Save for later & Share!

Art Workshops and Comparing Your Work to Others

A few weeks ago, I worked as crew with, during a fantastic Carol Marine workshop at a chateau in Provence, France.

I used ink and watercolor on the cypress trees and hedges sketchbook study above. There was a lot of appreciation and breathing in the French air on the lawn where we stayed.  The workshop had all the magical scenery (queue the location shots from A Good Year), food and wine, and culture you might imagine from that region of the world.

*And* there was ART, everyday, all day long. One of my favorite things about art workshops is days-upon-days of discussing art making, art supplies, art marketing, and artist experiences with fellow artists. And No One Changes the Subject.

Stretching Your Art Making Skills

Along with that dreamy deep dive into all things art, there are challenges related to following instruction from someone who paints different (better) than you.  

Every date with your workshop muse tows your art-making towards the unfamiliar; plein air, group painting, loose brushwork, critiques, a different palette/color selection, foreign tools and rapid-fire assembly of art-making via someone else’s approach.

If you’re accustomed to getting your art right at least some of the time at home, painting at a workshop can be a lesson in humility.

Julie Snyder (from WorkshopsinFrance) painting at St Remy

The Conundrum of Artist Comparisons

My friend Sharon Williams left this comment:

Here is my conundrum and I am wondering if this is something you struggle with as well. Do you deal with comparison with other artists? I love my work, but then I see someone else’s style that I love and immediately feel that I am no longer ‘enough’. This particularly happens just after I take a workshop by a wonderful artist. I am in one right now where we are doing loose painterly portraits. My problem is that I am not a loose painter when it comes to portraits. Try as I might, I find it almost impossible to make a face with chunky brushstrokes. It try it, but hate it. Skin is just too soft for that IMHO. So, the question is, is it OK to be who you are, to paint with your own voice while continually stretching yourself to grow to get better, and NOT be able to be a loose painter, or is that a cop-out? My work is definitely not photorealistic and colour is my strength, but I just can’t seem to do it like some of the artists I love. ~Sharon

I remember – several years ago – wrestling with two months of no painting after a workshop with an incredible painter whose methods contradicted every one of my art-making habits.

I had plowed a comfortable groove of regularity in my studio, focused on output and frequency. Everything I painted during the workshop was dryer-lint. When I came home, I couldn’t paint anything even a gum-wrapper above awful.

Workshop attendees gathered ’round Carol as she demonstrated painting a bright walkway

Learning New Things Has Always Taken Time and Practice

Fast forward to a decade later, and I still use lessons from that workshop. The source of my frustration at the time was the gap between my comprehension and my skills.

I knew what the instructor was describing, and I loved the demonstrated results, but I couldn’t accelerate – in just one weekend – my abilities (color mixing, drawing, values, layering) to match my understanding.

I also realized that I could find collectors, fans, and compliments for my work, and marinate comfortably in those affirmations. But that praise would not appease the little voice in my head that wanted to paint more like the artists I considered uber-talented. So, I had a lot of work to do.

Tiny flower next to me where I sat to paint the cypress trees

Art-Making Shortcomings, or Learning Process?

Does that frustration from bumping into art-making shortcomings mean we should stop taking workshops, and retreat to comfortable, routine studio habits?

That’s up to each artist to decide. Next to the awe from watching a great painter demonstrate their skills, I get a magnifying mirror look at myself.  

With a long list of artist skills that need work. A challenging workshop is a reality check that contradicts the seduction of existing compliments and collectors.

Every artist has to set their own bar, right?  I’ll take the discomfort and feelings of inadequacy at a rockin’ workshop if it inspires accelerated conviction to grow as an artist.

How do you approach a challenging art workshop?

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

~ Confucius

Drawn in a Moleskine watercolor book, with Sakura micron pen and painted with watercolor

Get These Posts via Email

I send these blog posts to subscribers (you can sign up here) a few times a month with links to art-related articles, other artists’ sites, and my own studio happenings. Content usually covers both painting and printmaking, with a hefty dose of the emotional wrestling I find inherent in most creative endeavors.

I use this blog space to unfold and examine my own procrastination, stuckness and struggles to make time for and get better at my art.

My hope is that despite the solo nature of studio and art-making time, we each find more solid ground, and a prioritized conviction to get better at this when we discuss it together.

The lawn with cypress trees and hedges at L’Arcade in France

I’m really glad you stopped by, and I’ll see you in the next post!


Cypress at L’Arcade 16×5 pen and watercolor sketch

Art Quote

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

John Steinbeck
A little red tabby cat asking if you’d like to make art more often
Six Tips to Paint More Often

Save for later & Share!

17 thoughts on “Art Workshops and Comparing Your Work to Others”

  1. Post scriptum to my comment: I also want to mention that what I love about your artwork is a sense of story. Your paintings are not just a depiction of “things”, but rather a slice of life, a hint of a narrative that causes me to linger beyond techniques and conjure up a “once upon a time”. I feel that’s your unique voice and something that can’t be taught or learned in workshops! So, in turn, you go girl!

  2. I have accepted that I will not produce masterpieces (or even good pieces) at workshops. My ego finds this very uncomfortable, but I have learned to approach workshops with a sponge mindset: my job is not to make perfect art during a workshop, but to absorb everything I can. Usually the masterpiece happens about 6 months later, when all of that information has percolated and stewed in my brain for a good amount of time and suddenly I paint a pivotal piece.

    However, I have noticed more difficulty when I take workshops in beautiful places, where the workshop is half learning and half vacation. I’m torn between wanting to focus on learning and wanting to have a successful (er, okay, PERFECT) visual record of the beautiful locale – like the one in your moleskine!

    1. Gabrielle, I *love* what you’ve said here about the pursuit of the pivotal piece… we don’t get them right away, no matter how hard we wish. Art wants you to Show Up, over and over, before you get the goodies of a successful leg up on skills & process. So true.
      And I agree wholeheartedly on vacation spots for workshops. The split between holding still to paint vs wandering & exploring a beautiful area is exhilarating, stimulating and exhausting. Thank you for the generous compliment on my moleskine studies. Keep in mind there are others in that same sketchpad that I didn’t show, for good reason. 🙂

  3. While you were in France, I was at a workshop with one of my art “heroes”, fiber artist, Dorothy Caldwell. The focus was making marks, and that any mark we make is a gesture of our human existence. Over a week, on paper and fabric both, we made single marks, repetitive marks, combined marks, thoughtful marks, whimsical marks. We built individual work walls where the marks of each member were collected and considered. As the “assignments” progressed, and the content of my wall grew, I realized I was focusing more acutely on the kind of marks possible with each medium and tool; brush and ink, ink on fingers, batik discharge using block prints, micron pens, paint, burning holes, piercing paper, and hand stitching using historic methods. The final output Dorothy envisioned for each participant was a small bound book of individual narrative and flow, based upon how the marked “pages” were added to and edited at the end of the week.

    Viva le workshops!

    1. Hi Anne, I love that we were both getting a little art-brain-expansion at the same time! And I love Dorothy Caldwell’s work! Her reverence for mark-making is inspiring and thought-provoking. I also love the way her work is reminiscent of navigation, charts, mapping and topography. Your workshop sounds like it was on fire with inspiration and discovery! Bravo, and carry on! 🙂

  4. Hi Belinda: Thanks for the great article, and for the bump. I totally agree with your comment: “I’ll take the discomfort and feelings of inadequacy at a rockin’ workshop if it inspires accelerated conviction to grow as an artist.” I have been taking workshops yearly for over 35 years, and I think that is why I have come as far as I have. I love the energy at a workshop! So many people say they don’t do their best work at one, but this is not true for me. Maybe because I paint alone, the energy of a creative space gets in my head and heart and I am on my way! So cool that you can help with travel workshops -lucky girl!
    By the way the page with your survey is not accessible without an account!

    1. Hi Sharon, Thanks for sharing your challenges, as well as your Bravos and Yahoos in workshops. They are an important part of being a growing artist, I think. I hope what you’ve shared inspires other painters to get back in the game if they ever felt discouraged after a workshop. And thanks so much for letting me know the survey link was busted. I fixed it. 🙂

  5. As librarian-cohort from a past life (referring to your great comment back in a recent post!), I too share your comparison frustration. With so much great and diverse artwork on the internet, it’s so easy to fall into that rabbit hole (I swear mine at times gets deep enough to touch the underworld). Years ago, I took a watercolor course (spread over two summers for 3 weeks each) and both times at the 3rd week mark, my discouragement gauge peaked… Soon after, I swore off watercolors for several decades and returned to my comfort zone in acrylics. But not all was lost in the end – I found that some washy and transparent effects started sneaking into my acrylics paintings resulting in a looser approach that sometimes gets loss in later stages unfortunately. Eventually I revisited watercolors for quick outdoor sketches and just lately, restocked my palette with a fuller range of colors, recalled some of the workshop teachings and entertained the thought: “Maybe…I can do this”… as long as I don’t fall into the comparison trap. And, seeing your work was definitely a factor in getting my watercolors out of the closet!

    1. Hi Gayle, I’m so delighted to know I have even a molecule of participation in your return to watercolor. Yes, you can absolutely do this. Paint small, and go slow. You’ve got this. I’m cheerleading (with your favorite color pompoms) from over here… Go, Gayle, Go! 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *