Get the most from attending Workshops, My Secret Lessons

This article was written for beginning artists to help you get the most from attending (expensive) workshops. I include secrets on where best to sit and what to look for as the instructors paints. Last give you reasons your painting may not look like the instructor’s.

Workshops are wonderful. You learn something at every one… how much you learn will depend on your current skill level. It is sort of like “connecting the dots”. The more fundamentals and experience you have the closer the dots are to connect. As with any learning having some experience gives you a reference for which to relate the new info. Without a prior reference the info may go over your head. The second time you hear or read the same info you will have the aha moment!!! Take a lot of workshops and classes, study under many instructors. Keep what works for you and leave the rest.” 

The better, the more famous or accomplished the artist the more expensive the workshop!!! The cost, however, does not always determine the artist’s ability to teach. This article is written for new artists to give you some incite into what to expect and what to watch for and how to get the most from a workshop.

Now the first tip for attending a workshop: Get to the workshop at least a half hour early. You will see you will not be first to arrive (this tip has got out). I don’t think there is a real benefit to being at a table up front but if you have vision or hearing issues make that a priority. The instructor will talk and show things from the front of the room, but it is nice sit back a bit and see everyone’s work ahead of you.

So now the students are settling in, the show is about to begin. You are nervous.. Did you remember everything??? Am I good enough to even be here??? Am I the worst artist in the room??? It is easy to say but relax. What you may have forgotten, someone will share with you. Everyone started as a beginner and everyone goes to their first workshop sometime! I assure you, the room is filled with wonderful, friendly, helpful, supportive artists!!!
– Next tip: Be alert to the chairs set up for the demo. Seating is important and where you sit the first time will pretty much determine where you will sit for the day or week!!! HAVE a planed area before everyone starts moving forward.
– There are many possible set ups. Is the artist one that paints mostly flat or paints on an angle? Notice if there is there a mirror or a projected screen with a camera?
– If the artist paints flat, a mirror is normally used. In this case the center seats are best. But if the mirror is angled funny be aware that you want to see the whole painting and palette. It should be set up before you all sit.
– If they paint at an angle, is the artist chair facing forward? Where will the instructor sit and where is the easel set up. Is the artist right or left handed? They may still project for the group. The best spot is where you can see the artist’s hand, his palette and the painting!  (this is no secret either) The projected image may be BIG. But sometimes the color is off or the camera is not pointed correctly. You will find artists are not AV people and really don’t have a clue or care about these things (NOT like me)!!
You will see that several know these secrets and will put their notebooks on chairs way ahead of time. When it is time, walk directly and politely to your pre-planned area. If you are timid or change seats because it is not perfect you will look like a chair hog! Also, have a plan B if the good chairs are taken. Believe me it will happen. We all paid a lot of money to be there!

The Artist Demo Begins:
The secret to success in watercolor is “The balance of water”. If you are having difficulties with your results versus the Instructor’s the difference is likely between the Instructor’s paint to water ratio and yours. The amount of water in your brush, on the paper, and in the paint is probably different from the instructor’s. Well duh! When attending classes, workshops, or watching video, I find one secret is to CLOSELY WATCH, I mean CLOSELY what the professionals do, without any conscious thought or mention, with their brush!!! Watch closely as they move their brush between the water bowl and paint on the pallet. Do they tap it on a sponge, on a tissue, on their sleeve, and for how long? Do they touch the brush with their fingers (I do)?? They are unconsciously adjusting the amount of water. It happens in the blink of an eye!

Also very important is to observe how thick the mix of paint is on their pallet. Because they have a sense of how wet the paper is (which they may or may not explain) they will select a certain concentration of paint to put on the brush so watch the brush and the puddle of paint closely!!!

Another subtle factor you must observe and be aware of is paper wetness and timing. You will see the instructor make some brushstrokes then STOPS and turns to explain something. What they are not verbalizing because it is often unconscious with them is that the paper is now changing/drying, the paint or water is soaking in. What you may do is go back to your table and do the exact steps you just saw and consciously skip that pause and your paint over blends, over mixes, turns to mud, etc. And wonder what magic must they have?? (It must be their secret brush or paint, I must buy them $$$!!)

Sub note: In my classes I stress the water properties of paper, brush, and paint.
I ask “which is thirstier???” Is the brush now wetter or drier than the paper? The water will move to whichever is thirstier. You may lift paint if the brush is drier or you may create a bloom if the brush is wetter. MAGIC!!! Understanding this elusive nature of watercolor is necessary in creating the results you imagine.

Why doesn’t my painting look like the instructors?
There are many great workshops that will show you how to paint portraits, flowers, outdoors (En plein air), paint with texture, etc. That is all good. But what is most often misunderstood is why the artist gets one result and the rest of us get something different!

Paper is first and MOST important. You must have the same quality of paper as the instructor. The instructor’s supply list probably told you what paper to use. If not specified you must use paper that is 100% cotton! Arches, Saunders, Kilimanjaro, and others. They will not use inexpensive wood paper like Strathmore 300, ever!
Brushes are not quite as important. Your instructor will have brushes that suit their techniques and personal tastes. They will have some larger brushes to do early washes, some more soft tip, mop like brushes, sharp tip brushes for detail work. The landscape painters may only use flat brushes. All experienced artists use brushes that hold water well. Purchase GOOD Nylon, natural or blended brushes. Example, for a decent brush that will last you a lifetime, expect to pay $10-$25 for #10 or #12 round WC brush. Don’t be afraid to ask other more experienced students for advice and their preferences. Remember, there is no perfect brush!!! Just because you paid $150 for a natural sable brush doesn’t make it the best brush. Each brush has its strengths and weaknesses.  If you own or buy cheaper brushes, that is fine, just expect to replace them when you get more serious and your skills improve and evolve.
Paint is not as important to learning new skills as the paper and brush. As with brushes, the more serious you become you will choose to buy the more expensive professional paint. It blends better, goes further, you use less of it, the pigment is cleaner, less chalky, more transparent, richer, and won’t fade, etc. Yes, professional paints are more than double the the price of student grade paint. But they’re is a reason and you’re worth it!

Good Luck,

Last Edited. 16 Mar 20, some minor edits and name change. 25 Aug 19, added tips to arriving and sitting at wkshps. Changed title, added, watch the brush, D’s edits 6 Aug 18