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The Problem With Painting Workshops

by John P. Weiss on 6/28/2014 8:07:55 AM

This post is by guest author, John P. Weiss.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. We've promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 25,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.


Open up any contemporary art magazine today specializing in mostly representational painting and you will find two things. First, there are a lot of artists offering workshops. Second, a lot of the artwork looks similar. Particularly with the plein air scene. Now, before I alienate my artistic brethren and workshop instructors, I offer this olive branch: workshops and early emulation have their place. Lord knows I'm in no position to offer myself as a fully actualized, authentic artist. The powerful influences of my painting idols ( both past and contemporary) still intrude upon my artistic expression. In one piece I might begin tight, working out from that center of interest into a looser spiral of near abstraction. Upon completion I smile briefly, pleased with the result. But then I realize the subtle, flawed echo of Richard Schmid. Perhaps I hunker down with a limited palette of Vasari oils and craft a painterly little piece, with tonal colors and close values. Yes, I am well pleased with the result...for a bit. But then, reluctantly, I feel myself in the shadow of Scott Christensen.

A lot of landscape paintings look alike because there's only so many trees, streams, mountains, old trucks, barns, waves and sunsets to paint. They also look alike because everyone is trying to copy their favorite painters. And yet, some artists seem to rise above the mediocrity with truly unique and original work. We know it when we see it. You turn a page in an art magazine and "bam!" it hits you like a freight train. "Now that's cool," you might blurt out in the book store as patrons stare at you. What possessed Brent Cotton to produce palette knife paintings like that, you might ponder? How on earth did John C. Traynor develop such a splendid, old world look to his work? If I see one more detailed piece by Dennis Doheny or tree bark by T. Allen Lawson, I might have to burn my pochade box. And don't get me started about Clyde Aspevig or Jeremy Lipking! Don't these artists know that the rest of us have feelings? No wonder we're all running from workshop to workshop, trying to chase down that kernel of wisdom or secret technique that will jettison us into the echelons of Sargent and Sorolla. 

So here's the deal. Take those workshops, copy those museum masterpieces until you've reached a level of true proficiency. Then stop all that. Pack up your paint box easel and spend some serious time digesting the world around you. Slow down, even when you think you're wasting time. Study, think, experiment, and stop trying to ape someone else. Inside you is a unique voice. It has been whispering in your ear for a long time, waiting for you to blossom. There is another voice telling you that you're no good. That voice is in all of us and has denied the world far too many potential masters. Ignore it. If you reach deep inside yourself and combine your authentic voice with the skills you have honed, you'll be on your way. But beware, they just might start asking you to teach a few workshops.


What do you think? Is it possible to get carried away with workshops?




Editor's Note:  You can view John's original post here.

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Mike Barr
Absolutely right John.
We are producing a generation of workship junkies. I believe this has grown too because many good artists aren't selling so they have turned to teaching and workshopping. I know of artists that are so busy with workshops that they have no time to develop there own work. Any yes, there is a sameness creeping in on the plein air trail - same colours, same subjects and similar stlyes.
As you have rightly said, workshops are for those beginning. Once we have hit our straps it is time to move and and make our own mark on the art world.
One of the most sensible things written on art.

David Randall
Yes, there is that time for each and every one of us. I have never taken workshops personally but it's no different if you follow another path. You can go to school forever. I personally went to art schools years ago. I opted for the drawing an painting all day schools, not a degree. I knew early on that for me it was mostly about brush time. My family were all artists that was the accepted path years ago. A few years into it I knew I had the basic tools and stopped going to school. I also for a time consciously limited my exposure to others work. I found it distracting but I was at the time living in the center of the art world, NYC. It was easy to go to see an endless variety of styles by skilled artists every day but it became distracting for me. So for a few years I limited the input and worked on myself. I now have my own way and others work is no longer a distraction and at best an inspiration. I suspect we all have an erratic and uncomfortable path. It's the nature of the beast.

Holly Banks
I am such an oddball, even among artists. I have taken a few workshops and learned various techniques and been reminded of some basics, but it would never occur to me to copy those artists I admire. I have a hard time even copying something as an exercise to practice a new technique. That sounds good in theory, but my work is a hodge podge of different ideas I have had. Forget that cohesive body of work. The bottom line is that I am not selling, no doubt because it does not appeal to buyers. I think the articles I have read by Jack White have my answer, and I am going to start painting some of those barns, and flowers, and animals that are the pieces that sell. Maybe I can still find time to paint my own experiments for fun and learning.

Marilyn Rose
Many good points in your article and ones that echo my own feelings. I take lots of workshops and with each one identify what it is in the instructor's work that resonates with me, and if it's something I'd like to work into my own work. I try to concentrate on those elements during the workshop, but often I'm pleasantly surprised when something else surfaces. In the workshop I'll emulate the techniques being taught, and I don't worry about making a nice picture - I'm there to be OUT of my comfort zone, so I can let go and enjoy the process. Back in my studio the influence will surface as it does naturally, becoming a new aspect of my style. I don't want to paint like anyone. I want to paint like me, only better.

Faith Dance
Some people I know only paint during workshops. Maybe it is a matter of personality, that some need the group to be inspired.
Personally, I took in average one workshop for each technique to get started, and then preferred to work on my own.

Marian Fortunati
Funny... I've just been thinking about the same thing.

I guess many of us on this journey have discovered this the importance of going through these phases as we grow. We all travel similar but different roads I guess.

I just attended a talk by artist Jennifer Moses about her own journey. She talked about her influences and how she developed the style that she is successful with today. She was very inspiring.

The one thing I hope... is that I will always continue to learn and grow and develop what at each step in my journey is my own style.

Jake Gaedtke
Bravo, John. I think for the most part is so very true. Many artists who are coming up in the ranks are chasing artists they would like to be like. I think for most artists as they mature eventually experience the sense that it is about being yourself and using the foundations taught in many workshops as a means to express their own voice and feelings. One of my favorite quotes I have in my studio is one by the jazz saxophone player Charlie Parker: "First master the instrument. Then master the music. Then forget all that shit and just play."

Connie McLennan
Absolutely! It didn't take too many workshops for me to realize only a few offer something I want. The trick is recognizing the point at which, in spite of still having far to go, you have come far enough to have your own opinion--and that it might be OK.

Donald Fox
The path to learning in any discipline is long and arduous. There may be teachers and mentors along the way, but assimilation is more than just copying. A teacher can show techniques, but the student has to find the vision that comes from within.


Wonderful writing and I agree with your message to find and express oneself as a unique artist.

I do disagree that one can take too many workshops. I believe that workshops are a very important path to learning. And since we're always learning one can never take too many. That said, workshops are only good as long as the artist's goal is to improve upon himself. It's when one only strives to emulate another person that their uniqueness can be lost. It's important to use what we learn but still be ourselves.


John Patrick Weiss

You have a fair point. Another reader similarly stated that we should continually observe and learn. All true. My only concern is the proliferation of cookie cutter painters, and others whose work clearly shadows their mentor. And I'm just as guilty of this, having emulated a few of my instructors! Workshops have their value, but cannot replace serious brush time and practice, which seems to lead to more authentic expression.


I definitely agree with the brushtime being needed because what good is what we learn if we don't practice? And as we learn it's important to continue applying these teachings to our own unique style as opposed to simply copying the teachers, or worse, just taking workshops and not painting.

Even in the cases when we take a cookie cutter workshop there are always points we can take away and somehow apply to our work. Hence, I truly believe we can't take too many workshops or classes.



I totally agree with you but wonder why there were no women artist in your list. I guess they don't teach workshop.

John Patrick Weiss
You're right, I failed to mention Kathryn Stats, another favorite painter of mine! And Laurie Kersey. I haven't taken a workshop with them but love their work. There are many fine women artists who teach workshops.


I was just playing devils advocate.

Sally Fraser
Workshops: laugh, share ideas, meet new artists, paint till you drop, learn from a professional and get critiqued, and drink wine at the end of the day! Because of these items, I take at least two workshops a year and I am very particular of my choices. History has many artistic groups that learned from each other, shared and talked about new approaches to painting. We have added the spice of traveling to many destination workshops.
Find those workshops that will take you to another level in your painting.

John Patrick Weiss

I can't argue with you there, workshops do offer a lot of fun and camaraderie!

sally fraser
I gave the positive side of workshops. The question was problems with workshops. Too many, some just so so, some take you off your path and redirect you for awhile. Pleine-air not my cup of tea, however, and these are plentiful. Pretty soon China will be giving cheap workshops!

I can't resist a snarky comment on the post about
"soon China will be giving cheap workshops" because I first became aware of the cheap from China epidemic though the rush of innocents to own a "genuine oil painting" from the early 70s.
My take: Who better to offer them!

Brian Sherwin
Someone once said that you must unlearn what you have learned. One of my art professors repeated that statement often. He made it clear that our time in school was just a stepping stone -- he could not stand it when students emulated his work outside of the classroom instead of finding their own path. It happened often though.

Granted, there is something to be said for emulation in this context. It was not uncommon for the pupils of old to emulate their masters. In many ways a good chunk of known art history is rooted in that process. You don't have to be an innovator to be successful -- be it development-wise or financial success. That is something to think about.

Brian Sherwin
I'll add that the social aspect of art school, art workshops, and so on can be extremely healthy. However, it can also cause a few snags depending on the interactions that take place. That is life though... workshop or not.

If you love workshops... it might be wise to keep note of how you feel after the workshop is over. Did you leave feeling energized? Did you leave feeling exhausted? Answer those questions in detail. Keep a workshop journal. You can go back to those entries and decide if workshops are helping or hurting your growth as an artist.

David Randall
Some define growth as earning a living, sales. Some only in achieving a certain technical skill and others in developing a style or continued change and focus on a subject or process.

I am a mix of all of these. I most certainly wish to sell however I can not simply paint to please others. I resist painting the same subject over and over although I understand the viewer and galleries often want just that. I paint with much more skill and finesse than I did 20 or 30 years ago and my style has changed over time. I hope to continue on my changing journey the rest of my life.
Maybe someday I will learn to paint well enough to change the world a little.

John Patrick Weiss
Two apropos quotes I unearthed from a Robert Genn twice-weekly letters book:

"All education must be, in the end, self-education"-Robert Henri

"Those who follow are always behind."- A.Y. Jackson

Workshops certainly have their place, just don't do so at the expense of finding your own voice.

KM Withers
Workshops can be good for a spark..maybe get painting again..learning something new...and yes..the camaraderie. Many of us get stuck using the same color palette...same subjects..same compositions. A good workshop will help an artist break out of a rut [for awhile anyway].

I've taken several workshops at the Scottsdale Artist School..some classes were just too big [and not all master artists are good teachers]. However..just picking up a couple good methods or having questions considered made them somewhat worth it. Connections can also be made at these..impacting important feature and is perhaps why many attend [hoping for a reference to a gallery owner]

However..generally I agree with John..workshops are no substitution for concentrated effort. So back to the easel!

John Patrick Weiss
KM- your points are all well taken. Workshops can get you out of a rut or teach you a new palette. And yes, lots of easel time is crucial too!

Keith Bond
Many great points John!

Sometimes clones of an artist are from students hoping to ride the coattails of a famous artist. With many of the master instructors you cite, this is the case. And in some cases, these clones have never even studied with the master. This is a sad truth.

Other times, a student-clone is a clone simply because he doesn't truly know himself. With this clone, there is hope. This is where your argument comes in. And I agree wholeheartedly that spending the time to get to know yourself through mileage with the brush is critical.

But there is more to it than just that.

To expound upon your admitting that workshops do have their place, they can be very valuable if used properly.

But, frequency of workshop attendance isn't the issue, in my opinion. Some artists can take many workshops to no detriment. Others take only one workshop but become the instructor's clone.

The real issue is that an artist must come to understand two things. First, the proper function of a workshop. Second (and more importantly), the artist must know himself. If the artist understands both of these, then quantity/frequency of workshops isn't an issue.

The problem is, that if the artist doesn't first understand the function of a workshop, then mileage with the brush wont necessarily result in getting to know himself. Because, he is practicing the wrong thing.

But, the burden isn't entirely on the students either. In many cases, the instructor doesn't know how to teach anything other than his style. Or he himself doesn't understand the proper function of workshops. Seek diligently to find a good instructor.

So, what is the proper function of a workshop? To give the artist the tools of self discovery which will in turn give the artist the tools of self expression. The truly great instructors teach their students how to become self-taught.

David Randall
Kieth, well stated. I agree completely.

John Patrick Weiss
Well said, Keith. The artist must "know himself." I think that strikes at the core of this discussion. We need knowledge to grow and workshops, if they're good ones, can provide that. Self study is important, but what's the old saying " Self trained artists had a fool for an instructor." My main concern is authenticity and originality. Achieving that in one's work is more fulfilling than becoming a mirror of someone else's work.


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