12 steps to choosing a great workshop
1. Pick a location that appeals to you.
Is there someplace you’ve always wanted to go to? Then look for an art class, lecture or workshop there first. There’s no better way to travel than spending time doing something you love in the company of other artists and getting out of your immediate environment is sure to invigorate your senses and your imagination.
2. Look for a well-organized workshop & read the course descriptions.
Are the logistics for the class clear. Where, when, who, what, how. This information should be intelligible, reasonable, and straightforward.
Is the class size limit reasonable for your tastes? If you have to compete for attention with 20+ other participants, that’s a sure route to frustration. You may also want to find out if the schedule is flexible enough to allow for extra activities. Art is about work and rest simultaneously. If the schedule is so aggressive that the instructor is trying to pack in a year’s education in 3 days, my advice is to go where the deliverables are more realistic and there is air and space built in.
• Consider other students’ endorsements (if you know them)
• Ask for an instructor’s bio if it’s not included
• Attend a free presentation, if offered, before you enroll
• Visit their FB page, website, YouTube channel, Pinterest, Twitter
• Read recent press or articles on the topic or instructor
• Ask yourself: Are they skilled at what I want to learn?
3. Look at the work of the instructor and compare prices.
Does the work represent a direction you would like to go? Is it something new and exciting or is it something necessary to help you progress?
Is the cost of the class similar to others within the same area, or with a similar instructor? Online prices can vary outrageously, and it’s well-worth comparing prices to make sure you’re getting a fair deal.
4. Come to the workshop with an open mind, but set a specific goal.
A workshop is a place to try new techniques and ideas. If you approach the workshop by doing what you’ve always done, the way you’ve always done it, you defeat the purpose of the new experience, saturated in creativity. A workshop is not a place to show off your skills, but to learn new ones.
Choose workshops that fit into your personal artistic goals, focusing on learning what you need to know rather than spending time and money on learning another technique that won’t get you anywhere.
You may need to spend some time to figure out on your own what you want to learn. If you’re not sure whether the workshop will help, study the instructor’s work. Read her blog or website. Watch his videos. Try her methods as best you can before the workshop.
The mistakes you make preparing for the workshop will give you insight into what you need to learn while you’re there. Set some personal goals, and COMMUNICATE THESE early on in the workshop, but remain flexible to flow with the instructor’s style. It is often the happy accident or the unexpected journey that yields our biggest growth steps.
5. Keep a journal.
I encourage my students to keep a regular art journal. In fact, I call it “No Abandoned Ideas”. As Julia Cameron so wisely taught us in The Artist’s Way, journaling thoughts, ideas, emotions, struggles, successes is a great way to “dump” it all to let the real creative, unemcumbered work begin. And no better way is there to record your endeavors.
The journal should be something you keep for yourself—don’t use it as a textbook; be personal. This will help you relive your workshop experience later on, when you need inspiration or a reminder of what you learned. I add both graphics and informational graphics to help me, and I often doodle and sketch while the instructor is teaching. This helps me keep my hands busy and puts my mind into a receiving state. I’ve often been amazed at just what I actually did capture during a workshop.
Here are some examples from a class I took at Venice Art Center a couple of years ago in a session called Sketch Your Life. You’ll note I didn’t capture the date, so I am kicking myself right now. I do have the instructor’s info and it was quite interesting today to go back to review not only how she has grown, but also how I have.
6. Bring a camera (and take photos). Plan for and pack what you need.
Record your travel, your work locations and any demos your instructor may do. Sometimes it’s the little things that you miss that make a difference, and photographs don’t miss much. You’ll note in my session notes above on page 1, I have “argued with instructor about photographs”. This was a mistake on my part, I didn’t ask first which is a courtesy I should have extended and her reception was less than warm as a result. This led to a terrible beginning for the entire workshop day. Still, I am of the mind that an instructor should be lending techniques, skills, styles, and resources for the PAYING student’s use and should EXPECT photos, we could argue either way. Be safe and ask. If they say no, it speaks to their educator quality.
Pack all suggested supplies and those that haven’t been suggested and you think you might need or want, making sure you have every item that you’ll be using. If you have questions email or phone the instructor—don’t let a lack of supplies take away from the valuable time you have at the workshop. This goes for other students as well, I don’t do a lot of chit-chatting until class is over because I want the most from the session. Also, I hate to be cold or overly hot, so I always bring a sweater and some water.
7. Ask questions. Take notes.
There’s no such thing as a silly question at a workshop. No questions. . . no answers. The person next to you may have the same question too, so it’s always worth asking. With creatives, it’s always in the TONE and INTENT of your question. Ask questions, but know when to take it off-line and be aware of the instructor’s sensitivities.
Re-read your notes every evening. If the workshop stretches over days or weeks do take time to re-read your notes every evening, at least once. Practice what you’ve learned. Do any homework. And read your notes again just before the next session, noting any questions. I like to understand how the technique or advice ties into the area I want to explore, so I look for connections. It’s been my experience that often in workshops the nugget of information is glossed over or cast as an aside. Listen carefully.
Educators know that repetition is an important part of learning, and re-reading class notes frequently and immediately after the class will ensure that it’s embedded in your memory bank.
8. Avoid the cookie cutter syndrome. Are you looking at an art instructor or an art mentor?
If your instructor requires that you use (for example) the exact color palette that he or she does, or paint the exact same way, then you’re probably not getting the type of personal, tailored instruction that you need. You’re getting cookie cutter instructions.
An instructor should meet you ”where you are” in terms of your painting knowledge. This is not to say a beginner or someone looking for guidance in buying supplies should not take instructor’s suggestions—but you’ve all seen classes of ‘cookie cutter’ students where you can pick out the instructor by looking at the work the class has done, and that’s what you want to avoid.
Once you’ve begun taking classes with your chosen instructor, it’ll likely be clear whether or not there’s “mentor” potential. How do you feel about the instructor’s teaching style? Does the teacher appear to enjoy working with you? Does the instructor recognize and respect your style of painting, or do you feel pressured to adapt to the instructor’s style? Do you go home from classes feeling energized and ready to try out new ideas and skills, or are you ready to leave when the end of each class period comes?
Most importantly, would you take another course with the instructor, or do you feel that you’ve gotten what you needed for the present time and are now ready to move on? Like friendships and other close relationships, the best mentor-student relationships often happen naturally, and can be a bit of a surprise. Whenever you take a new art course, keep an open mind regarding the instructor. If you feel that you respect the instructor as an artist, but ultimately have different philosophies, simply keep your relationship teacher-pupil and focus on developing the technical skills that the instructor has to offer. There’s no need for anything more.
9. Network—and be a sponge.
Rarely will you have the opportunity to be in a creatively charged atmosphere where you can eat, sleep and breathe art. Take the time to learn from AND get to know your fellow students. . . some of the most enduring friendships begin in a workshop. In a Creative Capital workshop I attended a few years back, I gave my contact info to a fellow artist who still updates me with email notifications every now and then. This is a double edged sword, wonderful to see people grow when you are doing well, and VERY MOTIVATING when you are not. I’ve come to learn the art world is indeed small. Names I knew in one capacity have often circled back in another. Be kind.
10. Always buy professional art supplies.
Don’t waste your time struggling with inferior paints and supports. It’s better to buy a few good artist-grade materials rather than an entire store full of cheap supplies. I agree because they last. If you’re struggling, you want it to be because of your skill and understanding, not because of inferior product.
11. Give yourself time to catch on and then practice, practice, practice.
If you’ve never attended an art workshop before, it may be a little overwhelming. Cut yourself some slack when things don’t go perfectly right from the start.
Taking each new skill one at a time, see what you can do to fit it into your skill set, experimenting and refining, until the best of what you learn is now part of your way of working.
Give as much time as possible for this follow-through, including journaling and sketching about all the possibilities. The learning process doesn’t stop after the workshop is over! Every new skill or new way of thinking can and should develop your creativity long after the class is done.
12. Don’t necessarily expect finished works. Seek small, daily creative acts.
If your goal is to come away with finished works, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of other stuff. It’s always tempting, of course, but you’ll learn much more if you focus on accomplishing individual techniques instead.
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