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Why I'm Here by Marnie Bethel (a life-changing opportunity to attain artistic mastery)

Marnie Bethel holds a Ph.D. in French literature. She is a retired teacher of French and English and has taught at levels K though university. She moved to the Kerrville area in 2020. Previously, she spent 18 years in Albuquerque, NM where for 12 years she was on the faculty at Albuquerque Academy, an independent college-prep school.

painting correct values is the key to three-dimensional illusion
Pear by Marnie Bethel

I’ve been a member of the Texas Hill Country Atelier for more than two years now. When I moved back to the Hill Country in 2020, I had no idea what an atelier was, let alone that there was a world-class artist training program happening in little old Kerr County, Texas! But I was fortunate enough to meet Holly White-Gehrt, the founder and master artist, at the Texas Arts and Crafts Fair in 2021, and the rest is history. 


I had recently retired from my teaching career in New Mexico and found myself with the time and resources to pursue something I’d always wanted to do. I have been a knitter and painted murals for much of my adult life, but aside from a single class in college, I had no formal education in art. So I couldn’t believe my luck when I met Holly. 

Identifying vectors makes a strong composition
Block-in of figure by Marnie Bethel

Some time ago, my stepmother asked me, “What are you doing in your art school? You spend three days a week (or more) in classes; you told me it’s a three-year (or longer) program; but why are you doing it? Are you going to have an MFA? What do you get out of this?”

My first instinct was to say, “I get to be a better artist!” But in fact, her question made sense and deserves a more thoughtful reply. From where I’m standing, it seems obvious that atelier training is a good and useful thing. But my extended family includes a lot of artists, and none of them have done the kind of peculiar concentrated study I’m undertaking. So let me begin by explaining what atelier training is - and what it isn’t. 


Grisaille painting from life is essential Atelier practice
Adding shadows to figure by Marnie Bethel

As a teenager in the 1980s, my access to art classes was limited; I remember one semester-long class in eighth grade in San Antonio. I loved drawing, but didn’t see it as anything to be taken seriously. In college, I took a class in sculpture as a break from my academics, but that was about it. I knew kids who had gone to art school; later in life, when my own oldest child showed a talent for art, she had the opportunity to study much more deeply than I had.

But from what I could see, “art school” was esoteric, expensive, and an iffy investment in one’s future, leading to immersion in a world that lay people like myself really couldn’t fundamentally “get.” (The infamous incident of the banana duct-taped to a wall a few years ago stands out as a prime example - what was that even about?) I believed that I wasn’t capable of “real” art. And I certainly didn’t think it was something one could learn. 


The atelier’s focus is on drawing the human form, first and foremost. All of us have tried to draw people at some time in our lives; for the vast majority, it’s a frustrating experience. Humans are really tricky to draw! And for that matter, so are animals, and landscapes… for the beginner, the difficulties can seem insurmountable. The genius of the atelier method is to break down this complex endeavor into tiny, accessible lessons. 

When I began the program two and a half years ago, I truly did start from the beginning. (My first lesson: How to sharpen a pencil correctly for art class!) I learned first about how to use my materials - then, pencil and paper; now, oil paint and canvas.

Transfer drawing as the Old Masters did
Block-in of still life by Marnie Bethel

My teacher has taken me through lessons in mark-making, composition of a picture, color theory, anatomy, and more. I’ve learned to place the parts of the body (or a landscape, or an animal, or a still life) in correct relation and proportion to one another.

I’ve studied and copied works by great master painters of the past. I’ve drawn casts of classical sculptures and challenged my own knowledge of art history.

And I’ve had the rare pleasure of engaging with others who are just as passionate about art as I am. What a treat it is to be able to study like this as an adult!

Underpainting or "open grisaille" iOS the first step to this still life painting
Adding shadows by Marnie Bethel

So, in response to my stepmother’s question, what do I get out of the Texas Hill Country Atelier? 

  • A life-changing opportunity to become truly proficient in a skill which nearly died out in the twentieth century: creating original realist paintings. 

  • The chance to learn as Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Botticelli and Rembrandt did: by being apprenticed to a master artist, with whom I work several days a week, in a small studio where the creation of art is sacred.

  • The wonderful support of a community of people who think deeply about art and what it means to all of us… how it helps us understand what it is to be human. 

And, at the end, yes, I’ll get a certificate.

Author Marnie Bethel painting en plein air
Marnie Bethel painting plein air


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