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10 things to keep in mind when taking an art workshop

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

How to get the best results from your next art workshop.

Whatever your level of experience, workshops are a super fun way to learn new art tricks and expand your skills.

Swinton’s is gearing up for summer workshop season and we have more than ever to choose from.  As an instructor, head wrangler, and an active participant, I have some insights of what to consider when choosing a workshop and how to get the best results...


1 - De Soto said so. 

Be open to new ideas, exploring lands and uncharted waters.

The worst thing an instructor hears from a student is… “I don’t do it like that, I prefer to do this….” Granted, some of the things you are about to learn may be unfamiliar but you may be rewarded if you are willing to give them a try. Later, you will sort through those new nuggets of knowledge, adopting some and letting others go.


2 - All the right stuff.

Follow the supply list as closely as possible. Every instructor has specific requirements, having honed their skills with a particular set of products, and mastering all the subtle nuances they provide. They do not want you to spend your money frivolously. They want you to succeed with superior products that work for them and the techniques they plan to introduce. Be prepared with all of the materials suggested on the supply list to get the BEST results out of your workshop. You may never use some of those items again and may just put them to pasture, however, one of those new products may just be the answer you’re looking for!


3 - Stop, look and listen.

Choosing a workshop can be a daunting task and picking the right one is very important. Here are few things to consider:

  • You can’t learn it all, so choose a few specific things that excite you about this artist’s work and focus on those.

  • Choose a style that will help your work. It’s one thing to try to loosen-up, but to take on an abstract workshop when you’ve been a realistic painter all your life may be a poor choice.

  • Is this workshop within your scope of abilities? Don’t dive into an advance workshop if you have only been painting for a short while.

  • Workshops are demanding and need your full attention. Can you afford the time? If you plan to attend only half of the session due to time restrictions, wait and do it when you have the time. If you are not fully committed you're wasting your money.


4 - Three little piggies.

Bring a notebook/sketchbook and a writing implement. When you take a workshop, no matter the duration, you will be inundated with new information.

Sometimes it will come fast and furious. Be prepared to take copious notes - the more wordy the better.

My general rule for a lucrative workshop is that if you can learn just three things, you will have successful results. Three things that you can remember, practice and repeat. Three things you want to adjust. Three things you can do to make improvements in your work. Three things you can take away and work on in your own time. These three things may not sink-in immediately but with practice and consistent implementation they will become second nature.


5 - Re-hash the hash.

One great thing to do once you have returned home from the workshop and had a nap is to retreat to a peaceful corner and take a few minutes to sit quietly and review your notes.

You will be amazed how much more information will be gleaned from your notes after distilling them from all the fervour of the day. A mere ten minutes alone with your sketchbook will rehash the entire day and solidify the knowledge you acquired.


6 - The show must NOT go on.

Workshop time is learning time. Experimental time. Adventuresome time. Not a time to bring in all your unfinished paintings to be fixed or to get work done to fill your impending exhibition. Leave the unfinished business for some other time. Allow your brain to be open and inspired to create in new ways. Adding new cutting edge abilities into your work-in-progress can make it look inconsistent and disjointed. Acquired skills take time to work themselves out.


7 - Don’t stop till you drop.

I was amazed recently, watching the documentary “beyond the lighted stage” (okay I watch it every year) on the Canadian band Rush. After some 30 years at the helm of the drum kit, Neil Peart found himself a bit weary of doing the same thing and went looking for a spark. He sought out drummer Freddie Gruber, and asked for lessons. Being a seasoned professional jazz drummer Freddie knew exactly what Neil was after - a fresh perspective.

I find it outstanding that one of the world’s greatest rock drummers is not beneath learning something new and taking instruction from another who has something new to offer. Taking workshops will keep your ideas fresh. I recommend you take one workshop per year and wouldn’t recommend you take more than two workshops per year. All these new found ideas can get jumbled in the brain and you risk confusing concepts.


8 - Workshop junkies.

Workshops usually look like a box of Timmy’s doughnuts. There’s a little bit of everything. Pure beginners, hobbyists, right through to gallery selling professionals. Never be intimidated by the results you see from other artist’s brushes. You don’t know their level of experience. Often there will be an artist that can already do what the instructor is doing. They may have attended such a workshop many times and are honing their skill. Some people are workshop junkies and love to follow an instructor around the country taking their every workshop. Don’t let this rattle or dishearten you. You are on your own journey and going at your own pace. Keep your eyes on your fries. Learn what you set out to learn and enjoy the ride.


9 - We can be friends

One of my favourite things about taking a workshop is learning from other attendees. Chatting with other students will fetch a wealth of newfound tidbits. Enjoying a lunch together or after class conversations over bevys are a great way to discover loads of new ideas: Tips on supplies, brush cleaning, storage and traveling with paints. You will find out about great places to paint or photograph and about galleries or museums that are not on the local radar. Most importantly, you might find out about other workshops worth taking. You might even make some lifelong friends!


10 - All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.

I consider attending a workshop part of my art practice. It’s work. That being said, if you happen to travel to a new city or even a different country for a workshop, remember to have fun in your downtime. Soak in all there is to offer and don’t forget to snap lots of reference photos. I always go out a few hours before the workshop and take photos of the area. After dinner I head out again for more. It’s inspiring and keeps me fresh when I return to my studio.


All in all taking a workshop is a quick yet deep and delicious way to improve yourself as an artist and a human being.

See you at the next workshop!

Your friend in art,


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