Teaching watercolor to kupuna

The Joy of Being an Absolute Beginner

I started teaching Beginning Watercolor to kupuna (seniors) at Palama Settlement as an expanded program for their senior activities last year. Palama began with ceramics and watercolor, something we have been doing for the keiki (children) for some time now. It was an interesting challenge and I was very excited and curious to see what the interest would be from our kupuna.  I began the first class with 6 students, the second grew to 8 and beginning this 3rd class, I have 11 with some repeat students.  I’ll just summarize here, and hopefully carve out some time to describe in more detail this learning experience to share with anyone interested learning more about this story. 

The first class was the easiest to prepare and teach in that I had absolute beginners and brave students who let go and really enjoyed the process to learn about watercolor. I built the learning points from my experience teaching my Color Bridge workshops from the past 7 years and my years in painting watercolor. The joy of seeing their discovery and how each developed her own voice and style was very gratifying to see.





Using shading in portraits. Lesson 5 of 6.





The second class had many returning students but some newbies, so this presented a challenge of keeping the returning students engaged and bringing the beginners along.  Working with students who had built up some knowledge and experience was still very rewarding too, as an ego stroke to know I had successfully transferred some knowledge that they could apply and innovate with.

This third class is the most challenging so far, because it feels a bit like a one-room schoolhouse. I have advanced students and total beginners and the class is larger. Next class, if I have 11-16, I will bring an assistant to help me because it becomes a logistical challenge on top of all the others. We’ve moved to a quieter location so I don’t have to strain my voice, but larger than 8 is tough to keep them from getting distracted and all on the same page. But I find, I really really love doing these classes. I love how B. always says her paintings are ‘terrible’ but they are totally not. They are beautiful and gentle and she has a strong sense of color and line. Then there’s Y. who is very meticulous and constantly invents new ways of creating textures or effects and can share her new skills in making portraits that delight the receiver. And there’s M. who has a very unique approach to color combinations and composition that always surprise me.

student portrait
 portrait by student

I love how I see each and every one of them all blossom as I share with them my love of the medium. If we continue it next year, I think we will need to split it up into beginning and continuing in order to accommodate their needs. What I wonder is how their ‘teenage’ phase play out, as they move past the beginning levels–will they pursue mastery on their own terms? Or be satisfied with some happy memories of our time together? Either outcome is success for me.

My style is well suited for beginners and mature artists. I don’t give all the answers. I don’t teach according to recipes or results orientation with everyone painting the same painting. I teach a process and share some tools to use along the way. Then it is up to each person to take it along their path. I feel it is the most respectful way for me to transfer my knowledge and skills to those who want it.

The main difference between teaching older students vs. younger is the older need to be encouraged to unblock their negative beliefs about creativity and their potential and right to express themselves. With younger ones, it is mostly about teaching them without being the one to inflict the creative trauma that blocks them in adult life, or how to avoid becoming blocked.