Friday, June 7, 2013

Question for Workshop Teachers and Students

Road to the Beach 9x12 oil
(This may be the last apple tree I paint en plein air this year;
the blossoms are falling fast!)

I have a question for you all.  Recently, during the usual seasonal spate of workshop inquiries, I have had a couple of people ask "Do you do your own work during the workshop?"  I have heard a few students remark - complain, actually - about instructors supposedly ignoring them and working on their own paintings to sell.  (To clarify, they aren't complaining about me, but about others.)

What is your take on this?

Here's mine.  First of all, when I teach a workshop, I fully understand that the students are paying for my time.  I give them 100% of my attention during the workshop.  

However, and this is especially true in my Sedona and Campobello Island workshops where I allow only four students and each session is only four hours long, I do not "hover over" students as they paint.  I find hovering to be counter-productive to their efforts.  Micro-managing each brush stroke will cause students to freeze and thus fail.  So, as they paint, I may continue to work on my demo.  But I do check in with each student frequently.  Plus, because I'm more or less right beside them, I am always available for guidance and tell them so.  

I try to keep the demo period to an hour.  Any longer than that, and students start to get itchy.  The painting may still be unfinished at the end of that hour, but I want to make sure they get to paint, too, so we have something to critique.  Still, there are times when one may wish to watch the painting fully develop.  So, if I do continue to work on it, I tell them they can continue to watch, and I will happily narrate and answer questions.  (Just to elaborate on the workshop session, we start off in the studio with critiques of the previous day's work and a lecture on fundamentals, then head to the field for a demonstration, which leaves students about two hours to paint.)  In the end, this demo may or may not be something I would sell when it is finished.

I am interested to hear your experiences with instructors and your thoughts on this.

17 comments:

JFW said...

I had an instructor at a plein air event that did a demo, didn't explain much and went off to a long lunch and only came around once that day to critique or help. It was like he was on vacation!! I really liked his work but he was an inadequate teacher.

DMannion said...

I've taken a few workshops and also teach them. I like it when the instructor paints along with everyone, takes breaks to help students and encourages them to take breaks also and watch how the demo is going. Artists learn from each other. The same thing happens when painting with my artist friends. We respect each others painting time, take breaks and then make helpful comments. The same pattern happens during portrait studio sessions... while the model is taking breaks, we learn from each others work. It's important that students learn by watching demos, but should also be working on their own... that's where the real learning happens. The instructor is the gentle guide that gives them "permission" to do what they are doing right, and also a gentle nudge when going in the wrong direction.
I don't like it when an instructor paints on everyone's painting! I never do that to my students... paint beside them instead. Meanwhile, I long to take a workshop with you! I try to take one or two a year and you are on top of my list.

Linda O. said...

I would have to agree with your modus operandi. Periodic trips around to the workshop participants with guidance to each one is best. Hovering by the instructor causes most students to freeze. I don't see any reason why an instructor should not keep busy with his/her own work while being available for questions/help. For one thing, as you wrote, people can watch you if they want or go off on their own. As long as you check in with them several times during the painting time, why sit around doing nothing, being bored?

I don't teach workshops, but I am a participant and have really appreciated the 'check ins' by instructors. When he/she isn't nearby, I am too focused on what I'm trying to do to worry about whether he's working on a painting to make more money. for heavens' sake, the more the instructor paints, the better he gets, the better the experience he can bring to the workshops. We pay for that experience.

Linda Olsen

Erin Gafill said...

I teach plein air painting and studio painting.
I keep my demos as brief as possible so that there is maximum time for my students' painting time.
While they are painting, I, too, try not to hover - it makes them feel too observed to really get into it, and I try to stay close in case they need me.
Often, with plein air, they all spread out and I am moving from one to the other to the other all morning.
In the studio, my demo may be longer, and I am closer at hand to do a secondary demo for a particular problem for one or two students (usually a drawing problem).
But in all the years of painting demos and teaching, I have never painted a "painting" that I would say is a piece I'd sell - though often it is instructive for later teaching.
You are an excellent teacher and are surely coming from the place of maximum giving - not all teachers share that ethos, and their students' probably pick that up.
Erin Gafill
www.eringafill.com

Kimberly Vanlandingham said...

I teach total beginner classes and private sessions. Since most of my students are beginners or hobbyists, they like for me to hover. I try to get a feel for the student...and I don't put my brush on their canvas, unless they want me to. I've got a couple of students who would have me do half of their paintings! I do like to continue my painting, because sometimes something that I do on canvas will bring up questions and I always try to encourage individuality in work. Honestly, I usually never have anything worth selling from a session. We use my canvas to practice corrections, make big changes etc. I'd have to do a lot of re-working to get something that's me. However, that's the type of classes I teach. They needs lots of attention.

Charles Eisener said...

To some degree I think this depends upon expectations and experience (or lack of same) of the students. Personally I would get rather bored watching someone else doing all the painting. I would also get a "wee bit" frustrated having the leader/teacher hovering constantly. Most adults can find a way to ask for help if they get in a tight spot, otherwise a periodic walk past or "check in" should be fine.
Whether or not you sell a demo done during a session is really immaterial as long as the class needs are not sacrificed in the process. It is a matter of priorities rather than absolute yes or no. As long as I leave the final workshop satisfied with the value I received for the costs incurred, what else really matters? Part of that value comes from the formal program, part from the group as a whole, and a large measure comes from what I put into it via preparation and participation.
As part of the preparation, I spent a lot of time visiting your web sites, examining your work, and absorbing your blog comments. Had I not liked the way you work and interact, I never would have signed up for a workshop.
Michael Chesley Johnson will never please everybody; it is far more important to be true to yourself and let the chips fall.

Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Hi Michael,

I understand and do exactly as you do. When there are only a few students... I agree and tell them right from the start that I do not think it is productive for them for me to "hover!" I also tell them they need to make their own mistakes and try to correct them, and I will be by in a reasonable amount of time ... five minutes to 10 maybe. And, if they need me to always ask! I also agree they freeze and then cannot paint without the teacher if we hover.

I don't think I have ever been in a workshop where I thought the teacher worked on their own painting to the exclusion of the students... nor have I heard of any student complaining about a workshop where it happened.
Marsha Hamby Savage
www.marshasavage.com

violetta said...

I find beginner students like lots of demonstration from the instructor, a kind of osmosis happens when they see a painting demonstrated and materials mixed, etc. After your demo, don't go back to painting for yourself. Hovering is creepy and intimidating but I do find the best thing is to let people know you will move around their various work stations and are open to being asked for guidance. Never paint on a students work.

Susan Williamson said...

I've experienced this during a few workshops where the instructor paints on the student's "dime" and neglects to provide feedback. I've even had a workshop instructor who I won't name, but everyone knows because he always places a full page ad in Pastel Journal refuse to provide critiques on student work that he didn't think was worthy.

Ruth Vines, Artist in FL said...

I totally agree with this and I like how you illustrate and justify your
points.

Helen Opie said...

When I have had very small (3 or 4) groups, I too, will paint to avoid hovering over the students, and they know that I am always at their call. The feedback that I got (I don't teach any more) was two-fold: 1) they liked knowing they could concentrate and not have me barging in and breaking that focus, and 2) they'd pick up on something I did that I'd not been aware of, some little non-verbalizable thing, perhaps; like how often I sprayed my palette when working with acrylics, or how I cleaned my brush with oils or WC, or just how I "dressed" in terms of keeping my rag handy, wearing an apron to hold palette knife, rag, maybe viewfinder or a little sketch on a paper or sketchbook.


I think one must be very clear about what one is doing and how the priority is tending to their needs; and you obviously do this. Therefore I wonder if those people are complaining about other teachers as a way of saying, "And I'm glad you do not do that". Of course, the easy way to find out is to ask them! "Would you like me to stop painting after the demonstration? Or, are you giving me a hint? (This can be hostile-sounding, though I doubt you'd intone it thus. It is sort of like the response of "Are you bragging or complaining? when someone is carrying on in an indecipherable way, but more tactful. Miller's Law: everyone speaks the truth; the question is, what is it true of?


Anyhow, you get what my response is; it is a good idea to keep on painting when there is a very small group or a very experienced group which wants to concentrate and not be hovered over. Beginners may appreciate your going the rounds more frequently...you sense what's needed, I suspect. Helicopter teachers are as bad as helicopter parents!

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thanks again, everyone, for the comments! Here are some further thoughts for you.

It is, indeed, sometimes a tough call when trying to balance personal attention and space to work uninterrupted. Some students, I find, like to have longer discussions at the easel; others prefer to just paint with the occasional mid-course correction from me. Balancing these requires experience and, I think, good social skills. It's important to be able to "read" a student to see if they need help as well as to know whether they [U]should[/U] be given help. Sometimes it's good to let the student work out the solution himself! But of course, if the student is in real danger of drowning, then the teacher should not hesitate to jump in. I guess I might call this the "lifesaver" route of teaching, as opposed to the "swimming coach" method, where the coach will be constantly at the student's side, offering encouragement and helping build confidence. As a teacher, I think you need to decide which method is best for a particular student.

As for what constitutes "doing your own painting" as a teacher, that might be a judgement call. Especially if the teacher lets it be known that any painting he does in a workshop can be treated as a demo and welcomes watchers and questions. Still, though, the teacher needs to be tuned in to the student's needs - do they need me to visit? do they need another demonstration? should they be left alone for a bit to work out problems?

Here's another analogy - the math tutor. You can show students ways to solve problems on the blackboard, but there is a time when students must solve their own. That's what exercises, homework and tests are for. Otherwise, the learning is purely passive. Active engagement through problem-solving is key to the learning process.

Anonymous said...

I've been to a day workshop where the instructor did a demo, and then told everyone where he'd be painting, and if they had a question...it'd be OK to interrupt him. I took away from it what I could, but not happy w/the instructor, and would never waste money on him again.

I went to a long weekend workshop where the morning was spent watching and listening to the instructor do a demo. He then spent the rest of the day checking in on the progress of each student. Most of what he said was a rehash of what was on his blog. He was a little bit bitter and a bit of a gossip, which made me uncomfortable. I came away somewhat confused because he kept telling me to scrape off what I had and do something different, telling me what he wanted. In the following months I tried to digest it, not sure how much I actually learned.

I've had classes where the "instructor" painted or socialized w/a select student and ignored everyone else. Questions were met with silence, a stare, and quick exit. This was a person who had two degrees in art, sold their paintings professionally on a national level, and was surprised when I mentioned how to mix Paynes Grey because they thought it just came in tubes.

I've taken classes where the instructor would be drunk during class. Took me a while to figure it out since I couldn't smell it on the breath, but I finally did.

And my favorite: a class where the instructor would give a brief demo or talk, then would spend the rest of the time going from student to student. He had a deep understanding of painting, was able to communicate well, was kind, didn't gossip, and wasn't afraid to tell me to start over. He worked us hard too. I grieved when that class ended. Sadly I couldn't take the class again.

The perfect workshop or class? An instructor who can look at my painting and *see* what it is I'm missing or doing wrong, and can tell me. Who can show me, for example, how to lay down a brushstroke, or the right brushstroke, that will help the painting. Someone who can see the bits I'm lacking in the foundation, because in my mind I'm putting them together, I know there are parts missing, I just don't know what they are yet.
Logically, I can watch someone paint a beautiful picture and it all comes together. But for me to put it in action, it's not working yet.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Anonymous, these are some interesting stories from the field! Thanks for sharing.

Marti Walker said...

You're paying for the artist's instruction and particularly to be able to watch the demos. The further along the instructor can take the demo, the better. As long as one is making a regular sweep of the students and also calling out while working on his/her demo - anyone need me? - I think it's fine.

Ursula Gillett said...

I once took a 2-day workshop from a well-known artist whose watercolors fetched a good price on the market. His demo was very exciting and I enjoyed it; but it was rather like watching a brilliant performance. His decisions and brushstroke came from years of experience and thoughtful study. I gained an insight into his work, but didn't get much out of it for my own. He came once over the 2 days to look at my work and did not say anything of value to me. He just seemed uninterested. At the end of the workshop his demo was for sale at a gallery price. Much as I admire his artwork, I would not take another workshop from him.

I took another workshop from a good artist but not a famous one, and had the opposite experience. Her demo was done the afternoon before the 1-day workshop, and I gained a lot from listening to her describe her process. On painting day she came around many times with pertinent comments, and once she did lay one brushstroke onto my painting. I was not in the least bit put out. She had asked first if I was okay with it. I was there to learn and from that one brushstroke I learned a lot.

I believe students are able to sense the artist who is giving the workshop just for the money, who is genuinely interested in helping students, and who has communications skills.

Lee McVey said...

My plein air classes are very small, so I set them up much like you do. I don't like hovering over students so I paint as well, but yet, I take frequent breaks in my painting to help my students. Having me paint nearby and paint the same view as they are painting allows them to see my approach and ask questions. It's a loose, less structured approach that seems to work well. If any one is not happy with this arrangement, I expect them to tell me since I am not a mind reader and do want my students to be happy with my teaching.