Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Workshops: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Thank you Serio Leone)

Art workshops.
When they are Good, they are very, very good. You learn to find your own voice while armed with new information that a truly great teacher has shared with you. You go away energized and excited to go back to you studio to practice art with renewed confidence. These teachers really know the fundamentals and can help students struggling with getting their concept or vision down on paper, canvas, or how to turn it into a multi-plate intaglio print. They encourage experimentation and asking questions.

When they are Bad, often students don't know any better. They go to these types of workshops and learn a specific technique and students often become clones of the instructor. These teachers "hand it out on a silver platter" rather than have the student find their own way, making their own mistakes, and getting that sense of discovery on their own. Clone-maker instructors can be tough to spot but it usually comes down to a philosophy of teaching.

When they are Ugly, it becomes a "Make and Take" session. You see many of these types of classes and workshop marketed to children, retirees, and tourists. Unfortunately, they are also marketed to professional artists. "Make a Mardi Gras Mask"; "Bowl of Fruit Painting 101"; "Learn to Paint a Horse in 30 minutes."
Good morning class! Today, we will learn to paint a bowl of fruit. By the end of these three hours, you will have a fabulous oil painting of a bowl of fruit to take home with you! This painting will also make a great gift!" And all of the students end up with the same size oil painting of the same scene, using mostly the same colors. You have just learned a step-by-step formula for making art. You may as well be doing paint by number. When you get back to your studio, you may have realized you didn't really learn anything, because when you are confronted with a still life a second time, you can't figure out what to do.
These workshops are OK for novices looking to have a bit of fun as long as your expectations are not very high. They are what they are so don't expect to improve your art skills by taking them.

Expectations are important when deciding to take a workshop. More than likely, you will get 1000% more out of a workshop if you have some previous art experience and have fundamental knowledge of drawing, color theory, design, etc. It's easier if you have played with paints, made the mistakes, run a print through a press before, held a camera, used a brush, chiseled a piece of stone, etc. You have put in the time in your studio and hopefully have established your own style of mark-making.
I'm not talking about basic art classes such as "Drawing Fundamentals for Beginners". I'm talking about something like Keith Howard's "Concept to Print" course offered at Making Art Safely. 

Two great teachers: Dan Welden and Don Messec
The instructor must be a good teacher and be open with sharing what they know. No secrets. It helps if you relate to their artwork in some way- at least you have a deep appreciation for their art even if it's not to your taste. Teaching philosophy is probably the most important and sometimes overlooked when choosing a workshop. Do some research before you take a course. Check out the art school or organizer of the workshop. Hopefully, there is an underlying philosophy running through the art organization, so you know that any of the courses offered will have some similarities in the philosophy even with different instructors.

When do you take a workshop? I have taken them when I'm "stuck" in my work and need a little push or new outlook. I've taken workshops to get a refresher course in an art-form that I hadn't done in years- like printmaking. I've taken workshops from a great teacher to learn a different approach to what I'm already doing in the studio.

A great art workshop can be a life-changing experience. It can open you up to new locales, new people, and a new appreciation for what it means to be an artist today. Sharing with other artists, eating lunch with them, sharing a beer at the end of the day go beyond just taking a 3-day workshop. Getting out of your comfort zone- being away from home, away from the computer and other distractions of daily life are also important parts of the workshop experience.

Are you ready to take a workshop?
I took this photo of Cerro Pedernal when I was at a workshop in Santa Fe, NM last summer
I'll be taking a printmaking workshop (maybe two) in Santa Fe this summer. More on that soon!

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