Being a Teacher, Being a Student

I recently taught a painting workshop in Italy and a few days later was an art student for the first time in several years.

I recently taught a painting workshop in Italy and a few days later was an art student for the first time in several years. I got to see a workshop from both sides. It was pretty eye opening for me.

My workshop students were a varied bunch that came to Italy to take my workshop for different reasons. Some came specifically to work with me and some came to Italy to paint in the beautiful city of Florence with their friends. Hey, I’m all for painting, no matter what! If I can impart a little wisdom about painting or a little tidbit about materials, I’m very happy. If I’ve got more to offer you, that’s amazing. So it ran the gamut. 

I know it’s usually hard to open yourself up to something new. It’s hard to be soft and vulnerable when armoring yourself and protecting yourself seems like it’s been a good strategy. I respect that and definitely do engage in that strategy myself at times.

But, when the shoe was on the other foot and I became a student, I had just seen part of my group that was having difficulty being vulnerable, so I was determined to just open up and let it all in. For me that was being a blank slate as much as possible. I tried not to filter or to organize what was presented with all the other so called “knowledge” I have about drawing and painting. I listened and participated. I’m so thrilled with what I gained by doing that! Some of what was taught was familiar but some of it brand new. I had several of those “aha!” moments that I hope to give my own students. It felt amazing and powerful.

I also got to see how another instructor organized material, presented, communicated to and encouraged his students. Norberto is an expert in his field, passionate and open. He’s also organized and clear. Even though there was a bit of a language barrier, it seemed to work in our favor as we all had to work a little harder to grasp the sometimes complicated concepts he presented. It was a group the gelled really well over the course of the workshop.

I also realized very clearly why my students always want to have exactly the materials on my list and why it’s so important for me to be very specific. I wanted to try what Norberto was doing. Even while realizing I wasn’t going to get nearly the beautiful results he gets, I wanted to emulate what he was doing as best I could. Materials are only a small part of that, but they are a part of it. If you don’t have the right stuff, you can’t even get going. But you know what? It was ok because I had to make a trip to the Italian art supply store in Florence and feel what that was like. Not easy! After a couple of trips into one of them, the lady warmed up to me and even gave me a free sample! It was good for me to  be vulnerable in that way too.

I’m home now and very, very excited about putting into process everything I learned as both an instructor and student. I have one more live workshop this year before I settle in and concentrate on painting and new online lessons which will no doubt reflect my new insights. I’ll be back in Italy next May to teach another workshop that will dig deep into the mystery of the light and lifestyle of Italy. The beautiful Palazzo Santo Spirito of Florence will again be our classroom. Come and join Debra, Ivano and I, in May 2020! They are amazing hosts who offer not a tour but an authentic experience of Italy.


In the meantime, I wrote another blog post a number of years ago about how to be a good workshop participant and thought it would be worth re-posting now.

Being a Great Workshop Participant

I’ve been both a workshop participant and an instructor. I love teaching and I’ve loved being a student of another artist. Taking a workshop is a gift to yourself.  Here are a few tips on how to get the most from your workshop experience, have fun and be an active participant!

Dos and Don’ts

Do come prepared. You’ll have the best chance of taking something valuable away from the workshop if you have the opportunity to try most of the approaches or techniques. You’ll be disappointed if you don’t have the materials.

Do test-drive any new equipment. You’ll be wasting valuable time for yourself and maybe the instructor if you are struggling with your set-up.

Don’t decide that the materials list is just a suggestion – If you have any questions or concerns, give the instructor or school an email or call. They might have suggestions about substitutions or perhaps you already have some materials that you’d like to use that are different from those on the list. Just give a call and find out whether this would be acceptable.

Do be on time – It’s disruptive to the instructor and the other students if you’re trying to get set up when everyone else is ready to go. If you know you’ll be late, call ahead and let the instructor or coordinator know.

Do the work – Try the exercises and suggestions that the instructor makes. You can do your own thing on your own. Do what the teacher says!!

Don’t be that person that comes with all the stuff, but doesn’t put pastel to paper!

Don’t ask the instructor to use his/her materials. Likely they’ve traveled far and tried to keep their materials light. They’ll make it clear if they have materials they are providing or that are to share. If you absolutely must, ask another student if you can share something or purchase materials if they have extra.

Don’t get frustrated – you are being given new information that will take some time to assimilate into your own working method.

Don’t have expectations of making a huge leap during the workshop – More than likely the leaps will come after you’ve had a bit of time to keep the kernels you need and leave behind those you don’t.

Do be happy – Nothing brings a group down faster than a Debbie Downer and you don’t want to be that person.

Do introduce yourself to the other students and get to know them – They probably have lots of information and experiences to share and much to add to the workshop. Being part of the group dynamic will deepen the experience for you.

Don’t be the outsider – This is a quick way to say, “I’m a better artist than the rest of you” and make it harder for you to join in later. Try to relax and realize everyone is in the same boat and most likely a little nervous at the start.

Do be responsible for yourself – This means be prepared and ready. If you are driving to locations, get clear directions from either the instructor or coordinator, then be able to follow through with a GPS, if you’re not good with driving directions.

Do take care of yourself – Some workshops can be physically and mentally taxing. Be sure to eat, drink and don’t expect too much of yourself.

Don’t overdo it – If you have physical limitations be sure to let the instructor and or coordinator know.

Don’t make others in the group responsible for you – If you are carpooling for instance, be on time to the agreed meeting location. Exchange cell phone numbers etc.

Do Give you instructor some idea of where you are as an artist by telling them both where you’ve come from and where you’d like to see yourself go – Bring a few samples of your work in case your instructor asks to see some or the appropriate moment presents itself.

Don’t haul out a whole portfolio of dozens of pieces that likely are unnecessary for him or her to see to get the gist of who you are as an artist – Keep it simple. Remember your instructor has many other people who are important too.

Ask questions – Lots of questions help to energize the whole group. Write questions down that you think of if it’s not the right time to ask or you’re not near to the instructor to ask. No question is stupid and yours is probably something other folks want the answer to also.

Don’t repeatedly challenge answers an instructor has given – If you really need something clarified, reframe the question or ask it again when you are one on one with the instructor. Nobody knows everything, but likely your instructor is experienced in his or her area.

Don’t make it clear to the class all the things that you know about painting – It’s wonderful to share information and part of a workshop is the sharing of ideas and information, but don’t be the know- it –all either.

Do watch the demos – If he or she wants the demo to be optional, they’ll make it clear. Part of doing a workshop is having the chance to watch someone whose work you admire, paint. Remember, this is a rare opportunity and sort of a private peek into the working method of another artist. Watch.

Do come for the right reasons; to learn from another artist whose work you admire, to take a workshop with a friend, to experience something new or simply to take a painting vacation –  It’s great to let your instructor know what your intentions are from the get-go.

Don’t come to let all the other students know what an accomplished artist you are even if you are. – Be humble, but honest about your experience

Don’t feel sorry for yourself if you are a beginner – Everyone has his or her starting place on the continuum that is making art. If you are too insecure about others seeing your work, then perhaps you’re not ready for a workshop, but most workshops are safe and nurturing places to put your foot in the water.

Do be a courteous and polite neighbor – Even in a plein air setting, you can be in close proximity to folks who you don’t know very well. Be polite and thoughtful of how you set up you gear and where. If you are in doubt, ask if you are in the way.

Don’t play your own music out loud or too loud in your headphones for your neighbors to hear – Everyone has different musical tastes and so may not welcome yours even if it’s classical or soft.

Do take some chances and explore the new techniques presented – This is your chance to stretch!

Don’t have the expectation of completing a number of finished pieces for an upcoming show or completing gifts – Leave this for after you’ve had the chance to incorporate what you’ve learned at the workshop into your own working method.

Participating in a workshop is a tremendous gift to yourself! I highly recommend it.


Happy Painting,


11 Responses

  1. Marla,

    I really liked this blog post. Though I’m not an art teacher (maybe one day), but have taught computer classes and I agree, it is so helpful to sit on the “other” side. I’ve enjoyed your workshop as well as your online classes, and found your instruction clear and concise but one can always learn more so I applaud you for continuing your own studies. What a beautiful place to learn.

    Hope you will be back in Texas one day soon.

    Kind regards

    Georgia R. Neame

  2. Marla, this is such a great post! I know it will help me get the most out of my next workshop! Would love for that to be abroad…..maybe!!

  3. Hey Marla, and Debra and Ivano! Pictures took me back. I really enjoyed my workshop with you all in 2018. I don’t think you realize how much pleasure you give your participants. Thank you so much!

  4. So good! Wish every instructor would be as concise, it would make the workshop experience so much more enjoyable for everyone.

  5. Excellent, Marla! I have not been in the student position for a long time, like you, but last month I went to a plein air watercolor week… wish everybody had read your considerations about being in class, being a colleague! Please let me know when you will have a workshop at your place, at your region. Thanks so much for sharing, love your work! Marô

  6. This is a wonderful blog! It should be required reading for all workshop participants! Loved seeing Debra and Ivano and hope to get back for the next workshop. As always, thanks Marla! Carol

  7. Great post about how to be a good workshop participant. It sounds like you might have some experience in this arena!

    Enjoy your winter months and the extra studio time!

  8. It was so good to know about your experience in Florence! So good to read all your comments and valuable suggestions …!
    I will keep in mind all the “Dos and Don´ts”. So clear and useful! I will eep on reading your blog! Loved it! Thank you

  9. So enjoyed your blog! Being a student of your “Trees” online workshop, I feel your advice applies to me as well: I want to listen to your instructions. You’re giving them for a reason! I engage with you for the sake of process, for deep learning, instead of rushing toward some preconceived goal. Respectful listening to teacher creates the field that enhances our shared endeavour: the art of creating beauty, no matter what stage we are at. Thank you for what you provide.

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