Class Demos Matter

November 15, 2011


Above: Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy Pen sketch with Schmincke Gouache, done as a class demo in my color theory class. (Right page edge clipped in scanning. Handmade journal containing Gutenberg.) Click on the image to view enlargement.

Often the best way to learn something, to quickly grasp it and experience an "Ah ha" moment, is to observe a demonstration. People learn in all sorts of different ways, through reading, through doing, through seeing. Everyone, no matter what type of learner he is benefits from a real-time demonstration.

Not everyone in my color theory class (which recently ended) was a painter, but we had worked with watercolors so that they could get an idea of how pigments mix. It's an important concept to grasp because it can then be applied across media whether you work in printmaking (and mix printer's inks), polymer clay (and knead gradients), beads (and mix textures and surfaces as well as color), or fabric. If you can blend paint to see all the members of the resultant color family then you can begin to get a feel for what to look for when you are gathering materials for collage and other "solid," non-mixable media.

In this particular class there was also some curiosity about gouache. More important, the class description had promised demos. As the lessons necessitated I showed them how to do washes of various sorts (to help with their color exercises). I could teach an entire 6-week class on brush handling so you have to condense things when you're only dealing with color, but you still need to hit the topics and show what you want the student to achieve.

Years ago (almost a decade) I took what was billed as a "master class" with a somewhat famous nature artist (I say somewhat because she would be known in some nature art circles but not in the art world in general). The class description also promised many demos.

I learned nothing from the class—except that I never wanted to fall into that teaching rhythm, and that being with a good friend can make even the worst experience quite fun, and funny.

The artist showed examples that had been prepared in advance out of our view, told us to do exercises, never picked up a brush, and walked about the room and chatted with people about nature not painting. She also always rotated the same direction around the room so that by the time she reached the table where my friend and I sat, overflowing with questions, it was time to end class. We didn't even get to discuss nature.

This went on for 4 full days. You can be sure that every 1/2 day at an appropriate point in the instructor's "lecture" I asked for a demo. I was always put off with, "I'll do one later when we take a break." Because of the rhythm of her class structure, the "break" would always fall after she'd talked to all the students—but wait, that was when we were packing up to go to lunch or go home, so that meant NEVER.

What really bothered me in all of this was that day after day the instructor kept explaining a way of painting that she obviously was not following herself. (Look, if you've been reading my blog for any length of time there's one thing you should know, I'm a forensic deconstructionist of painting—always have been, always will be. Fibbing about your technique to me is like telling your dentist you've been flossing everyday when the floss is still in the sealed box.) If you can't do what you're teaching, that's a good reason to not demonstrate, and an even better reason to not teach.

She also kept claiming she was drawing from life, but then the sample she showed us of a work in progress (which she never worked on in our presence)  was obviously done from a photo. She even showed us the photo (there were other clues about her other work being from photos as well but I'm trying to make this brief—I don't have a problem with people drawing from photos, but then they shouldn't say they draw from life).

Finally on the last day of class, with two hours to go, she announced she'd be doing a demonstration. People gathered around. Keep in mind this is the first time she picked up a brush in the entire class to show anyone how to make any of the strokes or layers she'd recommended. She began with a partially painted twig image. We didn't get to see the beginning. Twenty minutes into the demo, with much time off for talking to students, a group of visitors walked in for a pre-arranged "social time" with the "celebrity." End of demo.

I'd already been teaching for two decades when I went to this class. I guess I did learn something in this "master" class. I had daily confirmation that my teaching model was basically sound and I could be happy that I was a good teacher. But it also reminded me not to be complacent—to continue to push myself and my students.

My classes can seem a little like boot camp—I include a lot of stuff, I try to impart a lot of information. I typically write exhaustive handouts just so that I don't have to remember all the things I might want to say to the students in the midst of all the questions that might come up. I want them all to go away with a strong basis of instruction that will help them build a new knowledge. I want them to have insight on how to continue to learn and grow and develop into the artists they hope to become.

You can do this by narrowly focusing your subject in a concentrated way. You can do this by giving a global overview. It's my weakness as an instructor that I try to do both. Sometimes I actually succeed. I think that the global overview is worthless if you don't give some basic grounding in technique/approach/knowledge. I believe that if you don't provide a global overview of what is possible all the minutiae of technique/approach/knowledge, is useless. I'm a mentor at heart and that's a long-term process; not something that can be contained in a 2 hour, 1 day, or multi-session class. It's also one of the reasons I teach less and less. It is consuming.

So let's get back to my recent class demo. On this particular day I'd promised to show them how I paint (not just make graduated washes and swatches, but actually paint something). My intent was not to make a great painting but to show them how to make on the spot decisions. It was also important to me that the students see me push the painting in one direction and then recover.

I feel happy that while I didn't make a great painting, I was able to answer their questions and show how color mixing, and in this case gouache, could be worked to make a rendition of something from life. To see when a painter decides to put more paint on the page (because of shifting color decisions or drying paper or drying brush) is more invaluable than talking about it for hours. To see how this particular painter allows her paints to become "messy" in her palette is also a freeing experience for many people (I've been told this over and over, but the little sucks of air from students watching also tells me this.)

The point of the teaching demo is that it shows students possibilities. My goal in teaching is not to turn my students into little "Rozs" who use my palette and paint like I do. My goal is to give them options so they know how to pick the palette that will best convey their artistic vision, use the techniques that will enhance that, and so on. If I don't teach understanding but only teach someone to work like I do there is little growth for that person possible after class. Over time there is no other result possible than that she will become frustrated and bored because she doesn't have the skills and tools to push through to the next step, and what she is doing isn't speaking to her. Art needs to come from inside the individual, from that authentic core we all have.

Teaching isn't for everyone. In fact I think many people teach for the wrong reasons—they've just learned something and want to show it to other people which is laudable, but the learner/teacher doesn't have the experience to get himself and his students out of any holes that come up; they like to entertain (stand up is a viable option for some of those folks); they want the money (no comment)

Wait I do have one comment. I'll just say that I'm a bad business woman when it comes to teaching as I have never made money on a class. You have to count your prep time, writing time, and of course teaching time. I'm always bringing in extra supplies from my cabinet without reimbursement. I'd be better off financially staying at my desk designing books.

Teaching, especially teaching creativity and arts related subjects should be undertaken with great seriousness on the part of the instructor, from a foundation of skill and knowledge, all of which is expressed in a credible course description—a description is credible when it states what will be covered, not what the instructor thinks will best pack the seats.

Some artists may be uncomfortable demonstrating for students. They need to man up. It's an integral part of teaching. Doing an in-class demonstration isn't about making a great piece of art (though I know there are masters out there who do every time they demo) it's about showing the techniques discussed and the choices in real time to the students so they have a visual and mental image of what is involved in working.

There's a thin line between demonstrating so much that you don't let your students have time to work and not demonstrating the essentials sufficiently enough. You can't be with the students always after the class, so try to pack as many "Ah Ha" moments in as you can.

For me there is one selfish reason for teaching—OK, two. The first is payback. I've had a couple people in my life who encouraged certain creative pursuits. Teaching is a way to pass that on. The other selfish reason is that every class I teach makes me look once again at how I work, how I process, and what's important to get across to the student. Frankly I enjoy that process. I would do it all the time and probably nothing else, if I were on salary.

In turn that distillation helps me clarify what my next goal or approach will be. Seeing things through the fresh eyes of students helps you remember that there really aren't any silly questions. Questions illuminate where information hasn't been either forthcoming or understood. Questions show where you might all journey together, though on separate paths. I like that about teaching.

I also enjoy that teaching can go sideways at any moment, depending on the group dynamic, their individual skill sets. In teaching you need to be fully present, in the moment, responding to that moment, responding to whatever comes up. You might have planned 20 minutes on topic A but the students get it with 3 sentences and it's time to move on to topic B.

Incorporating demos can also be a fun planning adventure. Like cooking shows you need your "dish" at several levels of completion so that you can show what happens at each step, without waiting in real time. The best demo I ever saw was my friend Dean Koutsky's oil painting demonstration. He started a landscape painting from scratch, using a reference photo because it was an indoor, night time presentation. He showed how he quickly laid in his sketch after considering compositional factors. He then brought the painting to the first level of paint. Since that would take a little bit of time to dry he put the first painting away and brought up another painting, worked to that point, of a similar subject and composition. He proceeded to work that painting through to completion. It was not only a masterful painting display but a wonderful example of time management.

If you teach, or are about to embark on teaching, I hope you'll give all these points some thought. What is the point of teaching for you? Don't shy away from the money aspect—it's perfectly fine to make money at teaching. (I think teachers need to be reimbursed for their time and efforts so that they can continue to afford teaching. Each independent, non-tenured teacher needs to constantly find a way to do this.) But it is important to keep sight of what you are doing as a teacher and the effect it has on your students and the benefits they derive. Providing in-class demonstrations that show what is possible is a key part of the equation.

We all learn from that.

  1. Reply

    And can I just say that I would LOVE to take a class, any class, from you to have you as my teacher. I think you are a rare breed, Roz.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • November 15, 2011

    I’ve been to a few musical masterclasses over the years. The famous American who didn’t want to be in a Glasgow High school, made his displeasure known, and gave two of the most miserable musical hours ever. Another American astonished we could work with his new music so fast, and that was wonderful; as he went into the whys and wherefores of the music and everyone learnt a lot. A favourite being an Oscar winning composer who turned up so incredibly drunk I’ve no idea how he could stand up let alone inspire everyone in the way he did; by knowing his music inside out and making it all work for us; singing bits, playing bits , telling tales of musical quotation in the music (And a few rude stories, best not repeated here; or anywhere else for that matter). Last night was just another rehearsal, we listened to our last competition winning recording, from two weeks ago, and all nit-picked and then worked to make it better. Constructive criticism and being lead by example, and then allowed to work in your own way, with support and demonstrations makes any class work. We’re lucky our conductor is a working musician, as well as a teacher giving us the best of both perspectives, best thing any teacher can do is allow you to ask questions, and the good ones understand how to give, and why you need the answer.

    • Miss T
    • November 15, 2011

    Great post, Roz! It truly does make a huge difference to be able to see exactly how my watercolor teacher handles her paint and brushes, how she does a perfect background wash, etc. I often pick up fine details about technique more from watching than from listening.

    • Linda
    • November 15, 2011

    Aha,teaching, this art journey started mid way in my life then with lifes giving you an acident shoulder and seven operations after,art journey had to stop for sometime. Teachers Im the student that likes to watch. I have had a few which the money that took me so long to be able to go was like me lighting it up and watching it burn the teachers that assume you know what the heck there talking about. The last teacher before the 5th operation was the one who would walk around but made sure she spent the time with you and your way. Sadly had to stop going a none working shoulder and pain for this one. Ever since been trying to learn on my own. I really like coming here so even though I can’t watchyou you put so much into what you write I thank you for this Roz Wish I could come to your classes.have a great day,linda

  2. Reply

    Well said Roz. I particularly identify with a class going suddenly sideways and having to think on your feet to go with the slide or to get everyone where they need to be.

    • BJ
    • November 15, 2011

    Great post. . . since I live so far away, not chance of taking a class from you. Do you ever think of making a dvd course or book?

  3. Reply

    I loved the dVd workshop classes you did for Strathmore… you really should put together some teaching videos.. you do have a way of explaining things that touches me … and others too. I’m teaching art classes now.. but just to 5 and 6 year olds… talk about a challenge … YIKES… no time to dawdle have to keep them engaged or you lose them and they start drawing on each other or the walls LOL

  4. Reply

    Suzanne, I know you would because you’re in it everyday—but I know your students are getting inspiring teaching.

  5. Reply

    BJ, the video workshops were a lot of work—double and triple prepping things for instance so that I could shoot in a timely fashion. For me they really aren’t interesting as a “teaching” experience because I don’t get to interact one-on-one, real time, with the students, see the looks in their eyes that tell me what they got, what they need help with. That interplay is what makes all the prep time for live classes worthwhile.

    I know I’ll do more video classes in the future (not soon though).

    I would like to write several books! That will I hope happen sooner.

  6. Reply

    CaptElaine, See my comment to BJ about the videos. I’m glad that you found them helpful. I love that you are involved in teaching 5-6 year olds—they will certainly keep you on your toes. I have only taught 6-7 year olds and then always with several parent helpers (at schools that encouraged parents to come in on a regular basis and help the teacher out). So as a visiting teacher I just got a taste of their “activity.” Strangely though I currently find lots of adults in my classes just as easily “lost” or distracted, shouting out questions when I’m in the middle of a sentence because they want the answer now, turning their attention away from a particularly intense demo. I think it has to do with people’s attention spans trained to a different time frame from too much time on the internet—don’t know what something on one page means or refers to, click away, etc.

    I think that by training these 5-6 year olds you’re doing a great service to them for their later lives, helping keep them engaged! We have to get kids engaged early in these types of activities.

  7. Reply

    Linda, I’m sorry that you’ve had health issues which have limited your ability to participate in the classes you have available, but I’m even more sorry you’ve had teachers who weren’t helpful.

    Teachers do need to always remember that someone has given up their time and money to attend. And create an atmosphere that fosters questions (at what ever level).

    I hope you can find more useful class experiences. I’m honored that you enjoy coming here, but I also do hope that people get some sort of in-person instruction. It’s a problem because so many people don’t live near places where classes are available. In that respect internet videos can be a valuable asset.

    I hope your shoulder recovers.

    Thanks for reading.

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