Interview with First Annual MSBC winner Manuela Pilz!

In the spirit of our recent Second Annual Master Skill Building Challenge announcement, we wanted to look back at artist, teacher, and 2016 MSBC winner Manuela Pilz! I hope her hard work and dedication inspire and motivate you all.

Ivan: First and foremost – congratulations on your win! Can you introduce yourself to us – where are you from and when did you decide to be an artist?

Manuela: Thanks, Ivan. It was a real thrill to win the first Master Skill Building Challenge (MSBC). I have not ever won anything before, so I was over the moon! This experience has changed my outlook on life and art as a central part of it.

Regarding my background, I was born in Berlin but grew up in Sydney, Australia. At the age of thirteen, my Mother and Father decided to relocate our family to the UK. During our residence in England, I decided to become an artist. Although I had shown an interest in art during my childhood in Australia, it was coming into contact with all the art galleries, museums and houses such as Hampton Court, which was just up the road from where we lived, that made me intrigued and fascinated with art and history.

At 16, the permitted age to study life drawing in England, I found my passion for the pursuit of figurative art. After graduating from Secondary school, I had to fight hard to convince my family of my goal to become an artist. Eventually, my parents relented and soon gave their full support to enroll in the Bachelor of Fine Art in Sheffield in the UK. That was nearly 30 years ago.


Ivan: How did you find the Watts Atelier of the Arts Online and when did you enroll?

Manuela: When I met my boyfriend, Cameron Morgan, I was not at all aware of the amazing amount of art tuition that is available online.  He was studying the online course and he suggested I do the challenges.

Although I had completed a Fine Arts degree all those years ago, I needed more technical knowledge and a regular art routine, which is exactly what the Watts online course could offer me. I had been an art teacher for several years but had not had the time to commit to developing my own artwork.

It was January 2016 when I needed to revisit and hone my own skills again, so I decided to enroll in the online program. It is sometimes hard to find teachers who are comfortable doing a demo in front of students, so I loved being able to watch so many videos of Jeff drawing and painting over and over again. Not only did his videos help me build up my painting skills, but it was also great to see how Jeff himself teaches which has, in turn, influenced my own teaching skills.

Ivan: Can you share with us how you felt through the six-month competition? How many days did you spend weekly on your pieces for the skill building challenges?

Manuela: During the six months of undertaking the MSBC, I felt a great sense of focus. As I teach English as a foreign language at Griffith University on the Gold Coast; and was working part-time as an art teacher at Artable and the Gold Coast Art School, I didn’t think it was possible to work and paint at the same time, but yes, it is possible.

I had to reduce my work hours a bit – which was a worthwhile sacrifice as I produced more work in those six months than I had done in years. Although I was really tired, I was so happy to be once again connected with what I really loved. So much so, that I seemed to be a better teacher at my other jobs! I loved having the deadlines and I managed to get about 15 to 25 hours work done every week in a good week.

Ivan: Was it overwhelming at the end of the competition or did you see it as regular work with a deadline?

Manuela: Generally, I was fine. There were a few moments that were overwhelming. For example, moving house, or spraining both ankles and having to paint from a wheelchair for a bit. I think I got a bit flustered then. Otherwise, I found that I had set up a regular painting and drawing routine which was manageable.


Ivan: What is your favorite piece of the 6 you did? What is your least favorite? Can you explain why?

Manuela: I really enjoyed doing the still life part of the MSBC. This actually came as a surprise to me. I had done so many boring still life drawings at school in England, and I was not keen to do this part of the MSBC at first. The still life subject I chose was the little terracotta Buddha statue and orchid composition provided on the course.

While doing it, I found myself getting interested in this genre and I have every intention to keep working on this kind of subject matter. I think it is working on the composition that really interested me. During this challenge, I did a thumbnail study and I really liked cropping it ever so slightly, so that the folds of the background could become an important part of the picture. I didn’t want the little Buddha to have all the limelight. I also liked the pallet I was working with, which was basically Zorn but with a few added colours such as Mars Red, Rose Madder, and Transparent Red Oxide.

What was interesting was that the challenge I was most excited about doing – the figure painting – turned out to be my most disappointing. I love life drawing and I thought I would enjoy this part of the MSBC. I found it extremely difficult as it was my first painting of a nude in 20 years. I learned a lot from doing it, but I was not satisfied with the outcome.

Maybe, I was expecting a lot from this particular challenge and I couldn’t meet my expectation. The woman I painted looked like she was made of plastic and it was very stiff. I didn’t feel she looked real but I suppose it was the first in a while and I had to cut my teeth on something. I have been working on this genre since then, particularly from life, and I think I have improved.

Ivan: I see on your social networks that you were in Florence? Can you share your experience from there?

Manuela: Cameron has now specialized in sculpture and I wanted to do an intensive month of painting with the model so that I could make the breakthroughs that I can’t get in my studio with a photo. Both of us wanted to see all the paintings and sculpture all over Italy, so studying in Florence enabled us to both study and visit the Borghese, The Vatican, The Bargello, the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace.  

For a couple of Australians living on the Gold Coast, this was amazing, as the oldest building in this area might be seventy years old! I had the opportunity to paint on an intensive course with the model for 60 hours with the same pose. I was scared that it would be too much time but it was actually quite the opposite, it was great. I could have easily continued the practice of painting from life as working with a live model in daylight is so much fun.

Ivan: Now that you have tried comparative measurement and sight size which one do you prefer?

Manuela: I enjoyed learning a new tool to help with measurement and likeness. I wouldn’t say I prefer one to the other. They are both very useful tools. Even when working with sight size at times you need comparative measurement to help. Comparative measurement is very important to learn as it allows you to draw everywhere and for concept artists and illustrators working from their imagination it is essential.

Sight size is helpful for anyone wishing to go into the Fine Arts and looking for likeness and wanting to get your proportions representative to what you are seeing. It is, however, not easy to use as you need to have the space to move back from the easel and a studio that allows you to work this way. Some local life drawing sessions may not have the set up for you to walk back and forth all the time. I’m trying to set up my new studio so that I have that space.


Ivan: Are you going back to Florence in the future or are you maybe going to travel to Encinitas or maybe some other school?

Manuela: I would love to travel again, but right now I think it is important to digest everything I have learned in the last few years from both schools I have attended and just work, work, work. I need to practice everything I have learned.  

It is a dream to visit the brick and mortar school in San Diego. We need to wait for the Aussie dollar and American dollar to work in our favour. However, I was very excited to see that Jeff is going over to Rome. Wow. That’s tempting.


Ivan: What is your preference in painting – fine art, illustration, concept art, design or something else?

Manuela: I love fine art, drawing, painting, and printmaking. I do love looking at good illustration too.

Ivan: What is your favourite subject matter?

Manuela: I am always drawn to the figure or nude. Portraiture and still life have become more and more important for me though. Although I am not experienced in Plein Air, I intend to do more of that in the future. We have such amazing landscape here.

Ivan: Do you teach art and if yes – where? If you’re teaching can you tell us more about it – how do you find it? How many students do you have? Levels of skill? Etc.

Manuela: I now teach at Artable ( which is run by the ever-so-dynamic and talented Gillian Buttress-Grove. This is a local art school that specializes in weekend workshops, week-long art retreats and art trips abroad. I have just taught a portrait drawing workshop in October for two days. I have designed a workshop specifically catering for artists who would like to work from life, or for artists who are wishing to try it instead of working only from photo reference.

For some people, this is a big step and I like to make a supportive environment to encourage them to see the long-term benefits of working from a model, or a cast, to enhance their knowledge of form.

In 2018, I have been invited to an Artable 5-day Art Retreat in Tyalgum, New South Wales, where I will be teaching how to draw portraits from life again to classes of 14 with intermediate drawers. What is particularly exciting is that we are working on an Art trip abroad to Italy in 2019 for our local artists where we will work on studying the figure.

I love teaching and I find there is a natural synergy between being a teacher and an artist. Everything I learn, I want to share and when I share I learn so much in return from the students.

Ivan: Do you see a big difference between learning online and in the classroom?

Manuela: I believe that being in the classroom with a really good teacher is definitely the best. It’s so inspiring and it is great to have all your questions answered there and then. However, some of us just live too far away from the kind of schools or teachers we want, so online schools are great for us.

What was also great with the Watts online programme was the support that the students gave each other. (There’s this great guy called Ivan who is particularly helpful) I loved getting to know people all over the world and getting tips from my peers. It’s also much more practical and if you are self-disciplined, you can work your learning around your other commitments.

It’s also really nice when you are feeling lonely in your studio to have a video and voice talking to you about art to just keep you motivated.

Ivan: Do you work in other art disciplines – sculpture, etching or something else?

Manuela: Well, sharing a studio with a sculptor has naturally made me get all tempted by this yummy clay hanging around. Cam is about to teach me how to model the features of the face. Hopefully, this will help my drawing.

Ivan: Do you plan to compete in future skill building challenges (regular or master) or in any other competitions that Watts Atelier of the Arts online organizes?

Manuela: I intend to join in when I can on regular or Master Skill Building Challenges again. In the last year, I joined the cycle based on figure and composition and I really enjoyed it. I am still working on that painting in fact. It was great during that MSBC to have the support of my peers through ‘Critique Buddies’. I received helpful and useful feedback.

Ivan: Thank you for your time! I really like your work and looking forward to seeing more of it in future!


Thanks to all of the participants of the MSBC for their hard work, and special thank you to Ivan Miletic for organizing the interview questions. Keep an eye out for our soon to come interview of the Second Annual MSBC winner Chris Carlson! Keep pressing play everyone!

-The Watts Atelier Team