Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to Get the Most from an Online Art Class

I've been taking free online art classes through for several years. The big artist's community hosts classes in subjects and mediums, monthly challenges and plenty of other structured activities that keep me painting and drawing. My favorite hangouts are the Oil Pastels, Watermedia and Pastels forums.

Last December, world famous painter Johannes Vloothuis got a thirty day free trial of "Go To Meeting" webinar software. He definitely got the most out of his free trial. He started webinar classes the first day he got it. On the second day, I saw posts in the Pastel Forum and joined his classes. I haven't missed one since.

The first thirty days of trial and error classes were intense. Johannes takes enough material for five or six classes and condenses it all into one. During the first 30 day free trial, he stayed online sometimes four or five or six hours going into everything about the day's topic in depth. I couldn't retain half of it if I hadn't developed a good habit in college.

I took notes.

I'm a visual learner, not an audio learner. I don't get much out of lectures unless I write down what the teacher's saying. So that was the beginning of Robert's Notes too. I grabbed a sketchbook and a Pigma Micron pen along with some Pitt Artist pens (small brush tip ones in colors) and filled pages with written notes and tiny color thumbnails illustrating what he was talking about.

When he drew a diagram, I copied it. When he sketched an example online, I copied that too. When he explained something and showed a photo, I sketched it an inch or so tall and interspersed those little sketches with paraphrasing what he said.

I can't write fast enough to keep up with soemone talking. But if I understand it, I can get it down pretty fast by shortening the sentences.

I created those notes for myself because Johannes Vloothuis was Mexico's greatest watercolorist ten years ago, he commands four and five figure prices for his landscape paintings and they're brilliant. He was inspired to do the classes because he studies Clyde Aspevig, who always gets five figure prices for his paintings if they don't go up to six figures.

I'd like to consistently get three figures for my paintings, so I studied hard. I posted my notes online just to share them with friends. I hoped others would post their notes in case I missed something important. I was a bit embarrassed at how many pages I posted and wondered if I was overdoing it.

Instead, dozens of people thanked me for taking notes. So I've been posting my notes ever since. Once he learned the software, Johannes started doing classes for pay. The price is reasonable and the information fantastic, so I continued going and taking notes.

I realized something a few weeks into the course.

My little thumbnails were starting to look better. I looked at my first batch of notes and my current ones. By sketching along with my teacher, I was not just learning principles by rote. I was teaching my eyes and hands along with my mind.

How many times have I read things in books, enjoyed them and skipped doing the exercises? Often, since I like to read. Sometimes I'd try something from a book but usually that was in a real drawing or painting of a subject I liked. I'm not saying my books were worthless. But I've never given a book the kind of sustained practice that taking notes and doing thumbnail sketches to illustrate them gave me with Johannes Vloothuis classes.

Below is a page of my notes from today's class, the first in a six week series: "Essentials of Painting Trees." I love trees. I've covered much of this material before in his previous class on painting landscapes from photos. Yet when I did this batch of thumbnails my little illustrations were a lot cleaner.

My recent paintings show the influence of his design principles even though I wasn't thinking of them in words.

So if you want to get the most out of any online class, take notes. Even if you think you'd remember without them, the act of paraphrasing and writing it down helps to fix it in your memory. With an art class, illustrate your notes. The drawings don't have to be refined, polished or large. It's better if they're not - if they're little one or two minute thumbnails where you focus just on the subject of the lesson and don't care whether it looks good as a drawing.

If you have trouble writing down the words, just sketch the pictures. Get a very small sketchbook, something like a Borden & Riley ATC pad - the recycled sketch pad has fifty sheets. The tiny size will force you to stay small and simple with your sketches. Then draw anything the instructor does and try to sketch whatever he's pointing out in the photos or his paintings.

I got so used to both writing and thumbnailing that now I don't have a problem getting it all down. At first though, I had some trouble writing fast enough and doing the sketching quick enough. It helps to print in block letters, they're usually more readable than cursive handwriting.

So give it a try. I know that taking these notes gave me something none of my friends who rely on them get from them. My hands learn to move the right ways. When I go to using a real brush or pastel stick, my hands still have the body memory of asymmetrical trees, melodic lines and abstract shapes.

If you can't get it all down, write out as much as you can and watch the class more than once. With enough practice, note taking becomes automatic. I hardly look at my hands while thumbnailing or writing, just watch what Johannes is doing. It's done wonders for my painting. I tested it with art videos on and it's the same thing - I get more out of the videos if I've taken notes and sketched along with the teacher.

You can find out more about Johannes Vloothuis classes at I recommend them wholeheartedly. Johannes is a modern master with hundreds of "golden nuggets" each of which can make your landscapes livelier, richer and more beautiful.

See you in class!

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