May 06, 2015

Jeffrey Watts Workshop

Well, here it is. My review of my workshop experience with Jeffrey Watts at the Scottsdale Artists School. I originally wanted to do a nightly re-cap in separate posts but I was experiencing serious wi-fi issues in my hotel so I decided to just do my write-ups all together and submit them as a single post. 

This first part is basically a blow-by-blow of the itinerary for the 5 days. After that I will give my overall impressions and summation of the experience. I hope you enjoy.

Day One

The first day of my workshop at the Scottsdale Artists School with Jeffrey Watts as instructor was a good one. I had a lot of anticipation going in but also a bit of apprehension. I'll go more into that later. 

Day one consisted of Jeff telling us all about his method of teaching, his school, and his basic life philosophy and outlook on art, after which the group sat down to draw and paint. The class was intended to be one half day of drawing and a half day of painting. Jeff had us draw and paint from some busts that he had brought, essentially so he could assess where we stood, experience and talent-wise. He came around to each person asking to know a bit about their background and their expectations for the workshop and then offered some positive suggestions and observations on what they had painted or drawn. Even though it was clear that people were not all at the same level, he treated everyone equally, time and attention-wise. 

The bust you see on the left is the Asaro Head, created by John Asaro. As Jeff tells it, John Asaro designed this head based on the Riley method of abstraction in order to assist people in gauging and navigating the features of the head. I found this exercise to be helpful and I think I'll be investing in getting one for my own benefit from which to practice. 

Day Two

The second day Jeff had us split our time with half the group doing warmup gestures of 5 minutes each pose, and the other group painting from photos that he provided. It must be noted that Jeff places great emphasis on strong drawing skills as the foundation for everything else. He's a workhorse when it comes to tackling the skill of drawing in all it's many facets and he stresses that it is a skill that must be continually practiced throughout ones lifetime. I tend to agree. 
In his drawing he uses a relatively un-taught and unpracticed method called the Riley method of abstraction, after an artist Frank Riley who was a student of George Bridgman's.  The method consists of a series of rhythmic lines based on muscles and bone protrusions and landmarks on the human form. Once practiced, learned and absorbed, Jeff suggests, it makes accurate navigation and placement of the features much more efficient. This is probably the thing I was hoping to take away from the workshop as much as anything else.
After the workshop and later in the evening, Jeff gave a 2-1/2 hr portrait demo that was open to the public. The school charged 20 bucks to watch the demo but it did include adult beverages and snacks. Even though I was taking the workshop I decided to pony up the twenty and watch the demo. Watching Jeff do his magic is pretty wild. He works so fast it doesn't seem possible. Even though he maintains a strong drawing throughout the process, there are times that it looks like he's just making a mess, but then before you know it he pulls it together beautifully. I don't know if he does this for his own paintings but he doesn't mix his basic flesh tone. He just uses a pre-mixed convenience flesh straight out of the tube. Watching the demo was for me, money definitely well spent. 

Day Three

On day three we spent half the day doing 20 minute head lay-ins and the other half doing 40 minute painted gesture portraits in oil. Jeff demoed both of these for us. What Jeff could accomplish in 20 minutes with a charcoal pencil is truly astounding. Almost depressing. But as I see it, it's really based on two things. 1- Thousands of hours of practice, and 2- How he's individually hard-wired. More on this later. 

Jeff's Study - 20 minutes - Sheeesh!

This was also an especially meaningful day for me, because I got to spend some one-on-one time with Jeff. I had asked him if he would mind taking a look at some of my paintings from this blog and give me some feedback and critique. He was more than willing and so we sat down at lunch together and got to know one another on a more personal level. We didn't talk all art every minute, but also about life, and mundane stuff in general as well. He comes across to me as a very genuine guy and we got along well. He had some very nice things to say about my artwork and offered what I felt were very valid suggestions and things to watch. This was big for me as honest and knowledgeable critique is hard to come by and it's something I feel is necessary in order to make positive strides towards improving. 

Day Four

On Thursday we spent half the day, around 2-1/2 hours, drawing from a single pose, and in the afternoon we spent the same amount of time painting, also from a single pose. In every case on each day we had outstanding models. When we had nudes the poses were always good and dynamic, and when they were clothed they typically wore something really interesting. For example on this day we had a gentleman who was native American and who dressed in some period clothing which made painting all the more pleasurable. This is my second time around at SAS and I must say, both times they always delivered with the best models.

Day Five

On Friday our final day, Jeff demoed for us in the morning. He did what he calls a Master Copy, which is essentially choosing a past master painter and learning through copying one of their paintings. This gets you thinking about their process and gives some insights into how a master problem-solves and how they work their way through a painting. Doing this gives you options as to aspects of their painting methods and techniques that you might want to adopt for yourself. It's not really about copying for the sake of copying or becoming someone else. Really it's about learning, growing, absorbing what is useful and discarding what isn't useful for you.

Jeff did a great copy of a painting by Nicolai Fechin, to whom he is often compared. Since he finished it rather quickly he took up the rest of the morning by showing us how he draws the figure simply from memory. This being the result of many thousands of hours drawing and studying anatomy and the human form. Here is a progression of images of Jeff's demo.

Overall Impressions

Okay, so here's the part I think maybe more people might be interested in. 

Remember what you read here is just one person's opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you'd asked another person from the workshop, their impressions may have been completely different, so for what it's worth...

I'd mentioned in the beginning that I was both excited and apprehensive to do this workshop. The reason for my excitement should be obvious. Mainly the opportunity to train with someone that some consider a living master. Is that an accurate moniker for Jeff Watts? I personally think, if anyone is deserving of such a title, Jeff would have to be included in that category. He has dedicated many hundreds if not thousands of hours to become as good as he can possibly be through repeated practice and study. Being "good" in art, it often seems, is not something that people aspire to. In a period in time that seems that artists are mainly concerned with self-expression, "good" is a term that implies something measurable, and if some are good or if some art is good, then that might mean that some others are maybe not so good. People don't seem to want to hear that nowadays. But Jeff doesn't shy away from the idea of "getting good" at drawing and painting. Herein come my reasons for apprehension in attending this particular workshop.

In choosing Jeff for a workshop instructor, or anyone for that matter, I think it's common sense that one would try to do some up-front research on the potential instructor. I found it almost astonishing that some people at the workshop clearly did not do their homework when it came to Jeff, his particular teaching style, and his basic personality. As a result they would often make negative comments expressing their disappointment and generally wound up doing their best to bring down the atmosphere of the workshop. Very foolish.
In my case, in trying to do my homework, I got to know Jeff, basically through some teaching videos that I had either purchased or seen on Youtube. I also did something that I hope will serve others in this blog. I sought out reviews of other workshops that people had taken with Jeff and what they had to say about their experiences. Taking in this information left me with a couple of basic impressions. One, that Jeff was extremely talented, and Two, that Jeff talked a lot. Nay, that Jeff talked nearly incessantly. It wasn't just that Jeff talked a lot, but that he talked a lot about himself and he talked a lot about his school and his teaching methods. It almost seemed like he really wanted you to know just how much he knows. I honestly was concerned that I might be walking into an infomercial for Jeff's atelier, where we would get some truncated version of what he was about, but that if you wanted the "good stuff" you could pony up for a monthly fee to make use of his on-line atelier. 

Was my apprehension justified? That would be a qualified, no! 

I think if you are considering taking a workshop with Jeff, one question you have to ask yourself is: "What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I respond to?" (Okay that's two questions). In offering evaluations and suggestions for people's work, Jeff is kind and encouraging no matter what level you are at, but he is also straightforward. Jeff doesn't seem to like excuses. He is a hard worker and practices the way a high-level athlete trains. He's disciplined and likes to see that quality in others. In fact Jeff told us how he was at a very high level in competitive cycling when he was younger. He trained obsessively until injury sidelined his athletic career. So Jeff views art as something you practice, practice, practice in order to attain your goals and get better. Now to some all this self-talk might seem like bragging, which can be off-putting, and as I said I was a little worried about this. But I figured going in that I was aware that this could be a possibility, but that I could take it in stride and just filter out the noise and take from it what I wanted. Now having actually experienced Jeff for myself I realize that I had really mis-judged him prematurely.

Does Jeff talk a lot? Yes, but it's not bragging. It's passion! Pure and simple. Jeff has a great amount of passion and enthusiasm that can be confused as boasting if one is not given to a generous spirit. In his effort to impart as much useful information as he can he will tell you a lot of what he knows, which is considerable. He name-drops a lot, but it seems like it's because he loves the art world and it's various participants so much that his enthusiasm is hard to contain. Honestly, what I originally thought I would find annoying, I found to be totally refreshing. The fault was not with Jeff, the fault was with me, in terms of what seemed like potential negatives. That's why I say that one needs to be honest in their self-evaluation of what kind of person they are and what kind of person they best respond to. 

Did Jeff talk a lot about his school. Yes, partially because I had asked about it because I was curious, but also because you can only impart so much information in five days. It seemed natural that if people were really serious about improving in certain areas that he would point them to where they could get the kind of instruction that they were seeking at his school. Nothing wrong with that as far as I'm concerned.

The bottom line for me was this. I had good take-aways from this workshop. I enjoyed it very much and I liked being pushed and stretched in my thinking and approach. I respond to the athletics analogy. I appreciated Jeff's comments towards my own work. I found Jeff to be encouraging, but real. To me this is the best kind of instruction I can hope for.

Jeff Watts and his lovely wife Krista
(Sorry if that's not the correct spelling)

Me photo-bombing Jeff and Krista.

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