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On Attending an Art Workshop . . .

First published Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I am not an art workshop expert. So far I have hosted four, attended five and observed at two more. In preparing to write this blog I looked at other blogs and articles on the subject and was amazed at how many advocated researching the tutor, which is hard and sometimes impossible, to do - and as I cover in my next point, possibly pointless too. Conversely I do have a lot of experience of the horse riding equivalent: clinics. Over the years I have attended many of these both in pure dressage and in eventing. I know from this experience that the tutor-pupil relationship is a complicated and individual one, and the only way to find out if that relationship works is to experience it. In my riding, I experienced many trainers’ attempts to connect with my horse and me, and some who made no effort at all in that respect. More than once I went against my instincts and went to see well respected and well recommended instructors, but gained little from the process and sometimes even losing what little I had by becoming frustrated, confused or disheartened by the trainer’s style.

Art workshops are much the same, but even more so in that I seem to have an expectation of tuition that is standard in riding, but not necessarily present in art. Some take the format of the tutor working on or demonstrating a piece with the delegates following with their own versions step by step. Some use ‘set exercises’ followed by an open working session. Some are just free working with an occasional walk round by the tutor, who may or may not give encouragement, compliments, critique and/or tips. Some don’t comment at all. Add to the mix that drawing and painting are very personal, mostly solitary pastimes and that following these pursuits in the presence of others opens, not just your work, but your working processes to the scrutiny of others and it can make for a very scary, personal and soul baring proposition. For us solitary lot it is also often difficult to get into the ‘brain-switch-off-creativity-forward’ zone that producing our most satisfying work demands. I can very well see why many artists (myself included for many years) are reluctant to subject themselves to that.

Three years ago, however, I decided to change my mind-set on that. I rationalised that, while I constantly read books about technique, expression, philosophy and history, both on the art of visual language and the language and conversation of horse-riding, I only went for tuition in the latter. I felt I should at least try to apply the same commitment and openness to my professional that I saw as an integral element of my hobby.

I am still very much finding my way, especially in painting from life (though I have a lot of experience of drawing from life). As a studio painter I am finding that the discipline is very different and I can’t fall back on my tried and tested methods and colour mixes. So far most of my tutors have been oil painters and, apart from the odd gem of a tip, have had little practical help for me as a watercolourist. I hope that will change at the next workshop that I am attending, being as it is painting architecture en plein air and taught by the American watercolourist and architect Thomas Schaller. I’ll let you know how that one goes in due course!

Those who have read my earlier posts on learning [One For the Earning, One for the Learning, Ever the Learner, Confidence is Key] know my profound belief in the importance of continued study. I am also well aware (my riding tuition taught me this much) that to improve necessitates putting away our egos, stripping away what we ‘know’, stepping out of our comfort zones and relearning basics. So, as dually uncomfortable and enjoyable as the process can be, I will persevere. I will, however leave you with two gems of advice and my personal list of things that I take to a workshop (as a sketcher and watercolourist).

Gem one: This is given to me nearly 30 years ago by my business wiz brother when I was hauling my portfolio around the London tube, in hopes of getting commissioned illustration work by visiting art directors.

He told me to prepare for each meeting by making a list of 3 aims – each lower than the last in terms of positive outcomes, but each having a positive result. You need to be more specific in the aims, these are just the descriptors of what you need to describe.

1) The ‘power’ outcome, where you achieve everything you want and more.

2) The ‘practical’ outcome where you get what you went for.

3) The ‘pragmatic’ outcome where you don’t achieve your main aim, but achieve something else, whether that is experience, a managing of your own reactions, a promise for the future or something else.

This is such a simple thing, but has helped me in many instances and softens the blows of frustration or disappointment.

Gem two:

The old five ‘P’s mantra: Patience, Persistence, Practise, Persistence and Patience.

My Checklist.

A4 and A3 Sketchbooks


Drawing implements (various)

Watercolour paints (I take 3 palettes but am working out colours to take for a single workshop palette)

Brushes (again I am refining a workshop brush set. So far most used are my 22 mop, a chinese calligraphy brush and a 7mm flat.)

Kitchen roll

Water pot (I have a small collapsible pot that hangs off my easel but also take a 9cm diameter plastic pot with lid that was an old sea salt container).

Litre Bottle of painting water

Camera (with charged battery)


Board for easel

Watercolour boards cut to size (quarter sheet)

8” x 16” watercolour pad (great for small studies on single page)

Board clips

Plastic sheet for painting in the rain (mine is a slit open plastic bag from a full sheet watercolour board so is about 60 x 40”) but I may invest in a clip on umbrella at some stage.

Rucksack stool – can be used as a stool or small table as well as holding my sketching materials.

Small plastic bag for rubbish

Water (drinking)

Flask of coffee

Packed lunch (if needed)

Cigarettes and lighter


Straw sun hat



Lip balm

Stock hat for wet weather

Rainproof jacket

Yak jumper (yes it’s made from Yak hair, fleece-lined , warm and windproof)

Gilet/other waistcoat with pockets and/or cargo pants one of which has at least one zip pocket for keys etc.

Thin leather gloves that I can still paint in while wearing. I don’t get on with latex gloves though they are supposed to be better, warmer and waterproof.

Sturdy boots

Change of shoes and socks


Phone (charged of course)

Collapsible rolling crate and/or hours at the gym training to haul all this lot around.

Open atitude

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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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