A MODERN RENAISSANCE
Following on from the traditions of renaissance masters. artist MARY MOLONY took a course in Florence to learn the techniques they honed during their apprentice days.
FOR THE CONTEMPORARY art student struggling to find his own means of self-expression, the modern art school seldom, if ever, offers much in the way of good, solid training in the traditional methods of drawing and painting. Much of the knowledge and skills developed, practised and passed down through the centuries by such giants in art as Velasquez, Rembrandt and Rubens, have been lost, and as one who spent hours as a teenager poring over illustrations of master drawings and paintings with an intense longing to acquire those same skills and techniques, my experience of art school was a disappointment. The emphasis lay entirely on the freedom of self-expression. Little time was devoted to the teaching of those skills which I believe to be fundamental in developing even a very basic visual language. I had read how the old masters had, in their youth, devoted years to disciplined study, each to their individual task of becoming highly skilled draughtsmen and painters. But after five years of art school I had finally come to believe that there was nothing even vaguely resembling the apprenticeship system under which they had studied. Imagine my joy in being proven wrong, in discovering that there were in fact several small teaching studios to be found. They are run by a minority group of artists devoted to keeping alive and passing on traditional techniques and to finding, through their own work, a way in which those same techniques could be made relevant to the modern, 20th century sensibility. These artists believe that the academic methods of teaching are the most effective means of introducing the student to the skills and knowledge absolutely necessary if he is ever to arrive at a point in his career where the difficulty of technique no longer inhibits his ultimate task of self-expression.
In the spring of last year, I began a course of study in one such studio. Situated in Florence, on the banks of the Arno, it is run by an American, Charles Cecil, who describes it as, "A school of fine art in the realist tradition... one of the few ateliers in Europe that offers a thorough training in the classical techniques of drawing and painting". It is in fact a sister studio to several of its kind in America, all of which owe their beginnings to one R H Yves Gammell (1893-1981), a Boston painter who made it his life's work to preserve the traditional methods of picture making. He believed the atelier workshop method of training painters to be most successful, surpassed only in its effectiveness by an apprenticeship.
The atelier method of teaching developed in the 17th century and was in fact a modification of the old apprenticeship system whereby the student. was bound for several years to a master painter, learning the fundamentals of his craft by working closely with him and assisting with his commissions. The atelier method is founded upon discipline and an accurate return to nature, the aim being to train the eye and hand to see and record as sensitively as possible all the riches and variety that nature has to offer.
The structure of the course depends upon an academic approach to the study of form. The student begins this training by drawing from the antique, i.e. casts, as did almost all artists beginning their studies in the 500 years following ' owing the Renaissance. The casts are set up each day under similar lighting conditions and offer the student the opportunity to model form through light and shadow, as accurately as possible without the additional problems of colour. The drawings can be viewed essentially as exercises, like practising musical scales, a means of mastering the fundamentals of good draughtsmanship before moving on to more advanced and complex drawing problems. From cast drawing, and later painting, the student proceeds to tackle still lifes and portrait work. Throughout the course, students are taught according to the Sight Size method, practised by such artists as Rembrandt, Rijn and Sargent . This enables the artist to obtain a high degree of accuracy in proportions. The object to be drawn and the canvas or paper stand side by side so that the student, six to eight feet away, obtains accurate measurements through the use of horizontal and vertical lines and the constant comparisons between the original and the drawing which the close proximity allows.
STUDYING FROM LIFE
Under the atelier system, students also spend a large proportion of studio time working on sustained studies of the nude model, where they progress in their ability to render what they see and in their understanding of the human form. The life drawing classes are supplemented by the study of anatomy, in the belief that in order to understand the surface shapes and contours, it is essential to know what lies beneath the flesh. In addition, the curriculum includes assignments in composition, memory drawing, perspective and art history, together with on-site landscape drawing, working from sculpture in museums and copying from the old masters. Gammel believed that, "The ability to read even a very little of nature's infinite book of secrecy is not something a man can acquire by himself. One might as well expect a savage on some island hitherto unknown to civilised man to discover unaided the principles of modern surgery. The student will realise that what he must learn from the experience of the centuries is how to study nature. He will realise that therein lies the secret of the masters. He will realise that the great teachers have tried to show their students a way of using nature as a source of supplies, so to speak, and then how to put those supplies to uses of their own, and he will realise the futility and hopelessness of trying to do without the wisdom of the past".
Students on an atelier course also learn how to prepare canvas grounds, how to handle and grind pigments, and how to make and use painting media, in other words, they are given a thorough grounding in the craft of traditional picture making.
FINDING A DISCIPLINE
I have only relatively recently embarked upon an academic training - a student of a mere five months. But in that short time my drawing has strengthened, I have become far more disciplined in my work habits, and my ability to concentrate has increased a hundred fold. I, firmly believe that in order to be equipped to carry out that formidable task of competent expression which every artist aspires to, I must first master the skills necessary to communicate in a strong and fluent manner. I look forward, therefore, to making full use of the opportunities which an academic training can offer to improve my skills as a draughtsman and painter, all the time remembering that, while one can enjoy and take pride in the work one produces while training, what ultimately counts is the manner in which one goes on later to use those skills in developing one's own very individual visual language. Gammell wrote that the student must use the traditions of the past in order to "build a method of his own that is adequate to convey the particular message he carries in his heart".
Charles A Cecil
Annette Le Sueur