We’ve recently been looking at the many ways coronavirus is affecting artists around the world.
Just one of the challenges is that art teachers have lost their expected income and students have found their learning disrupted. In a recent Artwork Archive survey of artists on how COVID-19 was impacting their art career, over half said they were intending to take their art classes online.
We talked with two nationally and internationally recognized painting instructors who, pre-COVID, made a significant portion of their income from teaching. Brienne Brown and Jane Hunt have been teaching art workshops for a combined 30 years. Jane Hunt is on the faculty of both the Scottsdale Artists’ School, Workshops in France, and the Plein Air Convention, bringing workshops to artists internationally. Brown, an award-winning plein-air painter on the Plein Air Convention faculty, has been teaching art workshops for ten years after a career in toxicology.
They share how they are embracing online teaching, offer advice to other artists just starting out, and discuss the benefits for students looking to continue their art education online.
Tell us a little more about your teaching background.
Brienne: I have always loved to teach, but my academic background is actually in science. During college and graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for many years and I enjoyed coming up with new ways to explain concepts so more of my students could understand. I discovered that I actually loved teaching more than the research.
Because of that, when I finally decided to pursue my passion for art and painting, it seemed natural to start teaching art. I have been teaching art workshops now for almost 10 years and have really enjoyed the workshop setting where I can teach concepts, demonstrate techniques, and provide time for the students to try it on their own. I also started producing instructional and demonstration videos for painting in watercolor over the past four years. Most recently I created an online mentoring program that gave me the ability to guide students on more of a one-on-one basis. I love giving instruction and allowing the students more time to practice a concept or technique and being able to provide feedback for their individual growth.
Jane: I’ve been teaching painting on and off for the last 20 years. Now my kids are a little older, I’ve started teaching internationally which is wonderful. I’ve also been able to tack workshops onto the plein air competitions I attend. Part of the reason I feel so passionate about teaching is that I came out of art school with an incomplete education. After graduating, I spent a couple of decades taking workshops and reading everything I could in order to fill in the blanks. I like the idea of being able to shorten that timetable for people … to provide all the essentials. That’s what I try and give to my students.
What’s the most challenging thing about online teaching?
Brienne: The start-up and set-up for teaching online I found the most challenging. I wanted to make sure I had the right equipment so that the online experience was enjoyable and worthwhile for my students.
I had to learn about cameras, lighting, shot angles, and other filming tips. I also learned about how to edit video, about licensing of music, and possible web platforms. There are so many great resources online, which helped. But, it did take a lot of research and time.
One other challenge was getting comfortable with talking to a camera. That took practice and a bunch of failed footage. I should probably release a blooper reel soon. Sometimes my husband helps me film my videos, but I’ve also learned how to film them myself. It just takes patience and having a plan.
Jane: There is definitely a learning curve and there’s a big initial investment of time that will vary depending on what type of teaching you plan to do. It’s been both challenging and rewarding—as I’m not very techie—I’ve surprised myself by embracing this. Every time I get stuck, I just look up a YouTube video and figure out what to do. As far as the actual teaching, I miss being able to paint on my student's canvases to provide a correction or directly show a technique. However, I’ve discovered I can share the same corrections by digitally manipulating a painting during my group critique sessions.
What are the biggest benefits of teaching online?
Brienne: One of the biggest benefits for me, and the reason I started teaching online lessons, is that I don’t have to travel and be away from my family. I really enjoy teaching and interacting with students, and sometimes traveling to new places is exciting, but I have young kids. Being gone for a week or longer takes a toll on my entire family. By teaching online I can work around my family’s schedule and be at home.
Another surprise benefit has been that I can be a more efficient teacher. I teach concepts and demonstrations through video which the student can watch and review at their own pace and own time. Then my students have the opportunity and time to practice these concepts so when I give feedback it can be much more personal and directed. I feel like I can really guide my students and that’s very rewarding.
Jane: What I've found to be a major benefit is being able to reach students all over the world. Many of these students would never have been able to study with me in person if not for online classes. During this uncertain time, it’s been great to take a deep dive into teaching online and have something positive to put my focus. I went from being depressed that all my teaching and traveling for the year was canceled to being motivated and excited about changing formats.
There are also many benefits to online learning for students. I think the main one is that they can take absorb the information more deeply by watching it over and over again. I give assignments based on a very specific lesson and then do a group critique a month later. Doing it this way really gives students a chance to fully immerse themselves in the material and practice the concepts.
What are some of your tips for artists who are considering teaching online?
Brienne: You need to decide how you want to present content.
Do you want to make a pre-recorded video for streaming or download?
Would you prefer to have live lessons where students can interact directly?
Your answers to these questions might depend on your internet service. You also need to decide how much student interaction you want and what form do you want it to take. You can do it through e-mail, Facebook, live interaction programs (like Zoom), or some combination. All of these options can work—just decide what is best for you.
Decide how much time you want to designate per week to online teaching, this can help you decide how to structure your classes so you are the most efficient. For example, I designated one day a week for answering all questions. Students are free to e-mail me throughout the week, though I let them know that I will only answer questions one day a week. It is good to have a solid plan to start with, but you can adapt and grow over time. You will get better at teaching online with time and practice … just like with learning to paint.
Jane: I don’t think you need a lot of fancy equipment. I film with my iPhone and the only thing I’ve purchased is a $20 lapel mic (available on Amazon). I think you probably have everything you’ll need to get going. Start out small, possibly teaching just a few students. and then once you’re more comfortable, you can expand your class size. For a live workshop, it helps to be very organized with your teaching materials and do multiple run-throughs before you go live.
What would you say to students who are unsure about online learning?
Brienne: If you’ve never taken an online class, it is understandable to not know what to expect. It may seem like learning online is more impersonal and that might be a deterrent. But, there are a lot of great positives to online learning. With online material and videos, you usually have the option to watch on your own time and rewind where needed. If there is an important point you missed, you can always go back to review. This is definitely a benefit over an in-person class.
Also, if there is personal feedback available with the online course, it might cost more, but you will get more personalized feedback because it’s tailored to you and the teacher can have time to think how to respond. Believe me, thinking on the spot can be a challenge.
Another obvious benefit is that with an online course you don’t have the added expense of travel and time away from your own family or job. You can study with an artist you admire without taking time off work. You will, of course, need to take the time to follow the course, but you are in charge of that time. If you’re committed, it is a fabulous way to learn.
Jane: I think it can be intimidating to people—as is anything new we try. I actually got my 80-year-old dad on to Zoom the other day after much resistance and he was really surprised by how easy it was. We’re all learning and navigating this new world together and online learning is one of the really positive things that has come out of all this.
When you’re ready to commit, do your research on the teacher, just like you would with in-person learning. Make sure you’re studying with a teacher whose work you respect and career you want to emulate. Most experienced teachers will have testimonials on their website, so you can get a sense of their teaching style and philosophy.
There are also tons of free and inexpensive options for you to get your feet wet and see how you like online learning. One such opportunity is the free zoom presentations hosted by Oil Painters of America in which I have a free lesson coming up this Friday, June 12.