Taking a workshop

When it comes to painting watercolors, there’s always something more to learn. In order to learn some new techniques, I decided to take a week-long workshop this fall with an artist whose work I have admired for many years.

It’s difficult to break away from long-established habits to try a different approach to a recurring problem—the problem, in this case, being how to most effectively portray a given subject. As an artist, my approach to solving that problem produces a typical appearance, a “look,” my style. My eyes have grown so accustomed to that trademark look that it requires considerable effort to critique my own work objectively. But I knew that another experienced painter or painting instructor could call attention to areas in which my work could be strengthened and improved.

Similarly, artists may become overly critical of their own work, particularly in areas that differentiate it from other artists’ styles because it is “different.” We often forget that those differences may actually be strengths, contributing to the beauty and uniqueness of our work. Once again, another experienced artist may be able to offer the encouragement we need to continue building in the direction in which we’ve already begun.

The danger, of course, in taking a workshop with an established and admired artist is that we can sacrifice our own style and, either consciously or unconsciously, adopt something of the instructor’s style. It proves difficult to incorporate the information, techniques, and guidance we’re given without sublimating our uniqueness to the newer influences. So my challenge was to glean what I could from this workshop, absorb the enthusiasm prevalent in the group, listen with discernment to commentary and critiques, and then apply it judiciously and appropriately to my own work, in my own style.

As I worked in class, with the same equipment and supplies I use almost daily in the studio, I felt like someone painting with the wrong hand, and the results looked like it. My colors appeared muddy, and the brushwork looked like a beginner’s. I knew better! Yet this occurred because I was trying an approach that was uncomfortable to me. My mind wasn’t used to thinking in those terms, and my hand hadn’t yet been trained to comply with what it was being told to do.

Late in the week I learned that something as simple as a change of equipment can make a difference. I set aside my favorite round brushes and borrowed one of my husband’s angled household trim brushes—heftier and more awkward than a watercolor “flat” brush. It didn’t solve all my difficulties, of course, since it introduced its own new set of problems, but it broke me out of my rut. Suddenly expectations weren’t involved. I didn’t know what this brush could do with watercolor, or whether it would work at all. Watercolor paint was as foreign to this brush as the brush itself was to me. The size was wrong—both length and width. The bristle composition was wrong–nylon filaments rather than natural hair. But because I had no expectation of what it should be able to do, its “wrongness” didn’t frustrate me. It gave me permission to play, to experiment, and to have fun with it to see what it could do.

I won’t continue to use that borrowed brush for watercolor. Nor will I use all the techniques I learned during the workshop. But I have decided to buy a more appropriate flat watercolor brush. And I have already begun applying some of the techniques I learned at the workshop. I can also evaluate my work in a new light.

That’s really what a workshop is all about—breaking out of our ruts to discover what else might be possible beyond the tried and true.

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