Preparing to give a workshop

June 21, 2011

Robert Genn


Yesterday, Fred Hulser of Houston, Texas wrote, "I recently agreed to do a small landscape/plein air workshop and I now realize I may not be prepared. While I'm more experienced than many students, I have never taught an art workshop or art class. I just read your letters on teaching and see I am not the only one to pester you on this subject. What should I do?"

Thanks, Fred. Conducting a workshop is a serious obligation and a responsibility. The job of instructor, in my view, is to help people realize themselves at whatever level they are at, and to further engage them in the basic academic exercises that are so wanting in contemporary art education. These goals are often compromised by customers who range from inflamed youth in need of channelling to companionable, contented geriatrics.

If you feel you're not prepared, here are a few things you can do:

Prepare a couple of demo-lessons where you can illustrate a few techniques or specific exercises. Most often you need to strengthen a student's facility with form, composition or colour. Help them to really look at the environment. Making it possible for students to unlearn bad old habits is as important as giving them new good ones.

Be prepared to go around to individuals as they work. Easel-side coaching is its own fine art. You need to size up work and offer no more than two or three suggestions at a time. Couch your critiques between praise and encouragement. Be nice. Many of your customers will be mothers. If you have permission, take their brushes in hand and demo briefly right on their work. Give equal time and attention to all participants who ask for it. Some don't. 

While teaching is an altruistic endeavour for many instructors, it is also part of one's own growth and education. In the words of John Jay Chapman, "Benevolence alone will not make a teacher, nor will learning alone do it. The gift of teaching is a peculiar talent, and implies a need and a craving in the teacher himself."

More than anything, it's important to drop your own precious ego. Your students are paying you--they deserve value for money. Just as you are, they are processing information and winnowing directions. Tune in and help them find their potential and they'll be friends for life.

Best regards,


PS: "Who dares to teach must never cease to learn." (John Cotton Dana)

Esoterica: At about the age of 12 I attended a demo given by an ill-prepared gentleman to whom the word "incompetent" would aptly apply. Nevertheless, watching that guy fumble along gave me ideas and confidence. He gave me the courage to follow my own path. Seeing the need for studenthood in him, I confirmed the need in myself. Nevertheless, the best teachers give freely from an enriched resource of accumulated wisdom. Feeling the joy of empowerment as their students grow and flourish, the best teachers lose customers and gain colleagues.