So…you’re a watercolour artist and you feel pretty comfortable with the medium. You’ve exhibited your art, and you’ve had some inquiries about teaching a watercolour workshop. Teaching painting can be a nice way to keep yourself in art supplies, if you budget your time so as not to cut into your own studio time. I’ve also found that teaching watercolour painting can be a creative jumpstart, as I share creative ideas with my students, I am inspired myself!
If you are like me, you may not feel ready to teach a painting workshop. While you enjoy watercolor painting and feel you’ve gotten the hang of the basic techniques (and hopefully the more intermediate ones), you’re not sure about how to teach watercolor painting in a way that your students will benefit from, or even if you can articulate why you approach painting in the way that you do. I’d like to share some how-to’s on teaching painting to beginner students, how I’ve been taught, and how I teach watercolour painting to my own students, and it’s a technique that I think should work whether you are teaching oil painting, acrylic painting or really any medium.
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 I didn’t know it, but I had chosen a teacher who was more concerned with encouraging students’ creativity than actually teaching us how to paint. I did learn 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 years muddling through, painting every night, and learned 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. I learned that much of what I’d learned 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.
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 the “how” you are free to paint your dreams.
Of course, you can’t master watercolor techniques in a weekend, or in eight two-hour sessions, which is the time frame I prefer. I know that most of my students won’t remember what they’ve learned for long, so the first thing we work on – usually for one session – is the cheat sheet. This isn’t junior high school – cheat sheets are allowed! I demonstrate for my students different techniques that I employ in watercolour painting; drybrush, wet-in-wet, blending, hard & soft and lost & found edges, salt, spatter, etc. and each student practices the techniques on a single sheet of watercolour paper. I have them use a pen to label each technique so they can follow along when I use a specific term. This time of doing helps them to familiarize themselves with their supplies, as well as equipping both visual, auditory and hands-on (kinesthetic?) learners.
Our first session is also spent getting to know our palettes. They 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 chart. We also use this time to talk about value, 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 identical paintings. This gives me a chance to observe their technique and offer suggestions in a situation I control. It is remarkable still how different each painting turns out to be. This may take one or two sessions.
I do like to give homework – usually just a reminder to practice the techniques – have fun with their paint and brushes.
Depending on the length of the class and the skill level of the students, we may do two step-by-step paintings during the workshop. By the middle of the workshop, though, I like to start my students on painting their own paintings using subject matter they choose. I have reference photos for them to pick from, or they may bring their own. This is a good time to have a talk about the do’s and don’t’s of copyright and derivative work.
Don’t discourage your students if they seem to choose a complicated image for their first painting. 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. So often the ambitious beginners surprise me with the promise of their first paintings!
I have found in any class I teach that providing bottled water benefits both student and teacher. I do a lot of talking in a two hour session!
While I love painting, there are few things as rewarding as seeing a group of people who had formerly never held a paintbrush beam with pride at their very own painting. And it’s something of an affirmation that maybe I do know what I am doing as a painter if I am able to teach others how to do it too! 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 gone on from the techniques she learned in my home studio to explore painting on her own, and I couldn’t have been prouder than if I had painted them myself.
Have you taught watercolor workshops? Have anything to add? What would you like to see as a student of painting? I’d love to hear what you think!