My month-long experience with the Watts Atelier Online
Back in February, I felt I’d lost confidence. Aside from a few linoprints, I hadn’t really drawn for two months while I built my website and I’d begun to feel a huge wave of resistance.
When this has happened in the past, getting back to some personal training has often helped get me out of a tight spot, and as the Watts Atelier had once again crossed my radar, I decided to sign up.
Inking is a bit of a dying art and most modern inking is either done digitally and/or follows the comic art tradition, so good tuition is very hard to come by. I also dabbled a bit in the head and figure sections. Read on to find out what I made of it...
I first came across Jeff Watts and his school a few years ago. I’d been really keen to join then but hadn’t been in a position to afford the monthly tuition. The Atelier is based in California, through they run an online monthly membership with the following tiers:
- $49 per month – access to individual Master Classes
- $99 per month – access to Drawing Classes
- $119 per month – access to Painting Classes
- $199 per month – access to Drawing, Painting and Master Classes
There is also a Mentoring option which costs $499 a month for Full Access but with more in-depth feedback and guidance.
The inking classes themselves actually come under Master Classes, rather than Drawing, so it does mean shelling out almost £200 a month based on the current GBP/UDS rate – quite a hefty investment.
However, the Master Classes also include what looks like an absolutely stellar course by Jeff Watts’s father – 22 hours of composition which is essential leaning for any artist.
There’s also Master Classes for Drapery, Quicksketch Fundamentals, Perspective and others, and you can easily pick and choose these lessons to complete at your leisure. It does include a digital element, but it wouldn’t be my first port of call for digital art.
Above: Some of my drawings from Inking Phase 3 using quill and brush
The school mainly focuses on classical art training, with the idea that you move from drawing to painting with gouache and finally onto oil. There weren’t any prerequisites for the Master Classes, but as the Inking one covered portraits, figures, heads, landscapes, free perspective and so on, having some grasp of these is most definitely helpful.
Occasionally, they also run workshops which can be streamed live, though they seem these fill up rather quickly.
There is no need to complete the Drawing Classes before moving onto the Painting classes, though it is highly recommended.
With that said, you cannot just pick and choose and jump between Drawing and Painting lessons willy-nilly.
For example, one of the classes in the drawing section is “The Head” – you are unable to watch lessons until you have completed the lesson before AND also passed the assignment with a score of 100%. I’ll be talking about the assignments later on in this review.
Online learning format
I had some issues signing up so contacted the Atelier but didn’t hear back, but it turned out my bank had identified a payment to the US as suspicious which I swiftly sorted out.
Once logged in, you can access a Dashboard where you can upload your photo to your profile, join the Student Member Forums (I had a quick nosey in here before leaving as all the students appeared to be at more advanced stages), and of course, access the contents.
The courses are broken down into several classes and each class is subdivided further into smaller lessons. Accompanying these are PDF workbooks which you can download and keep, though they range in terms of depth and some will not make any sense without watching the video first.
Unfortunately, you can’t download the videos, nor are there any options to stream them at a lower res, say you’re working with limited bandwidth.
Master Class: Inking
The inking course was divided into three Phases, each getting progressively more difficult as you move from ballpoint through to brush and quill. They're generally made up of both drills and demos and it’s recommended you watch these several times, revisiting the bits you found difficult, though I was only able to watch each one once.
Above: Some quill dexterity practice drills
The workbook contains ready-made grids you can print out and work on these directly, or just make your own like I did. Similarly, when you follow along with the demos, you can either print the pencil sketches onto a decent heavier weight paper and ink over the top…or draw everything from scratch. I did the latter to help me understand the subject.
There’s no need to go and get the specific materials. I happened to already have two of the Hunt nibs on hand, though I did buy two new brushes especially for inking. There’s a small section on using the brush pen but you could equally do this piece with a brush. I used cheap copy paper for the ballpoint work, though moved up to smooth Bristol for the brush and quill.
There’s not really much discussion of technical pens, though you could still use these for the some of the ballpoint lessons where Jeff uses a Hi-tec ballpoint pen and get a very similar result.
Jeff Watts himself teaches most of the course, with the majority of brushwork carried out by Doug Stambaugh, despite the brush being Jeff’s favourite inking tool.
I have to say I really liked both teachers! Not just the quality of the instruction but I enjoyed the philosophical ramblings and stories.
It made me feel as though I was working alongside someone in person, and really quite calming and thought-provoking.
Some of the discussion focused on the technical aspect, but also very much the artist journey, creative mindset, how to approach a piece, when things go wrong and so on. Jeff seems to apply quite a spiritual and Zen-like approach to his work which I think is a great way to go. There was also a lot of reassurance given – ways to help yourself manage when you’ve realised you’ve messed up an area and encouragement to give exercises a try, even if you’re not completely proficient in the subject matter.
Phase I: I worked through exercises taught by Jeff Watts and focusing on ballpoint and technical pen. The class was broken down into several sections such as, people and landscapes.
Phase 2: this is taught by Doug with heavy focus on the brush – after some warmups, animals and human anatomy was a big focus here, though I also got to do a detailed landscape in a style similar to those from the Golden Age of Illustration, and to try my hand at a Gothic building. All inking is strategic and methodical, but I found Doug particularly cautious in his approach in terms of slowly building up values.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed doing the planes of the head exercise – partly because the brush is my least favourite tool to use, but also I never draw comic-style art. I didn’t finish all of these exercises but I may tackle them at a later date.
Phase 3: here you’re really calling upon the skills learned in the previous Phases. Is it difficult? Absolutely. The focus here is portraits and figures, sometimes working from photos, but with a lot of Master Studies to get stuck into.
These include those by Joseph Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, Edwin Austin Abbey and Alphonse, Mucha which was probably one of the most difficult. I would have liked to have seen perhaps a small study for Franklin Booth or Montgomery Flack for added variety, though the Coll exercises are great warmups with their chaotic and scratchy style.
In some ways, it’s a pity no feedback was available on the inking class, but had they been graded, I’m not sure I would have got past Phase I!
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend the Inking class to someone who is completely new to drawing.
I’ve been drawing for about 3 years, only really beginning to take it seriously this past year, and I still found it very challenging. It’s one thing going along with a demo but if you can’t apply the knowledge, then the knowledge doesn’t really serve a purpose.
You can of course try it, but be prepared to feel frustrated! Beginner drawing efforts would probably be better spent elsewhere.
Areas that could be improved
Some of the photos in the workbooks look really low resolution. In some cases where you have a large mass of shadow, it’s very difficult to impossible to work out the individual shapes within that mass. If you have a good working knowledge of the subject you’re drawing (e.g. a gorilla), you might be able to work out how to best portray this and keep to the underlying form…but then perhaps that’s deliberately part of the challenge and to encourage you to not stick rigidly to a photo and use artistic license? It wasn’t a major problem, but worth a mention.
For the homework assignments, I found myself feeling a bit confused as to what exactly I was supposed to do. Rather than a specific list or checkbox on each relevant page saying, copy every drawing on the this pages as exactly as you can, I found myself wondering what exactly I should be submitting. Also, some of the drawings were more complex than what had been taught in the class e.g. an muscular arm rendered with cross-contour lines under “Basic Shapes”.
Consequently, I didn’t expect these to be perfect renderings – after all, these were the very first videos and I assumed it was more about them wanting to see that you’d given it a shot.
Feedback was that my drawings for these weren’t accurate enough. Also, I uploaded several of my frontal, side and ¾ heads to show that I understood a simplified version of applying the Riley method to the head. However, I then got marked down for this as only should have submitted one of each, and they still weren’t accurate or symmetrical enough.
In all honestly, I did feel disheartened. Not for failing – I hadn’t expected to get 100%, but to get 0% and 20% scores for the three assignments was a slap to the ego, not to mention pushing me back over a week when the classes are already too expensive for me to sustain. But looking at it realistically, all of the feedback was warranted. The problem therein was difference in expectation.
I’d imagined that some people on the course would have never drawn at all so it would take account of beginners and ease you in gradually. I had also been wondering whether it would even be possible for me to even get 100% on a second attempt, but then I received a notification saying that they are simplifying the assignments from now on.
I’m not entirely sure what this entailed but I did note that the next homework I got back was graded with 100%! I personally couldn’t see much difference in quality but perhaps they’ve had a sudden flux of students that were failing.
The strict requirements for a pass isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The school is a very good one and they’re ensuring a good level of proficiency before moving on which prevents bad habit building, and does ensure that the people who continue on with it are determined to overcome obstacles. The website states that most students fail their early attempts, but it does start making things very expensive, particularly when you have to wait 5-7 business days for your work to be marked (and for a small percentage, sometimes even longer).
It would have been helpful to have a photo of the subject in the top left of the screen so you can reference it as the instructors work. This did happen for some classes, but I often ended up having the PDF with the image and the video both open at the same time in separate windows so I could see how each part was being treated. The downside of this, of course, is then the video is much smaller!
So these are my only real niggles. I would personally love to see a class on animal anatomy and gesture, as well as a Master Class on rendering elements of landscape, such as trees and plants when they’re in the foreground or form the focus, but without the more rigid and scientific approach of botanical illustration.
How does it compare to New Masters Academy?
I am going to do a separate review of NMA at some point in the future. For now, I’ll just say that NMA is fantastic alternative if you are the sort of person who:
- Can self-motivate
- Can understand what you need to learn and formulate your own lesson plan
- Can assess your work critically and use online platforms to also obtain feedback on your work
- Has a limited budget
- Are a complete beginner
The Watts Atelier may be a better choice if you:
- Need feedback on your work and a set learning plan
- Are happy to work to fairly rigidly in terms of materials and using the Watts Method (generally this means working with Conte pencils and Wolf Carbon pencils on newsprint)
- Are looking for specific Master Classes
- Want to become a master of portrait and figure drawing
- Have a larger budget
- Are determined enough to accept you might be doing exercises repeatedly in order to pass each assignment
Overall, I think my $199 was money well-spent and I thoroughly enjoyed my month!
What I would say is that if you’re just interested in the Master Classes, buy them individually for $49 a month. Don’t do what I did and splash out $199 with the expectation you’ll get a lot of the courses done! They were much longer than what I imagined and it means you’re so much more rushed with little time to watch the videos repeatedly.
I also thought I’d be able to dip into the drawing lessons based on certain areas I have difficulties with, but as mentioned above, this isn’t possible.
One thing the course was especially good at was highlighting gaps in my knowledge, which served as a flag for areas that need further development. I always had great respect for inkers of the past but now, having used the dip pen and attempted some of the Master Studies, my respect has grown enormously.
I also feel more confident in my inking approach, though it has also had the effect of making me want to experiment more, rather than falling into the habit of using my tried and tested inking techniques! That's the danger - quite often, when you find something that works, it can be very tempting to stick with it as there's less chance of failure. And failure is essential if you want to grow instead of being a one-trick pony. I’m considering doing a mini Inktober before the information goes stale!
I was saddened to not be able to keep up the membership, but I do plan on revisiting one day when I’ve got a little more stability.
As I understand it, they’ll be streaming their classes from now one while the Covid-19 pandemic goes on. These will be over 10-week terms and I already have my eye on that Winged Animals Intensive which I'm going to sign up for and just through financial caution to the wind! You can go for the whole hog, or just do an "audit" (which is the same without the critique) for a quarter of the price.
It’s also a great time to sign up if you enjoy working as part of a group but wouldn’t normally be able to attend the brick-and-mortar school.
The below demo wasn't included in the Master Class, but it's Jeff himself doing the inking so it gives you an idea as to the tuition (though the in-class videos have more of a top down view). There's also a bunch of other free Watts Atelier videos on You Tube you can check out to see if it's a program you might enjoy.
This turned out to be a far more in-depth review than I anticipated, but if you made it to the end, then you have a better chance of faring well in terms of patience and attention that intensive art study requires!
If you do go on to sign up for the Watts Atelier, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments, or feel free to drop me an email.