Alvaro Castagnet Watercolor Workshop Review, pt. 1

A month ago I finished up a week-long watercolor class in San Francisco with Alvaro Castagnet, a fantastic Uruguayan painter. It was hosted by Tracy Culbertson of Art in the Mountains, a company based out of Oregon.  She did a great job, and was very helpful.  The above paintings were some of what I did by the last day of class.  It was a long road getting there!

Alvaro (who lived in Australia for many years) is often known in conjunction with a group of Australian painters who all share a fresh, loose style of watercolors, including Joseph Zbukvic and Herman Pekel, amongst others (two other painters I love!).  Here’s Alvaro's Facebook page, where you can see some of his current work, but this is the sort of stuff he does in general.

Alvaro Boats.jpg

So how was the class as a whole?

Wonderful!  Exhausting and invigorating! More challenging than I thought it would be.  Disheartening at times, but confidence building by the end.  Above all, boundary-expanding.  In essence- easily, EASILY worth the time and money.  We broke the piggy bank for this, and I took both 3-day sessions they offered, for a total of about 1000$.  I called in favors and babysitters, etc.  I figured, “Hey, I love Alvaro’s work, he’s in SF, and I don’t have to pay for a hotel or flight.  What the hell.  I oughta go for the whole thing.”  It was a decision I’ll never regret.

Alvaro’s really a virtuoso painter, in command of the medium, with an exuberant, confident approach.  Just watching him paint again and again over the course of the week, asking questions and picking his brain once each piece was finished, etc. was, in and of itself, an incredibly educational experience.  Alvaro said more than once that he believes the best teaching tool he can offer is for us to watch him paint, and for him to answer our questions about his painting process, and I agree.

Each class had about 20 people in it, so I got to rub elbows with a lot of different painters too, which was also really invigorating.  People came from all across the country to take his class.  One woman even came from Tokyo!!  I felt very privileged to live so close to SF. 

The class was based out of the Raddison Hotel, up by Pier 39.  We would either meet there or on location in SF at around 900 am.  Alvaro would do a painting at that day’s site (China Town, Embarcadero, Union Square, etc), which took about an hour, and then we would do a few paintings of our own and eat lunch, while he went around and gave us on-the-spot pointers.  After lunch, Alvaro would paint again, and we would pick his brain some more on his process and techniques.  Finally, he would end the day by giving group critiques—sometimes on site, but more often back at the hotel.

It may not sound like a breezy, mellow time, painting the days away, but it was actually a very, very busy schedule-- full to the brim!  My head was spinning with art, sketches, painting ideas, new lessons, meeting new people, etc.  I’ve never sketched or painted so intensively in my whole life. 

They make it pretty clear in the literature, and Alvaro says so himself, but he is not “a spoon-fed teacher”.  It’s not that he keeps secrets.  He’s perfectly happy to share stuff, but he’s not the type to talk a lot while painting, taking apart his process.  If you’re an active learner though, and know how to pay attention, ask the right questions, and can learn through attentively watching and then doing/ failing/ exploring on your own, you can get a lot out of a class of his.  I know I did.

Alvaro himself is a charming, funny guy.  Very boisterous.  But sometimes grumpy or sharp.  Clearly not a morning person.  LOL.  I appreciated that, in the end—he felt like he wasn’t acting, but was who he was.  He always dressed very stylishly too!  Hahaha.  But it’s true!  What can I say?  The man knows how to where a nice pair of shoes and a good shirt.  We also got to meet his wife, Ana Maria, as well, who was incredibly charming, and his two kids.

Alvaro’s critiques were full of humor, but were, frankly, very direct and cut to the bone of each painting’s issue.  I’m sure some would label the crits as harsh.  There was no pussy-footing around.  He gave praise too, of course, mostly on how people improved bit by bit, but I could see how he might have stepped on the toes of some people.  I appreciated the frank critiques, honestly.  I paid to have a world-class painter help teach me as much as he could in just a week, and I wasn’t interested in a gentle “that’s nice” sort of approach.  I wanted to be pushed.  Of course, there are a lot of ways to teach, and I’m sure others might prefer a different approach, but it was what Alvaro had to offer and it fell in line exactly with the kind of direct, vibrant personality he had, so I took it and worked with it.

I’ll follow up in the next few posts with more of my own paintings from the class, how the workshop related directly to me as an artist, and some quotes and thoughts of Alvaro’s on painting.  There was so much to learn!  I hope this ends up being useful to someone else too.  :)

Here are links to the other posts for this workshop-

Part 2- My Paintings and Progress

Part 3- His Approach, Quotes, and Tips

Part 4- Painting Figures the Alvaro Way

Part 5- My Co-Conspirators