Friday, March 4, 2011

Kim English Workshop: A Review

Mid-February in upstate New York is a good time to leave for a week in Arizona. So I did. Around Valentine's Day my friend Bruce and I flew to Scottsdale for a workshop with nationally known painter Kim English. It was my first workshop ever.

L to R: artist Rose Nadeau, Kim English, artist Karen McLain, artist Rick Graham
How and why this workshop was chosen is a long story I'll condense to a paragraph. Bruce's wife gifted him a workshop anywhere/anytime for his birthday. That was two years ago. He wouldn't (or couldn't choose) so she started working on me, asking me to find one he'd like to attend. The catch was she wanted me to go with him because she thought he'd enjoy it more. This made sense. I was game. After mucho discussion we decided on Kim English in Scottsdale. I had a place for us to stay - so that saved me some money, and English's style of painting appealed to Bruce.

Going in I knew the workshop would play to Bruce's strengths, and my weakness's. Bruce has done a lot of plein-aire, he paints fast, and he favors a looser style. I on the other hand, hate to leave the studio, paint relatively slow, and incline away from the "painterly" styles of oil. But my thoughts were I'd get a lot of brush time and get out of my comfort zone. Besides, the high here was 8 degrees F and 70 degrees in Arizona. No brainer.

First impressions of Scottsdale Artist's School were positive. Nice, light-filled building. Hallways hung with paintings by renowned artists. Friendly, helpful staff. Large, well-equipped studios. We didn't see much of the studio as almost all of our painting was outside, but we met in one every morning. I considered it an auspicious omen that a painting by Tom Buechner was hung just outside ours.

Kim started the first day with his painting box set up. Two models carried on a casual conversation in front of him while he demonstrated some tips for capturing a scene quickly. He pre-mixed piles of color while commenting on his palette choices. He showed how he wanted us to quickly mass in the figures and background, explaining there wasn't time to do a line drawing of the scene or match each and every value. A broad, gestural glance was more what he was looking for. 

Someone said they'd heard a Kim English workshop was like a boot camp for artists. It is, but not in the sense that you have someone standing over you screaming while you attempt to paint. More in the sense he seems to believe in the discipline of painting, and painting a lot, under the self-imposed stress of time. Kim gets down to the basics of capturing a scene quickly while outside in changing conditions. He wants the artists to think on their feet and adapt.

To do this we started the day with five minute poses. That's right - five minutes to get the figures and the background down. Five minutes and the models changed the pose - and the pose wasn't static. The models pretended they were two ordinary people chatting and interacting as we painted. These five minute poses lasted all morning - three hours with very minimal breaks. I sucked at it.

A word here about surfaces. The course calls for 10 - 15 small panels (8x10, 9x12) that will be painted on and wiped off. Thinking to economize Bruce and I bought cheap, and I mean cheap, acrylic primed duck surfaces. This was a mistake. Expensive as it is I'd strongly suggest bringing primed linen panels. Wiping off the cheapos was a chore. The surfaces took paint poorly and when working fast you want the paint to glide smoothly off the brush. I ended up buying some linen panels at the school toward the end of the week. They wiped clean and the paint lay bright and smooth. 

In case you're wondering, yes the five minute poses were gradually stretched to ten, and even twenty minutes, through the week. We never went over twenty though. Kim explained that if you get used to five minutes, then ten seems a luxury and twenty downright hedonist. I guess that makes sense if your ideal is to capture quick plein-aire studies. Useful tip he passed to me when I asked about capturing figures in motion ... He says the human walk is broken down into five stages. Memorize them. Then when you see a figure's action close your eyes quickly freezing the movement on the back of your eyelids. Then open your eyes and get the movement down immediately. With practice you can get pretty accurate.

Throughtout the workshop Kim painted alongside his students, making rounds to comment on our work. Sometimes a student would stop by his painting and ask a question, then a few more would crowd around and it became an impromptu demo. On the second day during one of these 'demos' the question was asked if all his gallery paintings were plein-aire. Kim said none of his gallery paintings were plein-aire. I'm sure I heard a collective gasp.

His methods of working are to paint plein-air sketches on site and take photographs. Then back in the studio he reviews the sketches and photos to begin a gallery piece. He paints it alla prima (in one go) from the computer monitor, and he never goes back to 'tart it up' afterwards. The painting has to stand on its feet from just one days painting. 

Some bubbles were burst when he told the group this, but I smiled to myself as I'd guessed it from looking at his paintings. Kim's idea is to capture the scene with the urgency and freshness of on-site painting, while painting in the studio. If he's not painting he has a camera in hand, a large digital SLR. Once when I was driving to lunch with him chatting, he suddenly leaned across to snap a picture out my window. It was of a young man sitting on a bench rim-lit by the Scottsdale sun. Anyone who has spent any time with a photographer is familiar with the quick shot mid-conversation, then the casual return. I noticed Kim took a lot of photos, all with some sort of dramatic light and color as subject.

Each day the models were different and there were always two. Each day the location changed, but it was always on the grounds of the school. Most students saved their best paintings of the day. As the week went on and Kim became more familiar with each student's abilities and personality, he would make the rounds offering pertinent advice. When getting to me however, he would mostly stand behind and sigh.

Thursday in Scottsdale is the Gallery Walk when all the galleries stay open late. A large part of the class went out to dinner together that night, then hit the galleries afterward. Wow is all I have to say. It was a real thrill seeing the work of artists I'd only read about. Legacy had a $40,000 Lipking. Then there were Robert Coombs, Daniel Gerhartz, Steve Hanks, David Leffel, Amy Lind, Aaron Westerberg...and that was just Legacy. Also saw Michael Workman, Marci Oleszkiewicz, Calvin Liang, Joseph LaRusso...ok, lots of artist's work. Were there any cowboys and indians? You betcha, far too many, but this was the Southwest. In my opinion our galleries here have far too many lakes and vineyards. 

Friday was a group critique. Kim is gentle. While he has a hint of sarcasm in his humor, he's kind and pertinent in his critiques. I saw no one in tears. As a matter of fact his sense of humor kept the class fun. The entire week was hard work with lots of laughs. What could be better? And I mean hard work. Bruce and I were up at 6:30 every morning for the drive in to Scottsdale, and home at about 8:30. Then we went to bed - exhausted. Friday night we went out to dinner with our new friends. More laughs and some - just some - wine. Saturday we flew home to be greeted by a snowstorm. 

Everyone loves Bruce 
Conclusion: This class is not for the faint of heart or those without some skill - especially in plein-air.  Kim is a good instructor, but he doesn't hold your hand. You won't come home with any finished pieces, but you will hopefully have a practice method to get a scene down fresh and fast. Highly recommended if you want to refine/speed up your plein-air sketching with figures. This is also a good course if you are looking for some intensive time on the brush. 

Note: If you have questions about this workshop I may be able to answer, please leave a comment or email me.

And last but not least - A Very, Special Thanks! to my sister-in-law for hosting us in her home. Thanks Annette!    


  1. Wow wow wow, what an intensive week! Great write up, and I'm thrilled that you and Bruce got a lot out of it. I'm sure if I had gone, Kim would have stood behind me and just wept.

  2. Thank you so much for posting your thoughts on Kim's workshop. I have signed up for the one he's doing in Colorado in May. They need one more person to commit before it is a go - I sure hope it doesn't get canceled.

    Does he spend any time talking about how he captures the light so well in his paintings?

    Donna M

  3. Hi Donna, Great question! Short answer is Kim will talk about his painting and methods, but you have to ask him. He seems to be a natural teacher and would prefer to talk about his student's work.

    Long answer - Kim doesn't do any demos per se. There are no three or four hour long monologues or Q & A like I've heard other workshops have. If some of you crowd around his painting and start asking questions, he's delighted to answer them. Or what I sometimes did was wait until he came around to my painting and ask questions then.

    Hope the workshop works out for you and say "Hi" for me!

  4. I took Kim's workshop in Scottsdale in 2010, and was amazed at Kim's work. When you wrote about the 5 minute poses I practically broke out in a cold sweat---those were brutal having never done anything like that before. In his workshop I felt like someone who was just learning to fly and found themselves in an F-15.

    I am slowly building up the nerve to take another one of his workshops. Nobody can paint like him.

  5. Thanks for the comment Valerie. Was wondering if the regime helped your painting or not? Were you able to take some of the ideas and incorporate them into your own work?

  6. Hello again, my workshop with Kim English is coming quickly and I just wanted to clarify the type of panels that you worked on. In your post you said that towards the end of the week you purchased primed linen you remember if they were oil primed or acrylic primed? Thanks again for your insights.


  7. Hi Donna, either of the two will work. It's not so much the priming as the surface.. The (very) cheap duck panels we brought didn't wipe clean and didn't hold the paint well. Personally I prefer oil or lead primed because I think they wipe best and the paint lays nice on the surface - but oil or lead primed panels can be more expensive. Acrylic primed linen should work fine. Hope this helps! Have fun!

  8. To answer your question, I think if I could take many workshops with him then the regime would help my painting. To come back home and then plod around like I usually do is falling back on the same bad habits. The ideas which stuck with me were: to paint the darks transparently, and key the lightest light in first, and make sure your paints don't get muddy--use a clean brush for every stroke, use interesting brushstrokes.

  9. This was an all star review. I took one workshop with him in New Mexico. I was very green but in a week, I learned enough to launch me. I do not, however remember the 5 stages of the human walk. Can you recall for me?

  10. Day two of the Kim English workshop at the Fechin Art Institute in Taos, September 2012. Still waiting to learn something. Kim is a great artist but not a particularly good teacher. He did one demo the first day, the rest of it has been pretty much just painting on our own with an occasional stop by and comment (and not particularly instructional comments, more in the line of negative criticism). He is on some silly 500-calorie a day diet and doesn't join the rest of us for any of the meals, but disappears somewhere. I don't think a person can have the energy to teach while being on a fanatical diet the entire week. Quite disappointed so far and hoping the next three days actually yield something worth coming here for! My advice: Don't wait to be "instructed" by Kim -- ask questions, watch him paint, follow him around if you really want to get something out of the workshop!

  11. Day three of the workshop at the Fechin Art Institute. Things are going better. Kim was much more attentive to each individual and I feel I learned more today than the first two days. It is a boot camp workout, doing many paintings a day, but worth the effort. I think I was just overwhelmed. Tomorrow we will be painting outdoors if it doesn't rain. I'm feeling much better about Kim's workshop.


About Me

My photo
Elmira, New York, United States
In many ways I think like a photographer. The image itself is becoming more and more important to me; the actual application of paint less and less. Blasphemy in some painterly circles. I choose to paint figures and portraits because I consider them the most difficult subject.