Classes and Workshops – Who ‘Should’ Take Them?

I’ve been taking miniature painting classes for more than 15 years, and teaching them for more than 10. I’ve also had the opportunity to attend several weekend workshops taught by talented painters in the past few years. I’ve heard some common and diametrically opposed reactions to who should or shouldn’t be taking classes and workshops, and I wanted to write a post to share my general experiences and recommendations.

The reactions I hear tend to break down into these types of comments –

I’d love to go to a weekend workshop, but those are only for advanced level painters and I’m not a good enough yet.

But you’re a pro/advanced painter, why are you even in this class/workshop? (I sometimes get this from the instructor!)

How do I know if I’m the right level for this class/workshop?

The answer to the question of why would I attend a class or workshop if I’m already an advanced level painter is easy. At least it’s easy for me. Because there’s always something to learn! Maybe there’s a more efficient or quicker way to do something than the way I usually do. (There’s bound to be, I’m a pretty slow painter, and have a tendency to do things the hardest way possible.) Maybe it’s a different approach to lighting, or colour, or some other philosophy behind how we choose to put paint on miniatures.

Random Encounter bustThe bust I painted in the Fernando Ruiz workshop. This featured several techniques used in different ways than I usually use them. That included lots of washes on the skin to bring out the textures and add different colours, and a kind of ‘cheat blending’ on the cloth.

So now let’s look at the question of whether weekend workshops are appropriate for beginners, and whether they offer enough material for quite advanced students.

I’ve now attended four weekend workshops. They were with the painters Kirill Kanaev (aka Yellow One), Alphonso Giraldes (aka Banshee), Fernando Ruiz (aka FeR), and Sergio Calvo Rubio. Alphonso’s workshop was a little bit different as the focus was use of colour theory rather than specific painting techniques. In the others, the students all worked on the same figure(s). The instructor would explain an element of theory and/or technique, often with diagrams and/or photos for examples, and demonstrate his painting of it. Then the students would have a period of time to practice that same element, which was followed by some critique of their execution. Then the instructor would explain and demonstrate a new element, and so on. 

Two days of learning a lot of information like this can be pretty intense. You might have moments where you get a bit of a headache, or feel quite tired. But I also think that it’s very accessible to a wide range of experience levels. There is a lot more time to digest information than there is in a short class. The instructor can spend a bit of extra time with someone who is having trouble while the other students practice, without that extra attention to one person sacrificing learning opportunities for everyone else. A beginner may find that one or two elements that are demonstrated are beyond their current skills/comprehension (Kirill’s texture painting method demands a high level of brush control, for example), but beginners should still get plenty of useful information out of other elements. Likewise an experienced painter may find some of the segments of the instruction kind of basic, but is going to profit from others, as well as from the opportunity to see another painter’s process, philosophy, and overall approach to painting a figure.

Each of the figure painting tutorial workshops that I’ve attended has included a mix of student levels. All of them were attended by at least one person who felt that their skills were more on the basic side, or and/or who lacked confidence in their painting ability, and those people felt like they got a lot out of the workshops. To my knowledge, so did the experienced painters who attended. In some ways being newer to miniature painting can be an advantage! Sometimes an experienced painter can get frustrated with the effort it takes to put aside the way they usually do things to follow someone else’s approach.

Tsukigoro front viewWe painted this larger scale formidable orc warrior in the Sergio Calvo Rubio workshop. Lots of emphasis on texture and making highlights really pop in key areas.

So my advice is to do what you can to attend a weekend workshop! It is an unparalleled opportunity to learn not just one specific technique or effect, but to get a real insight into how a skilled painter approaches the overall painting of a figure. If you are in doubt from the description of the workshop as to whether it is too basic or advanced for you, contact the painter or organizer of the workshop to request more information. Ask if there are specific techniques or skills you need to already know to get full value out of the class. Check whether the teacher feels there is enough material to interest a painter of your level. Most instructors teach workshops on a regular basis. They prefer that the people who attend feel like they got a lot out of the experience, so they’ll recommend it and create more interest in future workshops by word of mouth recommendation. 

Miniature painting classes are also very valuable learning experiences, but are are a bit of a different thing. They most often occur at conventions. The two conventions that I particularly recommend for painting classes in the United States are AdeptiCon and ReaperCon. Both have literally dozens of instructors and topics to choose from. There are several other conventions with great painting classes. I’ll add links to the ones I know of at the bottom of this post. If you know of additional conventions with miniature painting classes to recommend, please let me know so I can add those as well! (Worldwide or US based.)

Classes are often categorized as being geared towards or appropriate for levels of beginner, intermediate, and advanced, but everyone seems to have a slightly different definition of those terms. So it occasionally happens that someone ends up in a class that is too advanced for them and they feel overwhelmed, or which has little new information to offer them.

The typical convention class is an hour and a half to two hours long. Occasionally a convention will offer longer format classes. Because of the short time frame, classes tend to focus on a very specific topic – painting faces, using the metallic or non-metallic technique for arms and armour, or two brush blending are all examples. Hands-on classes, which are overwhelmingly preferred by attendees, need to be particularly focused in scope, in order to provide enough time for attendees to practice, and for the instructor to give everyone feedback on their attempts.

Depending on the topic, the short time frame and tight focus of a convention class can mean that an instructor has to teach the class assuming that the students have certain prerequisite skills and knowledge. As an example, there are a lot of effects that feature smooth transitions from light to dark or from one colour to another. In a class on one of those effects, the teacher needs to concentrate class discussion, demonstration, and feedback on the specific theory and approach related to creating that effect. To try to teach blending on top of that is essentially trying to teach a class within a class. Or a class may reference a concept like colour theory or the rule of thirds in composition, but there may not be time to give a comprehensive explanation of the concepts. (Happily that kind of knowledge can generally be researched after a class if it is not well known before.)

Angel Face bust front viewThe bust I worked on in the workshop with Kirill Kanaev. The practice with textured cloth is on the back, shown in the title image of this post.

Here’s where there can be a disconnect between people using terms like beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I tend to think of knowing how to use a blending technique to create smooth transitions as intermediate level. You start with drybrushing and washing as a beginner, and then learn blending and start to transfer to intermediate level. So I designate my classes that assume knowledge of blending as intermediate. A student attending their first convention decides to sign up for my class. They’ve been painting for years using drybrushing and washing. They’re the best painter in their circle and at their local store. So it’s natural to for them to assume they must be at least intermediate in level. We’ve each made a logical but incompatible assumption about what the term intermediate means.

This disconnect can occasionally occur in the other direction, too. People tend to assume that OSL (object source lighting) is an advanced level technique, and they need to be able to paint to a certain level to attend. Maybe that is true for some instructors’ classes. In my mind, OSL is primarily about understanding where to place areas of light and dark, and which kinds of colours to use for each. Although the most refined versions may require blending, the basic ideas I teach can be executed successfully with drybrushing and careful washing. 

I don’t think there’s a perfect solution to these misunderstandings of terminology. I think it helps a lot if instructors include any necessary prerequisite skills (and materials/tools, like certain kinds of brushes) in the descriptions for their classes. Give people as much information as possible to determine whether the class is appropriate to their skill level. It is also incumbent upon students to take the time to carefully read the descriptions for classes to determine whether they have the necessary skills and knowledge. (And to try to remember to acquire and bring along any necessary tools and materials.) 

If a class description does not provide enough information for you to determine the appropriate skill level, I encourage you to contact the instructor directly. Even if the convention events system does not offer a way to do that, you will likely be able to find the instructor on social media or one or another miniature enthusiast site. Take the effort to reach out to get the information you need. This is something you will be paying to do, after all!

Rurik front 400This is the second figure we worked on in the Fernando Ruiz workshop. The buckskin leather cape featured more of Fernando’s magic with washes. I did already know the trick to highlighting red that he showed us, but I still got a lot out of the workshop overall.

An additional note on tools. Convention room lighting is not the best. Rooms are often unevenly lit, with what lights there are way up on a tall ceiling. If you typically paint with magnification (reading glasses or a magnifying visor) and strong lighting, I highly recommend you bring a light and magnifier along to improve your class experience. LED battery lamps are fairly compact, lightweight, and inexpensive. Even if you don’t normally paint with magnification, you might consider it for a miniature painting class to help counteract the poor lighting. Almost every class I teach there is at least one person who ends up struggling due to feeling like they can’t see as well as they need to, and that’s not really something I can help with. :-< (I do loan out my lamp and magnifier if I can without compromising what I need to do to teach the class, but it is not always possible for me to do that, and sometimes more than one student is struggling.)

When you’re teaching a class and discover one of the students does not have the prerequisite knowledge you assumed, you have a few ways to handle the situation. Unfortunately none are optimal. One is to stop the class and try to teach the missing skill(s). This can consume a lot of class time, and leaves the student in the position of trying to learn a lot of new material at once. I also think this option is irresponsible to the rest of the people in the class, as it deprives them of everything you would otherwise have been teaching them in that time span, and they will be getting a smaller share of your feedback time. (This is particularly unfair to the other students if the class description was clear about prerequisite skills.) Another option is to teach for the majority of the students, running the class as you originally designed, and then trying to spend extra time with the student(s) who needs extra help while other students are practicing painting. This is a workable solution if someone is only a little bit lost, and particularly if they’re seated near others who are also willing to give them a little extra help. The last approach I’m aware of is to refund their ticket price. Depending on how the convention is run, this may be direct from my pocket, or with a note/accompaniment to a registration area. 

Figures Featured in this Post

The Random Encounter bust and Rurik, Prince of Holmgard are available as gifts with purchase from FeR Miniatures, or through some workshops taught by Fernando Ruiz.

Tsukigoro, Orc Warrior was part of Sergio Calvo’s Kickstarter for Hirelings of Asura. Late pledges are available. He will eventually sell the figures online, but the webpage is not yet up.

The Angel Face bust was sculpted by Kirill Kanaev. I’m not aware of his having a web store. You may be able to contact him online to see if he has any available for purchase.

Upcoming Workshops

San Diego CA, May 25-26 2019: Army Painting 101 with Aaron Lovejoy and Allan Pyle
Osseo MN, June 29-30 2019: Army Painting 101 with Aaron Lovejoy
Mountain View CA, August 17-18: Skin Tones Masterclass with Anthony Rodriguez
Various US and a few UK locations, various dates: Airbrushing, Large Figure, and Heavy Metal workshops taught by members of CK Studios (Caleb Wissenback, Vince Venturella, Sam Lenz, Justin Keefer)

If you know of any others, please let me know!

Conventions that Offer Painting Classes

KublaCon, San Francisco CA: May 23 – 27, 2019 – register for classes now!
Historicon, Lancaster PA: July 10 – 14, 2019
Gen Con, Indianapolis IN: August 1 – 4, 2019 – event registration opens soon!
ReaperCon, Dallas TX: August 29 – September 1, 2019 – event registration opens soon!
Nova Open, Arlington VA: August 29 – September 1, 2019
Sword and Brush, Toronto, Ontario, Canada: September 7 – 8, 2019 (And their Facebook group)
Las Vegas Open, Las Vegas NV: January 24 – 26, 2020
CanCon, Canberra Australia: January 24 – 26, 2020
Cold Wars, Lancaster PA: March 12 – 15, 2020
AdeptiCon, Chicago IL: March 22 – 29, 2020

If you know of any others, please let me know!

8 thoughts on “Classes and Workshops – Who ‘Should’ Take Them?”

  1. I went to my first seminar with Fernando Ruiz in 2011. I was the worst one in the class, I painted with oils and acrylics were a mystery to me. There have been many more, some associated with Reapercon. From each one, I get ideas and then I try them. In Sergio’s class (the blue orc), I got several – painting volumes and bringing the light to the center of the figure, painting leather with extra highlights, using stipples for texture (lots of colors of stipples). I didn’t get the NMM or using an airbrush for a final blending glaze (I’ll use oils, thank you). But most important is meeting people like you, Michael, Ann, Erin, the other Michael, and the others.
    Still the worst one in the class but it is a higher level class.

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    1. I’m not sure that I got the NMM or use of airbrush for final blending, either! I definitely enjoyed the same benefit that you did of meeting great people! I’ve used oils on canvas just a little, but their use on miniature figures is as yet a mystery to me. Perhaps I’ll learn more about them in a future workshop!

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      1. If you are intrested in miniatures painted with oils you should check out Dimitry Fesechko that do fantastic pieces mostly done with oilpaints. I did a 3 day painting course with him as a teacher it was great.

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  2. I’ve added a link to a painting convention in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to the conventions offering classes section.

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