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Wading into My First Watercolor Workshop

by Margaret Cullison


I’ve come late to the study of art, having shelved a childhood interest in drawing and playing with modeling clay in favor of the written word. Throughout my adult years, aside from occasional classes in figure drawing and oil or watercolor painting, I’ve used the free time I had, aside from raising children and working, to write. I’m familiar with the format of writers’ workshops and conferences, having attended many as I honed my skills as a writer. So I knew to some degree what to expect when I left on a Sunday morning in July to begin a five-day watercolor workshop.

I’ve been taking art classes since retiring in 2003, and spent the last two years studying watercolor with an inspiring artist and teacher. One might ask why I felt the need to invest hundreds of dollars for this workshop, plus more for gas, meals and lodging. The workshop idea grew from conversation with my art friends almost a year ago. We meet once a month for lunch, laughs and usually we get some art work done too. We call our group LAFF, an acronym for Ladies Art For Fun, and we are exactly that.

Three of us settled on a teacher whose art style and philosophy we liked, and the location in eastern Oregon near the Sisters Mountains appealed to us. I’d never been to Bend, a small town that’s grown, some say too rapidly, into a handsome and trendy community of the California model. It’s a lovely place to visit when you feel like experiencing that kind of ambience.

We arrived late in the afternoon and checked into the hotel where we’d held reservations since January. Our spaces in the workshop had been secured even earlier because popular workshop leaders’ classes fill up quickly. Two workshops, one in acrylic painting and ours in watercolor, sponsored by the same vendor, were being held at the hotel that week. The first scheduled function was a reception early Sunday evening where we enjoyed wine and snacks, met other participants and peeked into our classroom.

Our workshop leader, a retired public school art teacher and now a professional artist and workshop facilitator gave a welcoming talk. The acrylics teacher had been delayed in the Midwest due to bad weather and wouldn’t arrive until the middle of the night. We felt lucky that our teacher was there to greet us and would be rested and ready to guide us through the mysteries of watercolor painting the next morning.

On Monday morning, we claimed our places for the week at tables large enough for two people to work comfortably. The class consisted of sixteen women, including the teachers’ assistant, and a lone man. I got out my art paper and brushes and had, at the ready, all the supplies we’d been asked to bring.

After forty years’ experience learning about and teaching art, our teacher knows plenty about water coloring. She showed us how to alter photographs to create a more interesting composition for a painting. She demonstrated techniques for laying down washes, blending in colors and salting. She explained how different paints react to the presence of salt.

We soaked up this information like watercolor paint absorbs salt. But the only time we touched brush to paper that first day was to try a simple technique for painting pears. Three fresh pears nestled in my art bag, just as the supply list had requested, but we never did use those plump specimens as models. After four days they’d ripened beyond the painting or eating stage, and I threw them out. Other items on the supply list were never called for either, silently relegated to the “just in case” category.

The next day we listened to more lecture. Like the good school teacher she’d been, ours had many written handouts to give us. She recommended places to buy supplies on the Internet and a web site that offers in-depth information about the properties of water color paints, brushes and papers. But hearing about tips and techniques isn’t the same as putting them into practice, and I wanted hands-on experience.

I couldn’t help noticing through the windowed door of the acrylics workshop across the hall how intently those students were working on the canvases before them. I began to wonder if they weren’t the lucky ones to have a teacher who started them painting on the first day and kept them at it. After we spent most of Tuesday afternoon looking at slides of prize-wining paintings from this year’s American Watercolor Society (AWS) show, my classmates expressed the same frustration I felt.

On Wednesday morning we went on a field trip to an antiques store that our teacher likes to visit. She asked us to spend the time collecting ideas for future paintings by sketching and taking photos of objects that interested us. We’d had some rain during the night and a heavy overcast dulled the morning light, not a favorable condition for aspiring artists. Undaunted, we car pooled to the location, which consisted of several quaint old buildings and surrounding grounds, all filled with oddities old and new.

We wandered around looking at the merchandise, taking pictures and making purchases. But there was no place to sit down to sketch inside or out. Our teacher likes to work standing up and settled into a spot outside for her portable easel. Some students watched as she worked. None of us was similarly prepared with easel or chair, items that could have been included on that supply list.

My enterprising friends found two benches in a gazebo outdoors and laid down some old rugs from the car on the wet seats. I joined them to sketch for awhile but started getting cold so retreated to the relative comfort of the hardwood floor in a less-crowded auxiliary building. There I sketched contentedly until the time came to leave.

We all gathered for lunch at a restaurant for a convivial end to our morning’s expedition. In the afternoon we started our individual painting projects, cropping black and white copies of photographs to create the designs we’d use. Enthusiasm for the task mounted as we traced our designs onto tracing paper and then transferred them to water color paper. As we applied the first paint to paper, more experienced painters proceeded confidently while we novices laid down tentative first washes.

Our teacher continued the painting she’d been working on all week. From time to time she interrupted our work to demonstrate another technique or to offer suggestions to students when they asked for help. We continued to work in this manner all day Thursday.

A group dinner was planned for Thursday evening, our last chance to gather in a social setting. Unfortunately, the majority of class members chose not to attend, either because they didn’t want to dine as early as our reservations necessitated or they’d heard negative reports about the restaurant. I decided to go.

The restaurant, located in a newly developed area of the old mill section of Bend, was sleekly designed in Northwest lodge style. Our two tables overlooked the Deschutes River, and the fields across from it took on mauve tints as the sun moved lower on the horizon. We may have been a smaller group than hoped for, but we enjoyed those relaxing few hours of good food, wine and conversation. I sat next to our workshop leader and learned that her ideal format is to lecture for two days, then give her students a day off to absorb the information before they start painting.

The plan made sense. We hadn’t had a full day off, but we did have a change of pace with the field trip and lunch before starting our projects. I wish we’d understood this format more clearly when the workshop began to avoid the frustration we’d experienced earlier in the week.

Only a few people had come close to completing their projects by Friday morning and many of us weren’t even near. Our teacher explained that she hadn’t expected us to finish, but I think completing my project in class would have given me needed practice in executing the techniques she’d shared with us. It’s too easy to put a painting aside for good once class is done and never finish it.

Concentration began to lag as the workshop’s end approached. Like children on their last day of school, we spent more time fooling around than actually working. As a final farewell, the organization that plans these workshops provided a catered lunch for all of us and any friends or relatives who were with us.

I left right after lunch even though the workshop was scheduled to last a few more hours. I felt satisfied that I’d learned as much as I was ready to absorb at the time. It had been a valuable learning experience despite not including as much painting practice as I’d expected. The workshop gave me insight into how I want to focus future efforts, and I have already chosen another teacher at a different location to study with next year.


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