What Not to Do at an Art Workshop

I recently attended a pastel workshop, and I have to say that I learned a lot from the experience. In many ways, though, what I learned wasn’t so much about how to work with soft pastels as it was about myself.

First, let’s start with this pastel painting, one that I did at the workshop:

Framed Pastel Workshop Painting
The reference photo I chose was very similar to a “dream-like” oil painting I did last winter.

I don’t like the painting, although after I stepped back from it I said to myself, “Well, I guess it’s not all that bad.” On the other hand, it’s not all that good, either, and my experience at the workshop left me discouraged.

As I was leaving, the workshop instructor asked, “Did you have fun?” Of course I replied that I had, but saying those words reminded me a bit of going to the casino, losing money, but then brightly remarking “Well, we had fun, right?”

In some ways, yes, I enjoyed the workshop. In other ways, though, I didn’t. It certainly wasn’t the instructor’s fault. My disappointments can only be blamed on myself. I did a lot of things wrong — from the moment I walked in to the workshop.

First, here are a few of the photographs I took during the event:

So, what happened? What went wrong for me… and, why? I’m sharing my thoughts about the experience here in hopes of helping other artists-in-progress gain from any workshops they attend.

  • I started off at a disadvantage because I hadn’t fully read and followed the workshop instructions.

Oh, this was a big one, and it set the tone for the day. I had brought soft pastels, and I’d brought pastel pencils, too. Why, I’d even packed myself a healthy little lunch for our break. I’d thought I was prepared for the workshop. As others were setting up, though, I realized all the things I hadn’t brought. No paper towels or hand wipes. No art board or easel to work on. No paintbrush. I’d read the workshop flyer weeks before the event, and somehow I simply forgot all of the suggested items. Having worked in soft pastels before, I should have remembered how messy they get! I should have thought about setting up a comfortable workspace for myself.

But, no. I was left to try taping a sheet of paper onto the table, and it didn’t work very well. My lack of forethought made me feel bad, too. What sort of artist comes to a workshop so unprepared? I was embarrassed, to say the least. That’s not a good mindset for any workshop. I spent more time worrying about the mess I was making on the table than I did thinking about colors, values, and composition. It was awful.

  • This probably wasn’t the right workshop for me.

I’ve worked with pastels in the past, but I’ve never really moved beyond the basics. Although I wasn’t the least experienced artist in the room — one mother and daughter were both newbies to pastels — I did feel a little lost at times. I was expecting a more “step-by-step” demonstration, a “do this first, and now, do this” approach to creating a pastel painting. We did start off with the instructor showing us how to create an underpainting for our work, and she next suggested we start blocking in the basic shapes. After that, I sat there waiting for our next instruction, but all that followed was, “Keep working on your painting.”

I had no idea what to do. I had an underpainting and a few blobs of color, but where was I supposed to go from there? And how was I supposed to get there? How should I apply the pastels? When should I blend my colors? At what point should I add highlights?

Now, of course, I had one of the best pastel artists in our area right there to help me, but here’s the rub. At my level of artistic ability in the medium, I don’t even know enough to ask the right questions. I called the instructor over and she made a few suggestions — none of which I really knew how to implement.

  • I let my frustrations get to me.

After getting off to a bad start and then feeling unsure of what to do, of course I became frustrated. I was doing my best, but under the circumstances, that wasn’t saying a lot. I was working from a small reference photo, it was difficult to see all the slight variations in color, and what good did it do, anyway? I didn’t know how to re-create what I was seeing. For me, it was a trial-and-error process. Mostly error.

Of course, as the instructor pointed out to us, pastels can be corrected. “If you don’t like the way it’s looking, you can wipe it away…”  Oh, those are dangerous words for someone like me. I’m always wiping away and trying again when I’m oil painting, so needless to say I was wiping away and trying again at the workshop. And, as always, my attempts to wipe away and try again just resulted in an even bigger mess.

Yes, if you know what you’re doing and how to do it, I’m sure you can wipe away mistakes in pastel and fix things you don’t like. When you’re struggling with the medium, have no idea how to apply it to the paper, and are already feeling upset… well, fixing one disaster only creates another.

  • I made the worst mistake of all by constantly comparing myself to the others in the workshop.

In all honesty, my pastel painting really wasn’t the worst art created at the workshop. Of course, art is subjective, and who has the right to say one piece is good and another not so good? I certainly don’t have that right, so I’m only speaking from my own personal opinion and from my limited understanding of pastel techniques.

But even when I consoled myself by thinking that maybe mine wasn’t the worst painting, I still felt inferior to everyone else in the room. I was the one who had come unprepared, I was the one constantly asking the instructor for suggestions, I was the one making a mess, getting frustrated, and all but giving up.

  • I let my frustrations spoil the day — and more.

Am I the only one who tends to shut down when frustrated? I don’t like to be a whiner or complainer, so when frustrations mount, I withdraw a bit. I retreat within myself which means I don’t really listen to others or pay attention to what’s going on around me. I crawl into this sad little place where no light can reach.

When the instructor spoke, I couldn’t really hear what she was saying — at least, not on a practical level. I’d already put myself into an “I don’t belong here, I can’t do this” state of mind, and all I wanted to do was get through the workshop and get out of there.

Pastel Workshop Painting 2 (3)
The second demonstration was on painting rain and clouds. This reminded me so much of my “award-winning” oil painting!

I finished a second painting — no better than the first — then cleaned up my messy work area, packed up my pastels, and headed home.

“Yes, I had fun,” I remarked in response to the instructor’s query. And, yes, it was fun to be at the workshop, to see friends I’ve made through the art groups I belong to, and to hear others say nice things, like, “Oh, that’s lovely,” when they looked at my pastel paintings.

I didn’t feel lovely. I felt miserable and unhappy. I drove home, still in my blue funk, and I stayed there throughout the day. I stayed there throughout the evening and on into the night. Even the following morning I still felt down-hearted and discouraged.

I did set my pastel paintings out on the counter, stepped back, and took a good, long look at them. They’re not the best pastels ever painted, but then again, maybe they’re not really all that bad.

What was all that bad was, of course, my attitude. I really have to work on that, and in the future, you can be certain that I’ll be better-prepared for any workshops I attend.

For the fun of it, you might want to compare my pastel paintings to the similar ones I’ve done in oil.

The Direction of My Dreams

My First Art Award



  1. I read with interest the description of your experience at the pastel workshop. Such a disappointment, as your expectations were probably high. It seems you started off on the wrong foot with not having all the equipment that you needed and things went downhill for you from there. Your frustration is understandable I think. I am no expert, particularly on pastels but it seems that you have done a good job with both of your efforts. When I feel disappointed at a workshop I always remind myself that I am there to learn, that I am not accomplished at this, otherwise why would I go there in the first place. I have felt the same kind of disappointment that you describe and agree that it tends to stay with you for a while. I just chalk it up to experience and carry on enjoying my art however it turns out. I choose my workshops and classes carefully. As you say you learned a lot about yourself too and that has to be a positive.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. It makes me feel better just knowing that I’m not the only one who’s ever come away from a workshop feeling a little disappointed. Your advice to remember why I’m there is excellent. As you pointed out, if I were already proficient with the medium I wouldn’t need to attend, and I did learn from the experience. My lack of preparation was definitely the main cause of my “downfall” that day. From the start, I felt inadequate and apologetic for even being there. That’s not a good way to begin any art experience. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. You describe a very familiar feeling. Thank you for sharing, makes me feel better. One thought I have used at times is that it is a workshop, I’m there to learn, not to produce a master piece. Sometimes that helps but it doesn’t do anything about the more social discomfort. And yes, I have come away feeling awful, but then again, at other times I have been positively buzzing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Attending workshops is still very new to me, so your thoughts are very helpful. I sometimes feel apprehensive at our art club meetings, too, although I’m getting over that a bit now. Thank you so much for your comments!


  3. I’ve never worked in pastels – too messy for me – and I wouldn’t say that I was the world’s best instructor, either, but one thing I found works when I’m doing paint and wine lessons and helping the participants, when they’re looking at their paintings I’ll ask ‘are you happy with it’ and then ‘what is it about it that you don’t like’. If they don’t know, I’ll make suggestions. I didn’t figure out to do this in the first one, but when I did, I noticed I got happier students at the end because they made better paintings. I’m so sorry that you got an instructor that didn’t seem to know how to guide you at this level. The lack of equipment shouldn’t have been an issue, you seem to have overcome most of that. The instructor’s inability though, (and lack of spare equipment for those things that always get forgotten or run out of) was not your fault.
    Honest helpful critique if you were working on these in my workshop? (Read no further if you wish not to) – first painting, the tree trunks in the middle are too high for the overall height of the tree, plus trees need a bigger range of color in them – add some more darks – second painting – again range of colors, some more brights and darks – interesting clouds have more structure – look at some photos of clouds and think of them as 3d objects, then paint their shape and shadows in more.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much for your suggestions — both for the workshop and for improvement in my paintings. I have a terrible time getting darks into my paintings. That was one thing I did discuss with others in the workshop group. I’ve been working on that “light VS dark” principle in my oil paintings recently, and hopefully will be making a post about it in the near future. I really like the “What don’t you like about it?” method of approaching what we’re working on. That really helps simplify things! If I know what I need to focus on, I can work more specifically on those things. That was actually how I approached art when I was first learning to draw. I would look at my reference, look at my drawing, and then think… “Hmmm, what don’t I like here? What’s different between my sketch and the reference?” That did help me see “trouble spots”, erase them, and correct them. I will take that same principle now in pastels and oil painting, too. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am sorry you felt so frustrated, I’ve felt the same in classes. It is difficult to learn new techniques and to get reacquainted with materials we don’t work with often. It seems that there are two purposes for attending a workshop- learning new techniques, experimenting with materials, taking risks, & making plenty of mistakes and the other purpose is leaving with a completed art piece. The two aren’t always compatible. Your reflection, has made me think about the importance of setting an intention or goal for the time we spend creating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d never really thought about setting specific intentions for an art workshop. Workshops are very new for me, and I like your thoughts about 2 different purposes. In the future, I will definitely think about what I hope to accomplish from any workshops I attend.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When I saw your photos of your paintings, my response, too, was, “Oh, that’s lovely!” Wish for a moment you could see your work through my eyes. You’d be blown away by the grace you capture!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. I can see potential in my work… just haven’t yet figured out exactly what I want in my art. I’m getting closer, though. 🙂


  6. Hi Judith, you voiced your concerns well and took responsibility for several of the short comings and you asked great questions about the next stages you were not sure about. It would have been great to have your article’s mindset durning the workshop. I think your article is a huge takeaway from the workshop.

    I’m teaching a pastel workshop in France in two weeks, and I will keep in mind your concerns when teaching it and hopefully head some problems off at the pass and make the experience better for the students.

    If I may I would like to make a few observations.
    Questions: I know they are scary to ask but chances are a few students are wondering the samething. And they are an awesome tool to help the teacher express more clearly, kind of like the teacher’s assistant! My best classes are always with students asking me how to make something better.
    You are there to learn something new: which includes the materials (as you mentioned). My rule of thumb is that it takes 25 times of repetition to feel confident comfortable with a technique. So try to make 24 mistakes as quickly as possible so you get it right on the 25th. If you succeed after 3 or 4 tries, that is something to celebrate!
    Be kind to yourself: this undoubtedly the hardest lesson for students. In my experience profession artists are very nurturing to themselves, I know I am super kind to myself. There is no beating myself up! Use it as a mantra, it doesn’t matter if feel that way at the moment but use it as a command to not be negative.
    Celebrate making crap: The teacher is trying their best so everyone comes away making something good, but learning something new doesn’t always mean something good. The comeaway is what did you learn? Do it 25 times at home and magic presto you have a stunner.


    1. Thank you so much for your comments. I apologize for not responding sooner, but I’ve been away from visual art in recent months while focusing on musical arts. This little hiatus has helped me re-evaluate what art means to me and what “being an artist” is all about. I love all the suggestions you’ve given in your comment, especially the one about making 24 mistakes! I think I can handle that one. 🙂 And, yes, I’m learning to be kinder to myself where it comes to art, learning to be more appreciative of who I am as an artist. I will be happily making lots of crap now, and enjoying the process more than ever.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I just attended my first art workshop ever this weekend, Drawing with (chalk) Pastels. I really loved it, thanks to the instructor, who was very specific in her guidance and able to help all the students, who ranged in experience. I had not received the supplies list beforehand, so I too came without the proper set-up. But there were easels available, and the instructor shared her large Kraft paper and clips. Otherwise I’d have felt very awkward. I feel for you and I wish you’d been set more at ease. But even though you did not have a “fun” experience, maybe it was useful as self-observation? This entire blog post is all about what you learned about yourself. (I know you were hoping to learn more about painting with pastels, but…) And your painting is lovely. The colours are just gorgeous!


    1. Thanks, Catherine! Sorry to be so late in replying to your comment 🙂 I’ve been away from art for most of the year, and now I’m finding my way back. I have learned a lot about myself and the creative process over the last few months, so I think I’m able to see art from a new perspective now, and to accept myself as who I am when it comes to art. That’s a huge step for me!


  8. > Am I the only one who tends to shut down when frustrated?

    Ooh yeah, that sounds very familiar. I once had to “bail out” of a work’s training course that I was sent on – by the first lunch break on a 5-day course I was clearly out of my depth. The instructor and my boss (who mistakenly booked me on it) encouraged me to stay but it was a horrible week during which I just felt like an idiot.

    I’ve never been to an art class and don’t really feel any desire to do so, ironically for one of the reasons commented… I’d like to be able to produce half-decent results in the medium first and then go along for some “pro” tips later.


    1. I haven’t been back to an art workshop since this experience. It’s taken me a little time to re-adjust my attitude and develop a new approach to creating art. I’m finally starting to see that whoever I am as an artist is who I am as an artist. I can’t be anybody but me. I can continue learning, continue practicing, and hopefully continue making progress, but I can’t give up because I’m not as “talented” as someone else. I’m learning to appreciate my own “style” of art, and that’s an important step for me.


  9. I like the first pastel drawing ( the one with the marvelous blue-violet forest) more than I like the second one ( the clouds…) don’t get me wrong, I adore both drawings. But, the lines and colors in the first pastel drawing are vibrant, free, bold, and daring while the colors and lines in the second pastel drawing are controlled, conventional, and expected. I think the first drawing shows the creative part of you that you are not able to control and that’s why it left you frustrated and took you into drawing the second drawing.
    The first drawing is so beautiful and so so free. Don’t get frustrated by your bold creativity. Let it be!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m truly gaining a lot of “artistic” insights about myself, and it’s a good feeling. Even if I don’t like what I create, I can appreciate it as being something I’ve done. This has been a huge step forward for me. At least, I think it’s a step forward. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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