There are several online art training options that have emerged over the past few years. The less expensive options take the form of downloadable videos covering a variety of different subjects (Gnomon Workshop, Pencil Kings, New Masters Academy) without any organization or sequencing. Then there are the sites that offer longer classes or workshops, either with or without instructor feedback (CGMA, Schoolism, Animation Mentor). These require more diligence from the student and probably produce better results but they’re pricey. Private online mentor programs are becoming more common (Motivarti, Concept Critique, Robotpencil) and are the best for getting one-on-one feedback from an experienced artist. The perfect online art education would include the best elements from all of these.
The Watts Atelier’s online program is far from perfect, but based on my experience so far, they are on the right track to creating one of the best online training programs available.
What is the Watts Atelier?
The Watts Atelier was founded in 1992 by Jeffrey Watts. Located in Encinitas California, the Watts Atelier offers training in the fundamentals of representational drawing and painting as well as the figure, anatomy, landscape, and illustration.
Jeffrey Watts is a very accomplished draftsman and painter. He studied at the California Art Institute under Fred Fixler, who had been taught by Frank Reilly and Robert Beverly Hale. Jeff’s drawings and paintings show influence from a variety of different artists, notably Nicolai Fechin, Ilya Repin, John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, as well as many of the great American Illustrators from Norman Rockwell to Frank Frazetta. You can take a look at some of his work on his website.
The Online Program
The Watts Atelier Online was started in 2013 and has made accessible their unique curriculum to a much wider audience. There are a several membership options set at different prices. The two self-study options are Drawing Access and Full Access. The drawing program costs $99 per month and makes available all the courses related to drawing in charcoal. This includes Drawing Fundamentals, Head Drawing and Figure Drawing. Full access is $199 per month and includes the drawing and painting courses, as well as special classes focusing on specific subject matter. There are also different options if you want one-on-one critiques from instructors. Every option gives you access to the member forums and your own personal profile.
The program is broken down into five ‘levels.’ Each level is divided into ‘terms’ and the these contain the actual courses. For example the first term contains Drawing Fundamentals Phases 1 and 2 and the first phase of Head Drawing. Each phase is meant to function the same way that a ten week course at the atelier would.
When you start a course, the first thing you do is watch an introductory video that gives an overview of what will be covered. Every video after that is a self contained lesson with an accompanying workbook and assignment. The workbooks can be downloaded in PDF format and contain information covering the materials needed for the assignments, suggested reading, reference materials, and the assignment instructions.
Once you’ve watched the videos and completed the assignment, you can submit your work for approval. Since this program is self-directed, it’s up to you to determine how much time to spend on a particular course.
One of the nice things about a Watts Online membership is you can cancel it without deleting your account information. If you’re on a budget you can watch the videos, download the assignments, work on them as long as you need to and then come back to the program later.
The community aspect of the Watts program is what I find most exciting. When you purchase a membership you set up and personalize your user profile which allows you to post images of your drawings or paintings, create threads or comment on the member forums, and communicate with other students.
What sets the Watts Atelier’s online community apart is their Guilds and Mentor system.
One of the biggest issues with online training is that there’s a lack of accountability and urgency. When you’re not forced to complete and turn in assignments on a daily or weekly basis, and you’re not being graded, it’s up to you to determine the frequency and intensity of your study. That’s nice for those who have busy schedules and need the flexibility to work at their own pace, but ideally there would be someone more experienced and knowledgeable to help guide you in your studies.
After you log in to your account for the first time, you’ll notice a little green badge labeled ‘Apprentice’ in the Achievements section of your profile. This is the base mastery level assigned to your for joining the program. From there you can progress to Journeyman, Guildsman, Senior Guildsman, and Master Guildsman. Each level comes with perks. For example, once you gain Guildsman status, you will receive a 50% discount off of the Full Access subscription and 10% off book and DVD purchases. However, to attain and maintain status as a Guildsman you must complete all the courses in Levels 1-3, have 10 mentees and complete 10 skill building cycles (skill building cycles are monthly challenges that focus on developing a specific skill). So not only are beginners given the chance to receive feedback from more advanced students, the advanced students are incentivised to maintain and improve their skills through teaching. This sort of dynamic is pretty standard in a regular studio environment, and if that can be recreated online I think it will be immensely beneficial to students.
Drawing & Painting Materials
At the beginning of the drawing and painting stages of the Watts Program, the recommended materials are covered and the rationale behind their use is explained. Having a limited set of materials is an excellent way to ensure mastery over a set of skills rather than constantly having to adapt to new mediums. If you spend a week using graphite, the next week on charcoal, the week after that ink, you will attain a low level of familiarity with those materials, but your drawing skills will have stagnated.
The drawing phase of the Watts Program limits the student to charcoal on newsprint. Jeff recommends the Conté sketching pencil, specifically black (pierre noir) 2B. These pencils are probably a mix of charcoal and graphite, which gives them a much waxier feel than charcoal but with a matte finish and a wider value range than graphite.
One of the alternatives listed is the Wolff’s carbon pencil, which I prefer. In my experience the Wolff’s pencils have the same look as the Contés, but give less resistance when applying marks to paper and don’t have the occasional gritty feel that the Contés do. They are more expensive, but I’ve always been able to find them in art supply stores, unlike the Contés.
Newsprint is cheap and abundant. I’d suggest smooth rather than textured for gesture drawing. Most of the drawings you’ll be doing aren’t highly rendered, so the paper doesn’t need a lot of tooth to hold the charcoal.
For long-form drawings with more rendering involved you’ll want to use graphite pencils. These are rated on a scale from hard to soft, 9H to 9B. Brands like Derwent or Faber-Castell work well. Lead holders work great too and don’t have to be sharpened as often.
One other drawing tool you might want to consider getting are Col-Erase colored pencils. These have been used for years by cartoonists and animators to make initial lay-ins that can then be traced over with a darker pencil or ink. If you pay attention during one of the figure drawing phases, you’ll see Jeff using a blue Col-Erase pencil. Blue is the go-to for most people, though red and orange also work well.
Here’s the full list of drawing materials:
- Charcoal pencils: Conte1710: B (‘Pierre Noir’), Wolff’s carbon pencil 4B
- Single-edged razor blades
- Sandpaper Pad
- Kneaded eraser
- Pad of 18″x24″ SMOOTH Newsprint: Pro-Art, Canson
- Clip board (standard board that will hold an 18″x24″ pad.)
- Pad of 18″x24″ tracing paper
- Graphite pencils: Faber-Castell set of 12
- Staedtler lead holder
- Col-Erase pencils
As far as brands go there are a few I see mentioned over and over: Winsor & Newton, Da Vinci, and M. Graham.
I use M. Graham but that’s because my local art supply store sells it for a very affordable price. They are good quality paints.
The Winsor & Newton gouache works fine, but most art stores don’t carry a large selection of gouache and the ones they do are pigments with unfamiliar names like “spectrum red” or “sky blue.” If you’re ordering online W&N has the largest selection of pigments, including the traditional artists colors.
I have no experience with Da Vinci colors, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about them
The suggested brushes are Robert Simmons white sables which are a good choice for watermedia. What type is another question and will have to do with personal preference. Experiment with filberts, flats, brights and rounds. It’s also nice to have a large flat brush to lay down initial washes.
Gouache can be painted on watercolor paper, illustration board, and even bristol board if you don’t use too much water. Cottonwood Arts sells sketchbooks and coldpress sheets that work well.
Here’s the list of gouache materials:
- Gouache: M. Graham, Winsor & Newton, Da Vinci
- Brushes: Robert Simmons White Sable Brushes
- Surfaces: Strathmore 500 series bristol, Illustration board
- Butcher tray palette
The Watts Atelier Online provides an excellent model for online art education. It’s affordable (though I wouldn’t mind seeing more pricing options for the self-taught option. Maybe $50 for the drawing program and $100 for the full membership), offers lots of high quality content, and provides a carrot and stick in the form of the Guilds system.
It’s still in its early stages though. If you go to the curriculum page you’ll notice several empty spots in the advanced sections of the program. At the moment there aren’t any (or at least not many) Journeyman or higher level students, so there’s a lack of mentors.
If you’re interested in what the Watts curriculum offers, I would highly recommend trying it out. Unfortunately there isn’t a trial period or sample material outside of the course preview videos, but $99 to try it out won’t set you back too much.
Check out the Watts Atelier Online at http://www.wattsatelier.com/online/