by Carolyn Edlund
Pastel artist Heather Gail Harman changed her life dramatically when she moved from the UK to Spain ten years ago, but found a need in the marketplace that involved transforming her business.
AS: What was your experience in the UK working as an artist?
HH: As a professional specialist for some 30 years in my medium of pastel, I enjoyed a great variety of teaching experiences in the UK with my students. I taught workshops, courses, and even some fabulous adult residential courses held in English country houses, painting holidays all over Europe and beyond, and writing articles for the art press. All that, and exhibiting too!
AS: What did you do when you moved to Spain?
HH: I didn’t retire from teaching. I just scaled it down to suit my new lifestyle in Spain, and organised some pretty exclusive Spanish painting holidays with a handful of private students.
AS: What happened next?
HH: A choice I never expected. First, I opened a Facebook page three years ago (not being too keen to divert myself from my new Mediterranean garden and my great new studio), and immediately received comments from students, both old and (surprisingly) new. The questions were mainly, “When are you returning to the UK to do courses?”
The message I was getting from the early members and old UK students was simple. “Help – there is no tuition we can access,” or “We can’t afford to travel to the workshops and they are expensive,” or “They are not for beginners.” They said “We loved your courses and articles. Are you doing books?” To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by it all.
In short, new students interested in a deep dive into the medium, and using it as their primary medium, were looking for direction.
AS: Why do you think there was a shortage of pastel teachers available?
HH: I checked into pastel tuition back in the UK through old contacts in the art media, students and colleges, tutors etc. The situation sure had changed in the 7 or 8 years since I had left. Other pastel pros who were my contemporaries were either retiring or relocating, and heaven knows our numbers were not many back in the 90’s as it was.
The local adult education classes in the UK had dissolved fast, too. The courses I could find were largely taught by artists in watercolour (in particular) who were doubling up teaching pastel. The two mediums are chalk and cheese – all too often not an ideal situation, but at least they were trying to bridge a gap. Also, there was a pronounced focus in the art press of animals in pastel, the imbalance of which bothered me.
AS: What was your response?
HH: In late 2013, I had set up the “Pastel Artist UK” Facebook group, not least of all to keep pastel enquiries away from my personal page. At this point, the Mother Hen teacher came out in me. My “pastel babies” always were my passion and so I largely deserted my studio and set about a teaching principle to feed into Pastel Artists UK.
I researched more Facebook pastel groups (all much the same as each other) and decided to make the UK group different. I wanted to concentrate on what was needed – learning. So many internet groups are about selling art, having bypassed the idea of learning. Our group has its rules: support, advice and tuition and encouragement is its aim. Showcasing latest commissions isn’t.
Pastel Artists UK has grown to over 2,000 members. It is always open to non-UK artists, and their input is a fascinating perspective into how some of the UK lack of tuition issues affect some artists in those countries, too. Pastel UK is also a fabulous market research group – a focus group – and I listen to them as much as they do me. So then came the next step; the real valuable outcome to the journey.
AS: What was the eventual outcome, and your new business direction?
HH: Pastel Artists UK spawned “The Pastel Academy Online” which is enabling me to put down the much needed information into course form. In that way, I can actually interact with my course enrollees and oversee their progress. I teach courses for beginners, for improvers and advanced, in portrait subjects, and landscape, still life and more. One is of particular interest, a real speciality of mine; the beautiful Sanguine medium in pastel, a subject on which I ran 11 consecutive summer courses in the UK.
The Academy is also on track to be a hub of research info and contact and interaction with manufacturers and suppliers, my History of Pastel research, and “Most Frequently Asked Questions.” The Academy Blog is slowly turning into a good teaching resource, too. The website is up soon but currently content is residing in my own art website.
AS: How has the creation of the Pastel Academy worked out for you personally?
HH: It is more hard work – and more time away from my studio – but once a passionate teacher, always a passionate teacher. I can do a better job of passing on my lifetime of pastel experience by making that information available to everyone who needs it, not just those who happen to be reading the UK group board on any given day. It is free to join (via this link). The courses will be at all price points, and much real learning will be free, and will give me an even better platform to contribute to pastel student learning.
Of course I could just spend my time producing a couple of portrait commissions a year, or travelling to my favourite French Pastel Annual Exhibitions where I am asked to demonstrate, and run workshops, even a new one-woman exhibition. But I know which is most important, and so do my passionately motivated students.
Great things can come from the world wide web!