How to Teach an Art Class or Art Workshop

Published Feb. 12th 2010


If you’re an established artist and you feel pretty comfortable with your medium, its probably only a matter of time until you’ve had some inquiries about teaching an art class or art workshop.

Teaching art is usually a nice way to keep yourself in art supplies, and it can also be a creative jumpstart for your own work – for instance, when I share creative ideas with my watercolor students, I am often inspired myself!

But it’s not always easy to START teaching. . . and so today I’d like to pass along some ideas for teaching painting to beginning students.

I’m going to explain how I’ve been taught, and how I teach watercolour painting to my own students. Hopefully the following techniques will work whether you are teaching oil painting, acrylic painting or, really, any medium.

Breakers

Breakers – A watercolour that was originally painted as a demonstration of technique, which I later completed as a painting. Still a favourite.

How I learned to paint:

The first time I took a watercolor class, I had zero experience with the medium, aside from childhood dabbles with cheap cakes of paint. And, although, I didn’t know it at the time, I had chosen a teacher who was more concerned with encouraging students’ creativity than actually teaching us how to paint.

From that class I learned not to waste my time with cheap supplies, and to paint from light to dark as a rule, but I was still pretty much uninstructed where actual techniques were concerned.

I spent several more years muddling through, painting every night, and ended up learning most of my technique through trial and error. When next I took a watercolour class, the instructor had a far different focus, and I learned so much more.

From that teacher, I learned that much of what I’d discovered alone in my living room over two years I could have picked up in a weekend with a good instructor. She shared jewels of information on colour mixing, techniques and how-to’s, and we all left that weekend with one fantastic painting and lots of hands-on experience.

How I teach painting:

Like my second instructor, I believe that teaching technique is the first step in teaching a student how to paint. Creativity is something that comes from within, and just as I noticed my personal style taking off after I’d mastered technique, I want to free my students to explore their own creativity by teaching them technique until it starts to become second nature.

When you don’t have to agonize over “how” you are free to paint your dreams.

Of course, you can’t master watercolor techniques in a weekend, or even in eight two-hour sessions (which is what I prefer for my workshops). I know that most of my students won’t remember what they’ve learned in my sessions without a little help, so the first thing we work on is creating a cheat sheet. This isn’t junior high school—cheat sheets are allowed!

As I demonstrate for my students different techniques that I employ in watercolour painting (such as drybrush, wet-in-wet, blending, hard & soft and lost & found edges, salt, spatter, etc.) I have each student practice the technique on a single sheet of watercolour paper.

I then have them use a pen to label each technique so they can follow along through the rest of the session when I use a specific term. This helps them familiarize themselves with their supplies, as well as helping visual, auditory and hands-on learners.

Our first session is also spent getting to know our palettes. Students won’t be able to work quickly without a passing knowledge of the hues at their disposal, so we try out each colour and make a little colour chart.

We also use this time to talk about value, and how the ratio of pigment to water is what determines the lightness or darkness of a color. I also share some of my favourite colour blends—how I get my greys or blackest hues, for example.

Following our cheat sheet session, we make a painting. I usually choose a floral image, and have a line drawing for them to transfer to their paper. We work together, step by step, to create fairly identical paintings. This gives me a chance to observe their technique and offer suggestions in a situation that I control. It is remarkable how different each painting will still turn out to be.

This step may take one or two sessions, depending on the speed of your students and how many you have in your class.

Between sessions, I do like to give homework – usually just a reminder to practice the techniques—and I tell them to have fun with their paint and brushes.

Depending on the length of the class and the skill level of the students, I occasionally do a second step-by-step paintings during the workshop, but by the middle of the workshop, I like to start my students on a painting of their own, with the subject matter they choose.

I offer reference photos for them to pick from, or they may bring their own. This is usually the time when I talk about the do’s and don’ts of copyright and derivative work.

I try not to discourage my students if they seem to choose a very complicated image for their first painting. (You’ll probably see this happen too!) Instead, talk with them about some good ways of achieving the result they want, and be available to answer questions and recommend solutions if they run into problems. Often, the most ambitious beginners surprise me with the promise of their first paintings!

I have also found, in any class I teach, that providing bottled water helps everyone. I do a lot of talking in a two hour session!

There are many benefits and reasons as to why you’d want to teach. . . for me, it all comes down to seeing others succeed.

Recently I was at the home of a former workshop student and on her walls she had several lovely watercolour paintings of our northern lights. She had successfully taken the techniques learned in my home studio, and was continuing to explore painting on her own.

While I love painting, there are few things as rewarding as seeing a group of people—who had never even held paintbrushes before—beam with pride at their own paintings. It’s also very affirming, that maybe I do know what I am doing as a painter if I am able to teach others how to do it too!

For more articles by Angela, please visit her blog, Painting Simplicity.

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