How to pick an art class

Blog post #127

Art classes – how to pick the best one

The other day I was asked how to find a good art class. If you google “art classes”, you will be immediately swamped by just how many classes of all different levels you can apply for, from local teachers to organisations offering BAs, MAs and even PhDs. It can all be rather overwhelming. With that in mind, I’m going to offer some advice which, I hope, will help you pick a class which meets your particular needs.

This is the website header for the Surrey Art School

Many of the people who follow me here are watercolour artists who have taken up this artform on retirement. The advice I am going to give you here applies essentially to anyone considering art classes of any type. Before you do anything, you need to fully understand where you are with your art; what you are looking to learn and where your future lies.

For many people, taking up painting is one of those things they always promised themselves: “When I retire, I will learn to make watercolour paintings.” Believe me I have heard it time and time again, and every time I panic a little. Watercolour is the most difficult and most unforgiving of art forms and it takes years of practice to become good at it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible and that you won’t get any pleasure learning it. Just don’t be surprised if it takes a while to produce anything good. 

This is the website front page for the Ardington school of craft

So, where to start, class wise? Well, if you really are an absolute beginner, or haven’t picked up a paint brush since you left school, then your best bet is to contact your local art group and ask if any of the members teach. There is likely to be someone who teaches in their home where you will be in a small class and receive the kind of one-to-one attention you need as a beginner.

Once you have gained some experience and feel ready for the next level, join that art group and, scary as it may be, show your work in their exhibitions. Most groups will be selective about who can join or show work. They want to be seen in the best possible light, so if you are selected give yourself a huge pat on the back. You are better than you thought you were.

The next stage up is to ask around to find out where you can find classes taught by professional teachers and/or artists. Many professional artists teach to supplement their income but also to improve their own work. This may sound strange but if you teach something you know, it reinforces what you already know, and the sharing of ideas and techniques helps everyone to improve.

Student work at a class given vis The Dorking Group of Artists.

Often art groups will organise for these kinds of teachers to come to the group and teach a class en masse. When you find a teacher this way who you like working with, contact them and see if they have other classes you can attend. They often will and working with them in this way really helps to improve your knowledge and skill.

Then there are the two or more-day classes or workshops. Again, these can be found via the people you meet at art classes and through Open Studio events which run in most counties in the UK. In the USA, your local art league will provide you with a vast amount of information and contact details of teachers they work with and having joined a league if you attend classes or exhibitions, you can ask around for the level of teaching you feel you need.

I have found that when selecting a teacher, it is helpful if you like the kind of work they produce. Let’s face it, if you want to learn about landscape painting, it is probably not going to help you to join a portrait painting class. Likewise, if you like a particular style a teacher has and you would like to work in this way, you will learn more about what you are interested in from them rather than going to something you don’t even like.

When I lived in the USA, my local art league had a teacher who held classes in drawing, watercolour, acrylic and oil painting. She was the only person teaching in the small town where I lived in and we didn’t like each other from the outset. I don’t think she liked foreigners and I suspect she felt intimidated by me because my parents were artists. So, it didn’t make for happy classes, but she was a good artist and brilliant teacher and whilst she didn’t teach me a lot directly, I did learn loads from the “crit” sessions she ran and listening to conversations she had with my fellow classmates.

I didn’t need to be her friend; I just needed to learn what she could teach, and I am grateful that she was professional enough to share her knowledge with the class. I learnt a lot. So, sometimes it is good to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something a little different.

Concertina Sketchbook classwork from I class I taught having learned so much from Karen Stamper

A few years ago, I was fortunate to take one of Karen Stamper’s Concertina Sketchbook classes https://karenstampercollage.com/ Karen is a fabulous teacher and set me on a path I hadn’t envisaged. Due to the pandemic, she has started offering her classes online, but she is a teacher I highly recommend. I also took a three-day workshop with Lewis Nobel a few years ago. His method of working was something I hadn’t come across before and whilst not all of what he does made it into my way of working, some of it did. Plus, Lewis lives in Derbyshire, one of my favourite English counties. It is worth taking his classes just to visit the wonderful locations he takes you to. https://www.lewisnoble.co.uk

If it is this kind of advice you are looking for, another fabulous teacher is Tessa Pearson https://www.tessapearson.com Tessa is a printmaker and a painter and runs printmaking classes in her home studio. She also has a group she takes to Tunisia every summer. Being immersed in a longer session like this is really helpful in developing your knowledge and your style.

I haven’t taken any classes with Emily Ball of Seawhite Studio https://www.emilyballatseawhite.co.uk/ but I have heard so many good reports that I felt I should include her here. Like everyone else she has been teaching online during the pandemic, but I am sure in person classes will resume soon.

More student work from a class via The Dorking Group of Artists

There are also several small art schools around which are worth investigating. Simon Sonsino is an amazing print artist. Look him up; his work is amazing. He also owns the Ardington School of Crafts which offers many different classes you can enjoy https://www.ardingtonschool.com

Local to me two ladies run the Surrey Art School at a farm in Newdigate, Surrey. They too run all sort of different classes which are well worth investigating. https://www.surreyartschool.com/

If, like me, you enjoy printmaking there are a number of places you can look into. I live in Surrey so most of my hands on knowledge comes because of where I live. The Ochre Print Studio https://www.ochreprintstudio.co.uk/ in Guildford is fantastic, and they run loads of classes during normal times. The Black Pig Printmaking Studio in Frome, Somerset https://www.blackpigprintmakingstudio.com/ is well worth looking at if you live in the south west of England. Chris Pig is a fantastic teacher who I met whilst taking a course at Ochre Print Studio.

A still life set up from a small group class taught by Denise Slattery.

Whilst many teachers took to online classes during the pandemic, some only teach online. Domestika classes have a fabulous reputation and are extremely affordable https://www.domestika.org/en/courses . Others will give a set of free classes in the hope that, although you are not required to, you will sign up for their courses. One such lady, the wonderful Louise Fletcher. She has a free class starting up in June in which will be delivered a set of projects for you to do each day for about 10 or 12 days. You can do as much or as little of what she suggests but you are likely to look at contemporary painting in a different way as a result. Her online course is reasonably priced and there is a lot of support available from Louise, her team and the other people taking the course. https://www.louisefletcherart.com/art-tribe

Last but not least (there will be many others teaching this way, I just don’t know all the players), but Nicholas Wilson has had a far-reaching effect on many of the current online classes being taught around the world. His list of alumni now runs to tens of thousands, but his classes are not cheap. https://www.nicholaswilton.com/ If you are interested in taking one of his annual classes, I can get you a discount which will reduce the cost by at least 25%. Just contact me for details if you are interested.

My final thoughts on classes are these. Don’t just stick with the medium you think you like best. Go and try other different artforms. A few years back I took a book-binding course which I enjoyed but a couple of years ago I took another (different teacher) one which I found really inspiring and I now use some of my experimental works on paper and canvas, when lining the leather journals I make.

I am also just about to join a silversmithing class, something I learnt many years ago and wanted to revisit. I have attended classes on calligraphy, pottery, and silk-dying as well as the painting and printmaking I so love to indulge in. Every time I take a class, I learn something new. Even rubbish classes teach me what not to do when I’m teaching others.

I hope you have found this brief introduction helpful but if you want more, I have a network of people which spreads across the whole of the UK, another spanning USA and Canada and I also have many contacts in Europe. If there is something you would like to learn in your region and you would like a recommendation, please contact me and I will reach out for you.

I haven’t gone into university courses here, but I may look at some of these higher-level courses if anyone would like me to. Just email me. I know a lot of people who have taken BAs and MAs in their 40s, 50s and 60s and can provide some guidance if you would like a different perspective.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please like and follow me and share it with people who you think might be interested. I am always looking for new artists to feature and if there is a subject you would like me to write about, I will be happy to consider it. Sharing, liking and following my blogs increases the number of people the algorithm shows them to. Thank you in advance for supporting me this way.

2 Replies to “How to pick an art class”

  1. Truth.

    I’ve got a BFA in graphic design, but had never taken a formal watercolor class until last year, just as the pandemic arrived. Prior to that one class, I’d been doing watercolors off-and-on over the years my own since the late 1970’s. Sure, I read books on the subject and studied the watercolor paintings of the masters, so my own watercolors began to improve over time. But I hadn’t done it very seriously in a long time and wanted some formal training when I finally retired at the end of 2019.

    So I looked online and found what appeared to be a good class through the Smithsonian Institution. They have an amazing program of varied classes (taught by world renown authorities in their field) that I’d participated in before, so I thought the watercolor class from them would be a slam dunk.

    I was so, so wrong.

    The instructor for the class I signed up for was a dilettante, a rank amateur, with her “world renown” background being in art history – not watercolor painting. What I thought would be a class directed toward intermediate-level painters was actually little more than an “pre-intro to watercolor”. It was terrible and a complete waste of money. It didn’t even go for the full twelve sessions because the pandemic lockdown happened after the first two, so the ten remaining sessions were thrown away. I couldn’t even get a refund.

    So. Lesson learned. If I pursue formal watercolor training again in the future, I’ll be a lot more circumspect about the instructor.

    1. I am so sorry you had this horrible experience. Have a look as Domestika. They do on line course for £20 about $28 or less and if you are new they are give you 50% off so you can pick the artists who work you like best and you wont have lost much if the class isnt great. You could pick another one and see if that was right for you.
      I hope you haven’t been put of trying again. Best wishes Alison

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