Why I Workshop

4 Jan 2012

We spent a lot of painting time along the cliffs outside San Juan
We spent a lot of painting time
along the cliffs outside San Juan.
Painting can be a pretty isolating affair, and though I love the alone time spent with my muse, I miss the collective energy that working in a group of like-minded colleagues provides. I also want to get better at painting, and though I'm certainly evolving as an artist, that learning process is a pretty steep climb and going it alone can be murder. Then it dawned on me that going it alone is a choice--and frankly not the best one for me right now.

We learn better with others around us because we feel safe--and if we feel safe we're likely to take risks. True learning requires that we let go of perfection---we must stretch our boundaries, leave our comfort zone, allow ourselves to experiment, and even make mistakes. I don't know about you, but I prefer to have some trusted friends, and a dedicated mentor, nearby once I summon the courage to cross the threshold into the unknown and untried. 

The courtyards of the inn kept us fully immersed in nature.

The courtyards of the inn kept us
fully immersed in nature.

The opportunity to take such a leap presented itself to me a few months ago when I received an invite from Teresa Spinner to attend a plein air painting workshop she was putting together with Judith Carducci. Spinner is a portrait artist and owner of Signilar Art Video, which has been producing high quality instructional videos of today's master artists since 1989. Carducci is likewise a respected portraitist and a seasoned instructor.

The workshop was to be held in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Gallery Inn--which is owned and operated by Jan D'Esopo--Spinner's sister. D'Esopo, an accomplished watercolorist and sculptor, has lived on the property for close to fifty years. Though the house was little more than a royal wreck when she first acquired it, D'Esopo had the vision to transform it, and subsequent adjacent properties, into a magical kingdom replete with planted grottoes, shimmering fountains, and fancy dress dining halls. Now a rustic Spanish castle filled with fine art and period furnishings, it rises majestically atop a high bluff overlooking the fortifications of Old San Juan and the endless sea beyond. Without question the perfect setting for a painting party.

And indeed it was. Spinner and Carducci scouted out landscape sites in advance--though I would have been perfectly content to paint the Inn and its lush courtyards. Old San Juan is a treasure trove of the picturesque--breathtaking natural vistas and compelling architectural forms were to be had at every corner. Our days commenced at dawn as we rushed to the breakers to paint the sun as it crept up over the horizon and bathed the bluffs and forts in a surreal and heavenly light. Group critiques were held over a mid-morning breakfast--freshly prepared omelets and café-con-leche eased the embarrassment of displaying and talking about our still-wet paintings, which never seemed quite up to our hopes and expectations. 

Night painting in and around Old San Juan was an atmospheric, moody, and all around exhilarating experience.
Night painting in and around Old San Juan was an atmospheric, moody, and all around exhilarating experience.
Night painting in and around Old San Juan was an atmospheric,
moody, and all around exhilarating experience.
We set out again in the afternoon to find the perfect spot that begged to be painted. Open air painting in the tropics is a challenge--squalls are a constant--but then again so are the rainbows. Coming back indoors in the late afternoon, we painted each other, the hotel staff, and for that matter anything that stood still. Carducci was an ever-present and energetic cheerleader, making the rounds to the workshop participants and ever ready to share her encyclopedic grasp of picture making. Demoing throughout the five-day workshop, Carducci's light-filled landscape paintings were an inspiration; and her nocturnes magical in their economy of line, compositional force, and striking play of color. 

In three days I became unrecognizable to myself--transformed into something and someone else.  "I" the artist, meaning "I" in the sense of the almighty "I", slipped away and in its stead I became an earnest seeker among fellow earnest seekers striving to channel the sights, sounds and smells of life in Old San Juan into sensitive and spirited works of art. I like to think that we succeeded.

If you'd like to see if you might have the same kind of transformational experience in a workshop, be sure to watch out for the March/April issue of American Artist. It is our 75th anniversary issue and comes with our annual workshop and art school directory.

--Michael

Michael Gormley is the editorial director of American Artist magazine.

 


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