The Art of Teaching with Marco Polo Channels

Rochester, Minnesota

Fine artist, designer, and illustrator Amarilys Henderson has built a thriving business selling original watercolors and prints, authoring instruction books, and licensing her artwork.

Like many artists, Amarilys also teaches. From her hub, watercolordevo.com, she has served upwards of 100,000 students with more than 20 different classes covering everything from selecting the right tools to painting animals to setting up an online art storefront. She also holds in-person workshops but put those on hold when Minnesota’s Stay Safe order took effect in response to COVID-19.

Amarilys discovered Channels by Marco Polo at just the right time. With minimal overhead, the video-first membership platform helped her generate a new income stream and connect with an “inner circle” of dedicated students in a way that’s almost as good as live, but better in this socially distanced time.

The challenge: Find out what students want, give them what they need

Before starting her Channel, Amarilys offered course content via her Watercolor Devo app and the online learning community Skillshare.   

Amarilys’ online platforms allowed her to reach many students at once but weren’t designed to foster interaction or feedback beyond the comment fields. Given the demands on her time – she is also a mom to two boys – forming relationships with such a high volume of online audience members wasn’t possible.

So as a teacher, Amarilys didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing her students’ artwork develop. And as a content creator, she wasn’t learning firsthand about their needs. She might spend dozens of hours designing a class and recording and editing a video, only to find that the topic wasn’t of interest to current or prospective students.

“I was attracted to Channels because I wanted to go deeper with the people who were really engaged and asking for more,” she says. “Channels was a good puzzle piece for that, to create a level of intimacy with students and give them a way to respond to the material directly.”

Channels: Customized offerings, high engagement, low overhead

Amarilys runs her Watercolor Devo Inner Circle Channel on a monthly basis, choosing a new painting theme based on what’s trending among her students. She welcomes artists of all experience and skill levels. 

Each week she introduces a new sub-topic (if the month’s theme is animals, a weekly topic might be pandas), kicking off with an overview and a demo, inviting students to try their hand, and asking them to share their results with the group.

As the week progresses, Amarilys posts additional demos, shares links to supplementary material, answers questions, and provides direct feedback on student work.

This predictable structure helps students know what to expect, yet the variety keeps them challenged and engaged. And even though Amarilys posts frequently, she can do so quickly and spontaneously, without spending time producing or editing her videos.

It’s also easy to tailor instruction to her students’ needs because when they post their progress, she can see exactly what they’re doing and where they might need help.

“With Channels, I can help walk my students through a process of growth, on their own time and no matter what their skill level,” she says. “It’s provided a good landing place, where I don’t feel like I’m compromising my time or the quality of my engagement.”

Predictable income during a challenging time for artists

With many people in creative fields experiencing financial vulnerability right now, Amarilys sees Channels as a welcome addition to her repertoire.

She has quickly created a reliable alternative income stream. “One student saw my content online and signed up for an in-person workshop that I later had to cancel. But I still provided a classroom experience using Channels. She told me it turned out to be exactly what she needed.”

Channels creates a framework for high-quality instruction and trust. “There’s an abundance of instruction and information out there, but a lot of students stay with me month to month because they like my work and my style. Channels helps me package my courses in a way that shows students that I’m invested and I care,” she says.

Streamlined pricing and enrollment prevents logistical headaches. “I appreciate the fact that I can engage with people one-to-one without having to keep track of how much time I’m spending with each of them and charging each individual accordingly,” she says. “That kind of administrative tracking can get overwhelming and messy.”

Amarilys’ top Channels features

#1. Interactive video. Art is visual, and Channels by Marco Polo provides a fast, effective way to convey the nuances of a technique or process and make suggested improvements when someone is stuck. “I can immediately see where someone is using too much water or a slight color shift would make a big improvement, and then hop on and show them. It’s so much better than posting a static image or trying to describe the solution in words.”

#2. The ability to add links and attachments. Including links to supplemental information and additional resources is easy, adds value, and puts everything in one place for her students.  

#3. Built-in accountability. “One student told me that the main thing she needed for forward momentum was to know that someone noticed whether or not she participated. Wanting to feel seen is pretty universal. And feeling accountable motivates you to put in the time, versus working hard on something but wondering whether that time is worth spending.”

About Amarilys

A commercial illustrator, published author, and popular instructor, Amarilys Henderson is the founder of Watercolor Devo, an online hub for watercolor education, design resources, and artwork for licensing. She Holds a degree in illustration from Savannah College of Art & Design.

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