In the watercolor workshops I have been involved with, the participants seem to vacillate between moments of intense focus on the instruction, round-robin vocalizations regarding their struggles with the medium, and fortunately, numerous episodes of humorous asides. Of course, there have been exceptions, but over the years, the majority of my experiences have been fun and fulfilling.
Ed Whitney never discounted the social aspect of what he did. He was admittedly an entertainer in addition to doling out solid information and challenging his students, often in a dramatic manner. Personally, I feel that instructors who do offer a bit of the entertainer flair and are also willing to support the growth of a light-hearted group dynamic, often succeed in reducing many of the tensions and inhibitions that impede the creative process. Anyone who has taught a week-long workshop understands the challenges present amidst the fun.
In a class of twenty participants, there are twenty individual agendas and accompanying levels of anxiety. At one end we have the very serious student who expects to make every minute count, up to the point of their final critique. At the other, we have the socialite who attends primarily to have fun, and if a painting results, so be it. I find it interesting that our modern watercolor workshops accommodate both extremes with relative success most of the time (just ensure that their work stations are as far apart as possible). Advertising preferred skill levels can certainly help, but rarely have I had a homogenous group with regards to experience. I have noticed that my teacher and friend, Cheng Khee Chee, apologizes in advance to participants during the opening session should they feel short-changed from receiving the expected amount of individualized attention they hope for. Something tells me he knows that is bound to occur with at least a few persons.
While I have done my share of instruction over the years, I consider myself unqualified as a road warrior. Being an academic and somewhat of a homebody, the majority of my experiences have taken place within the luxurious confines of the Cheap Joe's teaching facility, with every painting supply imaginable ten feet away in the adjoining retail space. Most of us are very familiar with the first generation of Whitney followers and the instructors that followed in his footsteps: Webb, Nechis, Rudman, Lawrence, Van Hasselt, and many others, all paving further pathways for us to travel down with their workshops, books, and demos. I do vicariously enjoy the stories of travel via friends like Sterling Edwards, whose continental drifts into Canada and workshopping schedule has at times made my head spin. No one has more successfully chronicled the life of the traveling instructor like Don Andrews, in his enjoyable and humorous book, Rough Sketches. I also enjoy following the travels of Facebook friends like Nicholas Simmons and Mark Mehaffy as they gain recognition globally, push the boundaries of watercolor, and build relationships and followings in places like Nanjing, China, and beyond.
I also imagine the intensity with which Ed Whitney studied the work of O'Hara and countless others during his own artistic development. A few years back, Whitney's personal O'Hara book was on the rare book market, complete with scribbled side-notes on almost all of the pages. I am interested but clueless as to where it may have ended up. Then, there proceeded the long string of years where Ed Whitney taught at Pratt, followed by hundreds of workshops and thousands of miles all over the country. He traveled and taught through declining health well into his eighties. In Ron Ranson's book Watercolor the Ed Whitney Way, we clearly see the impact he had upon the great watercolorists and instructors of the following era. But, think also of the countless others over a fifty-year career that participated in some form of the Ed Whitney watercolor energy, focusing on "the most beautiful thing that exists, light."
(1966 Whitney Station-wagon photo and 1969 Newspaper Ad courtesy of Naomi Brotherton)