How to pace your art classes

Planning your classes and workshops is always important. However, you should think about pacing as well as actual content. “Pacing” applies to you–your personal style of teaching–but also to your students. In fact, your students should be your first concern.

Divide the day into thirds, at least

I’ve always figured what we’d accomplish in the morning, then what can be done by mid-afternoon, and finally what will wind things down happily as students become tired at the end of the day.

Generally, I do most of my teaching in the morning while students can still absorb a lot of information. Immediately after lunch, I try to tackle questions, and improvise demos if students need a little extra help.

By mid-afternoon, it’s never wise to teach new information. At that point, I’m mostly a cheerleader to keep students from going too far with their work, and prevent them from quitting if the art isn’t turning out as they’d expected.

And, at lengthy events, I also consider where we are in the week.

The pace varies during multi-day events

On the first day, many students are easily distracted and new folks can be anxious about how these classes are run. It can take them until 3 p.m. to unwind enough to start doing what they’ll consider “good” work.

By contrast on the last day, I’ll need to explain things in more detail if it’s a new technique. Students are tired and a bit dazed at that point. And, by three in the afternoon, they’re looking for an excuse to go back to their room and catch a nap.

Permission helps

Especially on that last day, I’ll start my class by saying that nobody needs my permission to leave at any time, especially by mid- afternoon. They can leave for a cigarette, for some munchies, or even for a nap, and return to class later. Or, they can pack up early if they like.

Since I started making that announcement, people are vastly happier and actually tend to stay later. If they know that they can leave if they want to, they relax and aren’t so antsy by three or so.

But, by one or two in the afternoon on the last day, many students have already max’d on what they can learn.

If I am teaching more technique then, I’ll need to demo it at least twice–usually two different ways–with the second demo being very s-l-o-w for those who are truly exhausted, or have “information overload.”

Plan for a variable pace through the day and through the week. It’s better to plan hour-by-hour, than to simply “wing it” with a vague, general plan for the day.

No two teachers will use the same planning methods. Find what works best for you, and allows the most flexibility. When the students go home happy after one of your classes, you’ll feel amply rewarded for the extra preparation time.

Art, energy and originality

This morning, I was looking for a quote by Stuart Wilde, in his slightly-renegade book, “The Trick to Money is Having Some.”

Here’s a section that I particularly like, about making money:

(He calls the mundane/average world, “tick-tock,” since people live by the clock in that world, and it can be metronome dull.)

    In tick-tock people see the marketplace with all its structures and price formats and they feel constrained by that. They see the elements of competition and they feel their financial future is uncertain, which in many cases it is. But that is because, though tick-tock has products and services, for the most it has little energy.Every hamburger joint is exactly like all the rest, as are all gas stations, laundromats, airlines or whatever.In a market where things are imbued with no real energy, all they can sell you is the hardcore product which is often dissatisfying for you feel intuitively that it has no life. It is usually flat and boring and churned out by the millions.

    Once you can infuse your life’s energy with enthusiasm, creativity, and originality, the things you offer the world take on a different tone. Now you are no longer competing with tick-tock and you can charge what you like.

(Later, he qualifies that by explaining that you don’t take unfair advantage of people, of course. You just don’t undervalue what you do, because it’s the energy that you can instill in it that’s valuable.)

As artists, I think that it’s important for us to remember that we’re not competing with J.C. Penney or even Bloomie’s… not unless you’re licensing your art, that is.

Find what brings energy and creativity bubbling up inside you. Do a lot more of that.

Infuse your art & your teaching with that energy. That is what makes you–and what you sell–unique. That’s what people want.

If all they want is to stay warm, they can buy a plain wool blanket at the Army surplus store. That’s practical, but it has no unique energy.

What people need in their lives is not the plain wool blanket. They want the lovely (or wild) quilt that makes them smile every time they look at their bed. That is the quilt that they’ll show to friends, and get compliments about. It’s also the quilt that they’ll draw up to their chins at night, and fall asleep smiling, because it makes them feel good.

Okay, we’re not all fabric artists. But… you get that point, right?

Keep that in mind: We infuse ENERGY in what we make as artists. That’s where the value is.

What art teachers are paid

Many teachers won’t talk about how much they get paid. They don’t want to risk future gigs by revealing the financial side of events. After all, many teachers make more at a four-day event than their students earn in six months.

Some event organizers won’t talk about money, either. They prefer to keep their profit margins a secret.

I got tired of teaching at events that put profits and politics ahead of students’ interests, so I have no hesitation about sharing this “insider” information with you.

Don’t teach just for the money. Your first priority should be your students. But, if you want to earn a living–or supplement your income–with art classes, here’s how to begin and how much you can earn.

Start teaching locally

If you haven’t already read it, start with my article, How to start teaching art.

New teachers should ask the shop (or whatever the venue) what their usual rate is for a new teacher.

Shops usually pay less than events do. In 2004, shops paid me $10 – 30/student for a half-day class. For ten students, that’d be $100 – 300 for three hours’ work. But, when I started, I was often paid a flat fee, like $30 for a two-hour class.

(For $30 per class, total, I taught locally… usually within a two-hour drive of my home.)

Today, it’d cost more to drive that same distance. But, keep in mind that your students are driving, too. Some of them will pay more in gas than the cost of the actual class. Keep your class prices as low as you can.

National art festivals, shows and events

At national events, organizers often tells you up-front what they’re paying (usually between $50 and $150 per student, per day, for full-day classes). In some cases, they ask you to set the rate; then, they add on their administrative charges.

Remember, the biggest single expense for many events is not paying the teachers, but renting the hotel rooms that we teach in.

Hotels give events a price break if a certain number of guest/sleeping rooms are rented by conference goers. However, event organizers can’t count on that when setting student prices.

So, don’t gasp for air when you see your fees doubled or an even higher price that the students pay, so that the organizer can afford hotel classrooms.

    Church centers, camps, hostels, and conference centers are usually vastly less expensive for organizers… though a bit more rustic for students.But, organizers can price their events at 1/3 the price of hotel-based events, and still make a reasonable profit.

    Everyone wins when events are priced within the budget of the average art enthusiast. Those who are willing to accept “summer camp” accommodations–and sometimes ho-hum meals–can still enjoy a fabulous week of inspiration.

No two events will offer the same pay, or the same benefits. If you keep your focus on the sheer joy of sharing art with your students, you’ll almost always go home happy… and so will they.

How I set my prices

When events asked me to set my prices, they were based on several factors.

(A) The going rate. If I priced myself too low, students got the idea that those classes weren’t valuable. If I priced myself too high, I didn’t get enough students. It’s a tricky balance, and always a risk.

(B) My expenses. It cost me more to teach in Washington State than it did to teach in Houston. I checked flight costs, car rentals (if necessary), hotel (sleeping room) fees, and so on.

When you’re new to national events, you may actually lose money the first couple of years, until your student registrations are high enough to cover your expenses.

Yes, I taught at a loss, but–in those days–event organizers weren’t making large profits either.

(C) How eager I was to teach at that location/event.

If it was a great audience and a fun event with no headaches, I’d set my “minimum number of students” figure at the break-even point.

If it was a high-stress venue where I could count on “surprises” that could short-change my students, I was less eager to accept the gig.

    Surprises can be positive or negative.  Once, an event organizer “forgot” about my class. My students and I stood around for nearly half an hour while the staff located a room that we could use. That was unfortunate and extreme, but not unique.Later that year, another event not only gave me a room with huge tables and comfy chairs, the room was beyond amazing. We had an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, so the students could use nature–green and gorgeous outside our windows–as their inspiration. We had a wonderful day!

    No two events–or event organizers–are the same. But, some events will be more personally rewarding than others.

At most events, the opportunity to spend about a week with like-minded artists… Well, it can’t be put into words. It is one of the best experiences in the world.

When things go awry, they’re generally minor; no event is perfect, and most event organizers go out of their way to make up for inevitable “oops” moments.

And, when things go well–as they usually do–each class is rich in ways far beyond the paycheck.

Be sure that you can afford it

I can go on & on about the non-monetary rewards of teaching, but that “bottom line” can be the make-or-break issue for teachers.

You’ll need preparation time before an event, and R&R time after an event. Even when it’s a fabulous event–and most of them are–it’s still stressful.

Whether you travel into jet lag territory, or stay up late each night at journaling parties, you’ll probably go home exhausted… but happy.

I generally figured that it would to take me 3x the amount of time that I was gone, to catch up on sleep and general rest, in addition to the tidal wave of phone calls, emails and snail mail that awaited me when I returned to my studio/office.

The income builds slowly

Don’t expect to make much money the first year. And, even when you’ve been teaching for awhile, remember that the paycheck represents far more work hours than the time you spend in front of a class.

That said, once you reach the point where your full-time income can come from your art…. Well, I’d much rather be a professional in this field than doing almost any other kind of work.

Related link: The Benefits of Teaching One-Day Workshops (at

When not to teach

In the arts, the rules can be very different from other businesses. Our intense desire to share creativity with others can override common sense. Keep this in mind when teaching. First, decide what you absolutely must have to teach a good class.

Can you teach in a room that’s too hot? Too cold? Overcrowded? So large, you shout yourself hoarse?

Can you teach with construction workers using power tools just three feet away from you? (Once when a pipe sprung a leak, I had to teach a class while emergency repairs were made… right next to me.)

Every teacher has different standards. Decide what yours are before you teach.

What works–and doesn’t–for me

For me, the biggest challenge is starting the day well.

I absolutely, positively must be able to get into the classroom at least 30 minutes before the class starts, to set up last-minute supplies, and collect my thoughts.

I turn on glue guns, review my teaching notes, gear up for a fun, high-energy day, and–above all–get in focus so that I am at my best.

I’ve broken this 30-minute rule just three times. These are my personal ‘horror stories’.

    The first time, the event staff couldn’t find the classroom key. My students and I were locked out until five minutes before class. We were stressed, not sure if we’d get into the room at all. (That wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t my best class, either.)The second time, the event’s shuttle bus driver arbitrarily changed her route and didn’t return for over an hour. (That’s how long I waited, standing next to my boxes of supplies. The event was out in the boonies; there were no taxis.)

    I arrived after the class was supposed to start. My students were very upset… with good reason.

    The third time, the event organizer “forgot” about my class. We had no classroom for most of the first hour, and not enough chairs for the first two hours.

Each time, I tried to pretend that everything was fine. That was a huge mistake.

From those experiences, I’ve learned to say, “This delay was outside my control. I don’t always teach well when I start the day this rattled. If you like, you can ask to be placed in another class that’s more of a ‘sure thing’ for you.”

(I also learned not to teach at that event again!)

But, what would you do if something like this happened to you? What are your basic make-or-break rules for a successful teaching environment? It’s important to decide this ahead of time.

Think in “worst case” terms

I do not want to scare you from teaching. Most of my teaching experiences have been fabulous fun for me and for my students.

These very rare examples of disasters are just to give you an idea of how prepared you should be, to teach a great class.

Will it drive you crazy if your students have a five- or ten-minute walk to the nearest bathroom to wash their paintbrushes or their hands?

If your classroom has thin walls and the students next door are hammering on metal all day, will the noise give you–and your students–migraines?

What if your 20 students need to use glue guns or power tools, and there are only two working electrical outlets in your classroom?

What if the meals are awful, the rooms are cold, and a crew is working on sewage pipes just outside your room… all at the same event?

What if a student has an emotional crisis in the middle of class? (This happens regularly when working on deeply personal art.)

What if you have a ‘heckler’ in your class? What if someone criticizes you–or another student–and won’t stop?

Each of these examples is drawn from my own teaching experiences.  In most cases, I handled the situation gracefully.  In a few others… well, I still wince with regret when I think about them.

Decide what you need to teach, and make that clear

Make sure that everyone’s on the same page. When you agree to teach, clearly state what you require. If you encounter problems, don’t teach until (and unless) things are set right.

That is the most difficult thing for me to say. It may be the most difficult rule for you to stick to. But, you must be prepared. You must always put your students first.

At least 80% of the time, you won’t encounter anything this dramatic. Usually, the “oops” moments involve something minor like a window that won’t open, or not enough paper towels for cleanup.

And, most teaching opportunities are tremendous. By the end of the day, you and your students will have forgotten any minor inconveniences.

I’ll sheepishly admit that it shouldn’t have taken me three bad experiences to learn this lesson: If your minimum, reasonable standards aren’t met, don’t compromise. Don’t start teaching until you can give your students the great class that they’ve expected.

If you’re too inconvenienced, rattled or annoyed to be at your best, give your students the option to switch classes. Or, speak to the event organizer immediately.  Or both.

Learn from my mistakes: Think about your minimum standards, make them clear from the start, and then stick to them.

In general, teaching at shops, shows, and events is so much fun, I’d teach for free. (And now, I often do!)

It’s rare that anything goes terribly awry.

If you’ve planned ahead and are firm about protecting your students’ interests, every class can be fabulous fun for everyone involved.

Sell your art locally

Writing in a journalOne of the most successful ways that I’ve sold my art has been through local businesses, using the community art association as a liaison.

If your goal is gallery representation, local sales can build your reputation and add credibility to your resume.

And, your income from local sales can exceed what you earn with some galleries.

First, find nearby art associations and join some

Most communities have an art association of some kind. You’ll find them listed in the yellow pages of your local phone book, and sometimes online. Look in categories such as “Clubs”, “Associations”, and so on.

These groups are usually a mix of professionals and eager amateurs. At their (usually monthly) meetings, I’ve seen everything from gorgeous, $10K watercolors to crocheted dolls in unnatural colors & fibers. No two groups are the same.

Art associations sponsor regular–at least annual–gallery shows in their own meeting place or in a town hall or library meeting room. They often have at least one outdoor art show, at which you can display your art and perhaps demonstrate your techniques. Most art associations also have some juried shows and at least one or two annual shows that are open to all members, regardless of expertise.

Art association meetings include regular demonstrations (of art technique) by artists who usually sell some art to the members while they’re there. This can be a good outlet if you want to do demos; start by creating a form letter that you’ll send to every art association in the phone book. When the demo is announced, make sure that the publicity mentions that you’ll have art for sale, too. The art association takes a commission based on how much you sell, and everyone goes home happy.

Then, the art association helps you display your art locally

Many art associations have working relationships with local businesses, especially restaurants, bookstores, beauty salons, and banks… anyone with blank wall space that wants an “art show” to generate interest. (They use this to attract visitors and for press releases, publicity, etc., themselves.) Libraries are less likely to be able to offer work for sale, but it depends upon the local laws.

The best way that I’ve seen this work, is if the sales go through the art association. That is, there is a business card (for the art association) next to each piece of art, with a price noted and how to contact the art association for more info. Of course, this should be something better than voicemail; someone needs to be on hand to answer the phone. A member who works at home is good for this job. (The art association can have a single phone number, and use Call Forwarding to whomever is manning the phones that day/week.)

Art associations handle merchant accounts and credit card sales, too

The art association makes the sale, and has a merchant account at a bank to accept credit cards. The art association takes a percentage of the sales, usually about 20%. At the end of the month, the association issues a check to everyone whose art sold that month.

If you don’t have a local art association, start one. If you are in an art association that doesn’t have this kind of relationship with local businesses, bring it up at the next business meeting and get it started.

Yes, there are issues to sort out, including how the art is insured, if it’s protected from damage (especially in restaurants, smoky halls, and beauty salons) and so on. You can check with other art associations and see how they handle it; generally, I don’t fret about this too much, but some artists do. I’ve had small pieces stolen from shows, but never anything that was taken off the wall. (That said, it can happen, so never show your valuable art in a setting that makes you nervous.)

Anyway, that’s the general idea… really just the tip of the iceberg. I hope this helps!

What is ‘true art’?

    Background: In December 2003, a debate flared up online when someone used the phrase ‘true art’ and tried to suggest that some artists’ works aren’t really art. This was my reply. I think that it applies to many discussions about art as a profession, so I’ve included it here.

If we start debating what is “true art,” we’re going to have problems in a hurry. Most of them will be semantic.

Recently, I laughed out loud when one directory-type website put all “physical arts” (ballet, etc) in the category of “sports.”

I understand their dilemma. I mean, some of the gymnastic work that I see at the Olympics (for example) are very definitely “art,” but they’re also sports. How can anyone draw a line between the two?

So, let’s not go down any path that involves saying what’s “art” or “true art,” and what isn’t. There will always be debates about the nature of crafts, and where mixed media art fits in, and so on. That’s just semantics.

In my opinion, it’s art if you say that it’s art. Period.

Along the same line… Let’s not reduce our discussions to what artistic compromises and marketing techniques are acceptable or moral or anything like that.

Most of us make compromises now & then, if not in our art then in our marketing, to secure an income.

I follow trends and statistics to see what’s selling well at eBay and elsewhere. And often, I look at them and realize, “Cool! I’ve wanted to try some art in that style. Now I have a good excuse to do that!”

I learn from the process, and the art usually sells.

Is it all true, meaningful art? I haven’t a clue. It’s creative and it’s fun. I call it art. That’s all that really matters.

Teaching at National Art Events

If you’ve been teaching at shops for awhile, national art events might be your logical next step. However, they’re not the best choice for everyone.

For the first year or two, expect to lose money teaching at art events. Event paychecks may look juicy, but when you factor in travel, supplies (that you provide), and prep & recovery time, it can equal minimum wage.

Events often require more complex classes, with far more info, more demos, plus more handouts and supplies that you provide.

To learn more about paycheck issues at events, see my article, What Art Teachers Are Paid.

You’ll need to create very different classes than what you usually teach at shops.  Students won’t pay high event prices for classes they can take — for far less — at a local shop.

You’ll need to steadily create new classes, anyway. Some of your event students will go home and teach the exact same class… for far less than you’d charge. They may even use your handouts without your permission. (Almost every teacher has dealt with this at least once. Be gracious about it, but be certain they’re crediting you for the original information. After all, that’s good for your reputation.)

Some teachers continue teaching at shops.  Many don’t.

Within a couple of years on the national scene, other income opportunities will open up.  National events make you into a ‘name’ in this field. Your artwork might earn higher prices in galleries. You may discover licensing opportunities, book contracts, and — of course — fabulous networking… but don’t count on that your first year or two.

The tricky part can be bringing in income during those “bridge” years.  Etsy is one of many options.

Teaching at national events propels your career so quickly, it can be breathtaking… or overwhelming.  It’s not a smart choice for everyone, especially if you’re re-entering the work arena due to an abrupt change in circumstances.

But, if it works well for you, the personal rewards — far beyond the paychecks — are tremendous!