I am a big fan of Iain Stewart‘s work and style and therefore have been wanting to take one of his workshops. However, he wasn’t scheduled for a stop in Virginia and I couldn’t afford to travel to the places where he was scheduled to teach. So I thought, why not organize a workshop for him here in my neck of the woods?! I contacted him about this and much to my delight, he enthusiastically agreed. After lots of planning, stressing about venues (adequate ones are in short supply around here), promoting, and fretting about getting at least minimum participation, it all came together last weekend in the quaint village of Washington, Virginia at the Washington Fire & Rescue’s well-lit, comfortably-equipped Hall.
The venue was perfect and we had a nice-sized group: eleven participants including myself. Iain’s max is 20 participants, so I would have liked a few more for his sake but as a small group, we got a lot of individual attention. I just can’t find the downside in that!
Each day was similarly structured. First, an overview and mini demos/sketches from Iain to present key concepts relevant to the day’s work, then the start of a quarter sheet demo painting from his reference photo. After each stage of the demo was completed, we participants worked on our own paintings based on that same reference photo. As we painted, Iain worked his way around the room helping each student individually, offering guidance, advice, and encouragement…and sometimes putting a brushstroke or two on their painting to support his explanations. Some people might not care for that, but I find it helpful in moderation. For example, I was shocked at how much more pigment I needed to use in one case to get to the necessary dark value. When Iain mixed up some color and showed me in a few deft strokes on my painting, it really made the point.
The first day we painted a fairly simple scene of a boat on the water with other boats and buildings on the distant shore. I was pretty happy with my work but getting used to working so wet takes some doing!
The second day, the reference photo was of a few sheep in the rolling hills of Scotland under a blah sky. We changed that up with a plowed field and sunlight that reflected strongly off the sheeps’ backs. What a difference–it was a great lesson in how to go boldly into a creative departure from a rather uninspiring reference photo. My work on this day was my best, I feel.
The third day our reference photo was of a dock in the harbor of a Scottish village. It was an ambitious composition for us, including a winding stone wall, several levels of elevation, buildings, boats, people, and water. Again, Iain demonstrated with his sketch of the scene how to add interesting details that aren’t present in the reference photo. Iain made painting his demo look effortless, but I got a less than stellar start on this so it was my least favorite for the workshop. Even so, I got a good lesson about proper paint consistency and keeping a large area wet and alive.
Kudos to Iain for a well-structured and professionally presented workshop. The pace felt relaxed but we did a lot of thinking, observing, and painting every day. Each day’s subject presented specific challenges which built on what was covered the previous day. We got to observe Iain doing a lot of painting and sketching and got plenty of one-on-one guidance geared to our skill level (which varied widely within the group). Everyone agreed that Iain challenged them to grow as artists.
Iain is a fantastic instructor: friendly, funny, straightforward, and personable. His love of watercolor is so evident. He paints effortlessly, with confidence and good humor. Even when unexpectedly challenged by one participant to show us how he’d paint the mountain mist in a photo she supplied, he rose to the occasion and made it a great teaching opportunity. Watching him tackle that challenge and the other demos, I was continuously amazed at how deftly he handles a brush, how wet he works, how skillfully he manages the bead as he pulls a wash down the page and around saved whites, how he achieves fantastic value range in 3-5 layers, and how he is able to suggest a crazy amount of detail with just a few carefully placed marks. More remarkably, while doing all of that he is still able to talk in depth about his process and offer how-to’s for the techniques he uses. As a bonus, we got to look through a few of his sketchbooks…studying his pencil sketches and quick little paintings is plenty instructive just by itself.
By the end of the third day, we were all mentally tired but very jazzed up by how much we’d learned. Many participants expressed to me that it was one of the best–if not THE best–workshops they’d ever taken. Without reservation, I can say that this was one of the most helpful workshops I’ve taken. It allowed me to experience a couple of important breakthroughs in understanding the process for achieving a more painterly style and preserving freshness and light (which will hopefully be more present in my work going forward). After the workshop, Iain sent a lengthy email of excellent suggestions and tips for advancing our work based on what we learned in his workshop. That was really unexpected and truly appreciated!
So, all in all, a great workshop: much was learned and many new art friends were made! My heartfelt thanks to Iain for agreeing to come to Virginia. Luckily, the natural beauty of this area caught his eye so we are already plotting his return next year for a “Plein Air to Studio” watercolor workshop, probably in the May/June timeframe. If you’d like to get email updates about that workshop or others I am organizing (including the one with Paul Jackson in May, 2014), you can subscribe to my Virginia Art Workshops mailing list here.