist, his or her style, and mesh with the ones that appeal to you. Also, recognizing that weaknesses exist -- when we realize this, not only in our art pursuits but in our everyday lives as well -- then we can move forward in overcoming them.

Donald: We do our best, indeed. I recall asking a college student about one of his classes, "Well, what does the prof say in the prospectus?" "You mean that sheaf of papers he handed out in the beginning? It's in one of my notebooks, somewhere."

Brian Sherwin
Carolyn -- You said, "we try to address major misconceptions that people walk into the room with, one of the most major of these being that they will walk out, two days later, with a polished, finished painting, suitable for entering into a show or exhibition."

Thank you for tackling this. :) In my opinion... workshops are jumping points for further study/research. That goes for all types of workshops. You are not going to master a skill -- no matter what it is -- in a few hours/days.

Donna Robillard
So much is gained when you go in with the idea that you are there to learn new skills and then be able to take them back home and work on them. Taking a workshop or class every now and them is very refreshing and invigorating.


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