Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Thoughts on Painting Courses

This piece was prompted by receiving, with the latest issue (Feb 2011) of The Artist magazine, a 23 page full colour brochure entitled ART COURSES & HOLIDAYS 2011. Originally I intended to cover ALL the courses I have attended in one hit but realised this would be rather long so am splitting it into three parts. The second and third parts will be `The Judi Whitton Experience' and `The Charles Reid Experience'.  I have done more courses with Judi and Charles, although I did attend three earlier with Trevor Waugh. I have many photographs of these later courses.

First of all be aware that `courses ' and `holidays' in the above context can be two different things or three actually if you include `Summer Schools', offered by a variety of establishments. You need to be clear exactly what you want because many courses are more holiday than painting. The Artist brochure is stuffed with them, both for the UK and abroad and they seem to be proliferating year by year. Prices vary but in general art holidays/courses are quite expensive, some very much so.

 I have heard various stories about fellow artists experiences on some of these courses, some very negative, especially regarding the `tuition' aspect. The proliferation is obviously driven by demand but also for commercial reasons. They are a cash cow for those organizing and profiting from them. I'm not suggesting all are rubbish because that is not the case but sorting the wheat from the chaff is no easy task.To my astonishment a lady who used to attend my AVA group was recently listed as the `Resident Tutor' at an art holiday in Tuscany. To my knowledge she wasn't then a professional and certainly did not stand out as an artist. Perhaps she's an excellent teacher I really don't know but you have to wonder. I may be harsh but  the fact is a majority of those `teaching' art have no formal qualifications to do so. As a result a lot of the teaching is of a recipe formula with tips and tricks featuring heavily. If that is what you want fine but learning should go beyond that.  Certainly beware of those who state `all levels are welcome'. This burgeoning trend  has been extended with many artists, mostly those connected with the SAA (The Society for All Artists), through the extensive mail order catalogue, offering an ever increasing number of special brushes, paints , palettes, videos and much else. all designed to make you paint perfect pictures without difficulty in a flash! I have been on courses with people who had no prior idea of the tutor's style of painting and had done no research before booking. On occasion I expressed  surprise at this but such (critical) comment doesn't always go down well.

Back to my experience which began with Ron Ranson. I should say I initially attended weekly sessions at the local council-run Elsbridge House near my home. This was a lady called June Mills who never ever demonstrated and after a while dissatisfaction led me to an artist, who painted under the name of Mary Shaw, at her lovely studio on the banks of the River Avon in my home village of Saltford. Mary, or to give her real name Andrea Coleman, is an excellent artist primarily in a realistic style in acrylics. She also paints in watercolour using the Yarka range of paints. I met her again recently when she did an evening workshop at my Bathampton group. This was a lovely location, next to the Jolly Sailor pub but once again not really a great learning experience. Most of my time was spent copying paintings from books by Seago and Wesson provided by Andrea. Eventually the time to leave came and I cast about for some serious tuition.

My first port of call was Ron Ranson at another superb location, his lovely home in the Forest of Dean near Lydney.  One advantage  was that Ron had a superb collection of watercolour paintings by many famous watercolourists, as well as those he identified as up and coming. They could be  perused at leisure during breaks. I remember him saying he felt the Australians were leading the way. Several like Greg Allen have come to prominence since that occasion.

 Ron was the first of the artists who used modern marketing tecniques to promote himself, and while he has his critics, some just out of jealousy, is responsible for  thousands of people becoming watercolour painters. His initial book, he has written almost thirty, called something like `Watercolour Painting The Ron Ranson Tecnique',  sold over 350,000 copies which was a record for such a book, which I doubt  has been exceeded.  He lived sufficiently close for me to travel daily and after a one-day workshop I signed up for a 3 day course. It soon became obvious that Ron, who was approaching eighty at the time, had done this many times before and there was an element of going through the motions. The same stories from the one day course were repeated including much of his history - interesting without doubt but not why I was there. Ron's tecnique is based on the use of the hake and this was alien to many (including me). To be blunt it was awful and the paintings I attempted were absolutely dreadful. I wasn't alone and at the end of the course one man had become so frustrated he drove off in a cloud of dust in a furious mood.  The declared aim of many on the course was to `paint looser' but my lesson from that course is that you need to find a tutor to whom you can relate and be careful about changing style in such a drastic way. Ron moved to America a few years ago and his website is  http://www.ronranson.com/ I could say a lot more as Ron was very open about all sorts of things, including other artists, but will leave it at that!

 My continued search for the right tutor led  eventually to Trevor Waugh. I rang his studio and spoke to his then wife who on being queried stated very firmly `it isn't a holiday'. That was it I signed up and started the first at his studio at Great Barrington, Oxfordshire. This was another lovely location next to the River Windrush with an excellent pub, serving delicious food (I don't drink). The building, standing alone, was just off the road in a kind of grove and Trevor had both the ground floor, which was utilised as a gallery and sales area, plus an upstairs studio that accomodated a maximum of twelve students. Without a doubt Trevor is the most accomplished teacher I have been with and I say this without in any way decrying my mentors, Judi Whitton and Charles Reid. He had a professional art education at the prestigious Slade School in London with David Hockney amongst his tutors. Trevor, no shrinking violet, claimed he was considered one of their best students - in fact actually the best - and teaches a whole philosophy of art not just how to do a wash. My notes from his courses are extensive and exceed those from all the others. One even covers why people buy paintings. I eventually did three courses with Trevor. My only real problem with his teaching is that he does no pencil drawing whatsoever, straight in with the brush. Paintings begin with a variegated wash which forms the basis for the rest. He can also paint in different styles and did a copy of a John Singer Sargeant painting that was near perfect. This resulted from  a number of us perusing a book of Sargeants watercolours and someone saying he wondered how Sargeant painted one of an  Arab tribesman. Trevor promptly showed how. He is now based at Cheltenham and his website is:  http://www.trevorwaugh.com/

I think I'll finish this rather long piece and if you haven't lost interest long ago recommend that IF you want to learn from a painting course, as distinct  from a holiday with painting, you must research the tutor and his or her style and make sure this is what you want.


hap said...

Very interesting Peter! I've only taken a few classes, one by a local painter who I like quite a bit:
http://www.scottmulholland.net/ currently he is not teaching as he's achieving a certain level of success at his paintings of golf courses. While I am fairly bright, I do find that I am a very slow learner at painting, so your experiences give me something to think about! Thanks so much for sharing!!

Peter Ward said...

My journey to become a decent watercolour painter, still ongoing, has been a slow one Hap, and If others can learn from my experiences then I've achieved something.

Mal said...

Peter, thank you for your 'report card' of your experiences with painting courses. I am a new [~2 years] to painting [watercolour] and have attended quite a few classes and workshops as well as collecting a number of videos and books on the subject.
Like you, I have found a great variety of teaching - some very good and some not so.
I think I am now at the stage of knowing how I paint [the technical bits], what I like to paint [subject] and how I prefer to paint [style]. The problem is I still need help in my development but finding a tutor, mentor, teacher, coach who can constructively guide without 'imposing' their own technique is proving difficult.
By the way, I live in Melbourne, Australia and we do have some wonderful watercolour artists locally. It has been a privilege to attend workshops with Greg Allen, David Taylor, Malcolm Beattie and others [all of whom are inspirational teachers of their style, technique and subjects].

Peter Ward said...

Thanks Mal for taking the trouble to visit and comment. Much appreciated.
Your dilemma is one many of us face. One of the things I noticed early on was that several of my fellow artists, who had been on painting courses, showed no improvement or change whatsoever in their subsequent paintings. Neither improvement nor change. This to me created a problem because why go on them at all if nothing had been gained? Judi Whitton, one of my mentors, says that if you take away one thing from her course it has been worth it but that in general people revert to how they were doping it before. I agree. I believe you have to digest the lessons taught and work at them for several months afterwards. This is what I try to do. I took up painting very late but am still striving to improve. That won't stop while I can still hold a brush!
You seem to be on the right track. Keep looking until you feel comfortable with the tutor. It will come and in Australia there are (as Ron Ranson noted) some wonderful watercolourists.
By the way I extend my sympathy over the devastating floods in Melbourne and elsewhere.

Peter Ward said...

Oops!!! I meant `doing it before - not doping'. Red face!