How to get the most out of a mosaic workshop

With every mosaic workshop I take (six to date), I develop my skills both as an artist and as a student. Not having a fine arts background, I started out with zero knowledge about how to take an art class. Depending on your experience, this will sound either very odd or glaringly obvious: the skills and mindset you need to approach a mosaic class are quite different from those you need to be successful in, say, biology or literature. So yes, there is a learning curve to learning how to learn an art. (Say that 5 times fast!) I have become a better mosaic student by trial and error, and I have unfortunately not gotten the most out of some fabulous learning opportunities because I didn’t have the right approach to the class. While I’m not a perfect student and am still figuring things out, I wanted to share some thoughts and lessons learned thus far with those of you who are in the same boat as me so you can learn from my mistakes.

1. Go in with nothing (unless instructed otherwise)

The first few classes I took were very project based and we were instructed to bring a design that we wanted to execute. I thought this was the norm, so when I took Sonia King’s class I arrived with everything nailed down, design wise. Big mistake (one that I regret to this day). Yes, there are workshops where you will make a specific project and you should go prepared. But there are other workshops that are more about artistic exploration and if you go in with a predetermined idea of what you want to make, you will miss out. Make sure you know which kind of class you’re signed up for and prepare accordingly. If it’s a class more about artistic expression, try to go in with as little as possible (in terms of design, materials, and tools), leaving yourself open for learning opportunities. I know it can be nerve-racking and it can feel like you’re unprepared and are only increasing your chances of failure, but trust me on this one (and see #2 below for some thoughts on failure).

2. Do not expect to create a masterpiece

I admittedly still struggle with this one, even though it should be a no-brainer. Most workshops are more about the process than the final product. Let yourself get lost in the process and don’t worry about whether you finish or whether you create something pretty. You learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes, so use your class time to experiment and take risks and push yourself under the guidance of someone who knows more than you. This can lead to really fantastic conversations with both your instructor and classmates, and their insights into what works and what doesn’t (and why) are invaluable. Sometimes a failure is just one tweak away from something that works amazingly well and is exciting and new.

3. Be yourself

Your instructor has a distinct style and so do you. You are not there to learn how to imitate your instructor. Yes, they will share their knowledge and insight about what they do and their process, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be you. The challenge is to figure out how to take their style and their teachings and use them to enhance your voice and vision.

4. Get what you need

This will apply more to some readers than others, but since it’s wholly applicable to me, I figured I’d include it in the list. I am quiet and introverted and I shy away from attention. Consequently, in class I keep my head down and quietly go about my business, and am reluctant to ask questions. The more classes I take, the more I realize that this is a terrible approach. Any one-on-one interaction you have with your instructor is incredibly precious and valuable, so don’t be afraid to ask questions when you have them or to call the instructor over when you’re stuck or want to sound out an idea. Of course, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t hog the instructor’s attention—always be respectful and mindful of your fellow classmates.

5. Learn from your peers

It’s easy to get totally focused on and immersed in what you’re creating, but don’t forget to get up occasionally and take a spin around the room to see what your classmates are up to. The diversity of work in a class never ceases to amaze me. Everyone has a unique perspective and way of incorporating what you’re all learning, and it can be very enlightening to see what other people are creating—the challenges they’re running up against and their solutions to those problems, their individual process (including everything from cutting materials to figuring out a plan of attack for their mosaic), and their artistic vision. Even if your class is made up of really different skill / experience levels, there’s still lots of peer-to-peer learning to be had. Obviously beginners can learn from their more advanced peers, but more seasoned mosaicists can also learn from beginners, who have the benefit of ‘fresh eyes.’

6. Embrace how you feel

There is no right way to ‘feel’ during a workshop. I’ve had classes where I feel like I’m on top of the world and things just feel right and effortless (case in point: my time in Rachel Sager’s class). But I have also had classes where I feel like I’m struggling and am consumed by anxiety and self-doubt (example: Verdiano Marzi’s class). This is normal. Feeling unsettled in a class is not an indication that you’re doing something wrong or that you’re failing. And grinning ear to ear and feeling like everything is just clicking doesn’t in any way mean that you’re not pushing yourself or learning anything. You feel how you feel and it’s all part of the experience and the emotional rollercoaster that is artistic growth.

I’m sure there are plenty of other pieces of advice / words of wisdom about how to approach a mosaic workshop, but these are the ones that I’ve learned the hard way and wish someone had told me before I started. I’d love to hear what you have to say—either from a student’s or an instructor’s perspective—on the ones that I’ve outlined here or others you think are important. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. If enough of you weigh in (here and on social media), I’ll compile your responses into a follow-up crowd-sourced post.

Lots of learning going on: All the class pieces I've done so far

Lots of learning going on: All the class pieces I’ve done so far

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28 Responses to How to get the most out of a mosaic workshop

  1. TR Mosaics October 15, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Wish we had chatted before I took my course with carol shelkin! Wise words and advice I will return to as a reminder as I continue on my artistic travels! Thnaks Julie

  2. Christien October 16, 2014 at 1:47 am #

    I like your topic – we don’t only learn skills but learning itself is a skill. I am a learner and instructor and I can see some learning situations are less fruitful because learners have an ineffective strategy, some do not work because of the instructor’s approach and sometimes it is just a clash of teaching styles. I recommend to my students to make use of my time and aak me lots. I recommend to instructors to leave space for surprises and responses to new situations. That requires skills in improvisation and a balance between structure and flow. To overcome clashes in learning and teaching style I try to include visual, audio, and tactile communication. I also include plenary, small group and individual moments. I bring props, ideas for instigating thinking and i bring ideas For games and exercises. All learning goes better with connection and play. As a learner I have most success if I am open to take in feedback, if i show where i struggle and if I am motivated by wanting to apply a new technique.

    • jmsperling October 16, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      A good reminder that each learner, instructor, and learning situation is unique, and that while there will sometimes be an unavoidable clash in styles, a skilled instructor can also make a world of difference (as well as students having the right attitude / approach). Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  3. elizwhit October 16, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    What a great topic. I’ve often thought about this myself. My very first mosaic class was with Sonia King and I think I applied a lot of your suggestions to that class. I learned new techniques but the piece is still sitting unfinished in my studio and I’m ok with that. I loved every minute of being in the room with such artistic wonder and having the opportunity to interact did wonders for my overall being.
    I’ve taken one other class from Michele Petno and learned other technique that elevated my work to another level. I did not finish the piece in class but came home and forced myself to finish it in my studio. I’m so glad I did, it ended very well and the piece is framed and ready for sale. I learned all about tonal value, and my world changed!
    Keeping an open mind and having great teachers is key for me. Thanks Julie for this.

    • jmsperling October 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      Thanks Elizabeth! Yes, I completely forgot to put keeping an open mind on the list! Thanks for reminding me :-) Also, I can never bring myself to leave something unfinished (except if it’s really really bad), but I know a number of people who often don’t finish their class pieces.

  4. Helen Miles Mosaics October 16, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    Thank you. As ever, a hugely enjoyable and informative post. I trained with master craftsmen in Greece who don’t allow or approve of innovation so it’s been a very long, slow road for me to learn to break free of the restrictive way in which I was taught and I’d love to have the opportunity to go to mosaic workshops like the ones you mention as I know I have an equally long way to go. :)

    • jmsperling October 16, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks Helen. You know, the IMA weekly challenges have been great for mixing things up — maybe trying some ‘sketches’ (really quick and carefree small mosaics) would be good / fun?

  5. Jacqui October 16, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    As a teacher and a student I could really relate to your article Julie. One big thing that many forget is to simply have FUN. Enjoy the process and do not focus on the result too much when learning in a class situation. The fun part of learning is seeing yourself change. Relax, enjoy the class and drink in all the new experiences and remind yourself that there are no mistakes. Learn to tap into your intuition and most of all be flexible to change, let your perceived mistakes take you on another journey. Students can enjoy every minute in a class or workshop by letting go of all expectations, being open to try new ways of creating and by giving themselves the permission to have fun.

    • jmsperling October 16, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

      Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I forgot the most obvious one: fun! Thanks for pointing it out — will definitely highlight that one in the follow-up post.

  6. Sherry October 16, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    Sorry not to have posted this here instead of on the MAO list–
    Julie, what a great idea. I’ve taken a number of workshops over the years, mostly at SAMA but also at studios locally. In “real” life, I’ve taken a number of workshops in my field, and I have to say that what I’ve observed there holds true for mosaics as well.

    You will always learn something of value from anything you attend. Maybe it’s not what you expected–I certainly thought I was interested in realistic portraiture, Shug! Sometimes, it’s that next step you’ve needed but didn’t know you did.

    I’d agree with everything you said, but I’d also add that it’s important to take classes that are far outside your comfort zone. Do you work in traditional mosaics? Try taking a Rajasthani tapestry class from Laurel Skye. If you do portraits, take something dealing with abstracts.

    You may find, as I have, that down the road, you’ll be able to bring all these skills and techniques together, to combine them into something that is your own unique voice.

    And yes, participating in things like the IMA challenge as Julie and I have been doing for the last 19 weeks, has been difficult but also very rewarding. So don’t use the old, “I don’t have time,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t know how” excuses to not participate in this sort of adventure. It’s been well worth the time and effort.

    • jmsperling October 16, 2014 at 9:54 pm #

      Oh that’s ok! I’m happy for people to respond wherever is convenient. I’ll round up all the comments in the follow-up post, regardless of where they were received. Thanks for your comment – I completely agree about mixing things up and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. And yes, the IMA challenges are a perfect example (I just didn’t mention them here because I’m planning on devoting an entire post to that alone!).

  7. Sandramarie October 16, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    Thank you for the very informative information. As I am new to Mosaics and very much in love with working with glass.. This information will help me in preparing for future workshops. I get easily fraustated because at my age I’m trying to learn somethings I should have learn 40 years ago, but wasn’t able to persue my passion for art. Now I can and it’s hard because I am just learning it’s okay not to have all the answers and it’s okay to ask for help. So thanks for the information it reall resonates with me.

    • jmsperling October 16, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

      I’m so happy you found it helpful. Good luck on your artistic journey! Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just soak it all in and enjoy the ride!

  8. Julie Richey October 16, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    Thanks for such an insightful and helpful post with a unique angle – I don’t think I’ve ever read tips for a successful workshop before. I would love to share your post with my students in the future. Would you mind? As both an avid workshop-taker and workshop teacher, I think you’re right on the money. As an instructor, I’m always surprised by what comes out of a varied group of individuals. Last summer I offered a “mosaic happy hour” class for first-time mosaic adults (over 21!). I presented them with the substrate and all the unglazed porcelain their little hearts desired. I suggested that they make geometric patterns, kilim-style, so they could finish in the allotted time. Most of the students totally blew off my initial instructions and made very elaborate, intricate patterns. And almost without exception, they finished them with just a little help from me and the assistant. Once grouted, they looked great – especially for a group of 12 beginner adults. I was amazed to walk around the room and see so many different styles and interpretations. It truly made me happy to see them all busily nipping and cutting and enjoying their first mosaic project. Sharing that mosaic love!

    • jmsperling October 17, 2014 at 7:44 am #

      Thanks Julie! Happy hour sounds like so much fun!

      I’d be thrilled if you shared my post with future students (no need to ask permission – it’s on the interwebs and is fair game). Keep an eye out for the follow-up post too…There are so many great comments rolling in from readers that I think it will be full of really helpful collective wisdom!

  9. Claire Boyd October 17, 2014 at 4:47 am #

    Hi Julie,
    your post comes at a good time as I have booked into a workshop and I’ve been thinking the same thoughts. I attended my first workshop without a thought in my head and was amazed at the artistic/creative process I went through. I learned as much about my own process as I learned about how to make a mosaic. On reviewing it now I think that the others came with a plan which they embarked on immediately, by the end of the first day I went home with my head bursting and found myself painting an image of the mosaic I wanted to do. Now I’ve been asked about what I want to do and I find that it’s bothering me, like homework I haven’t done-I hope it doesn’t take the fun or the creative process out of it! Thank you.

    • jmsperling October 17, 2014 at 7:49 am #

      Hi Claire! I’m glad you found the post helpful. It’s funny how much non-mosaic-skill learning goes on in a workshop (e.g., learning about your personal process, learning about yourself as a learner, etc.). The IMA challenges that I’ve been participating in have been great for teaching me about my own process. Good luck with and enjoy the workshop. Trust your gut and do what feels right to you in terms of prep, but my inclination is to go in with nothing and just play.

  10. Ginny Sher October 17, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    Julie,

    I’m so pleased I found your blog. You have a very refreshing approach in your writings and I relate to much of what I read here. I also stumbled upon your weekly mosaic challenges at IMA through Facebook. I only wish I had been aware of the challenge when it began, as I feel it’s an excellent way to grow artistically. No mind though, I am doing it on my own now.

    As to workshops, you have hit the nail on the head. I’ve taken many and enjoy them so much more now. Perhaps it’s that I am not putting as much pressure on myself to create a masterpiece.

    A few years ago, I had a conversation with a very well known mosaic artist about taking some smalti related workshops. She recommended a particular instructor to me and the quote that sticks with me today is, “He teaches in a way that I learn”. For me, it’s important to have the right instructor. Everyone is different in how they process information. Although one can’t know in advance whether a particular instructor is the right fit, it’s wonderful when the match works. Taking a second workshop from the same instructor can be very enlightening. My goal these days is to come away with at least one idea that I can utilize in my artwork.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • jmsperling October 17, 2014 at 9:22 am #

      Hi Ginny! I’m so glad you stumbled upon the IMA challenges – they’re so worthwhile and I’ve learned a lot through them. Definitely worth going back and doing on your own. Your comments about having a good fit with your instructor and his/her teaching style are bang on. However, I do think that even if that perfect match isn’t there, you can still learn a lot (from the instructor, from your peers, and even from yourself by observing and reflecting on how you’re reacting / adapting to the situation, etc.). But yes, finding an instructor you click with can make for a really really fantastic experience and those moments when everything aligns are to be treasured.

  11. Tami Macala October 17, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Hi Julie
    Thank you for posting this…so well said!! As Julie Richey said I would like to share this as well. As an instructor and school owner I love to see beginners come in and create a mosaic for the first time. It’s the first hump they get over and the ones that get hooked, it so awesome to see the direction they take. As a student I love all your points…so true and adding FUN is key!
    Love to hear this discussion continue.

    • jmsperling October 17, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

      Thanks Tami! Please feel free to share this around — that’s what it’s there for! I’m so happy that people have been commenting. It’s been really great to hear what people have to say. And don’t worry, FUN will be centre stage in the crowd-sourced post :-) Still can’t believe I forgot to include that one. D’oh!

  12. Lin Jovanovic October 17, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

    As a student, I have often found that what I learned in a workshop sometimes only emerges as many elements merge in my mind and/or my work. As a professor, I have had students come to me years later and tell me that it was only later that they got what I was talking about in class. So, sometimes it it quick, sometimes it flows through me later.

    I really appreciated your perspective, Julie!

    • Julie Sperling October 17, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

      You’re so right, Lin! Sometimes the learnings aren’t readily apparent and it takes some reflection or a random event for things to crystallize and click. Thanks for the comment!

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