A three-part series that highlights the origins and resurgence of Classic Realism and its importance to the 21st-century artist.
It was in college that I decided to become an artist. How to achieve that goal, well, I assumed the college knew. In my ignorance, I knew very little about what it took to become an artist, nor did I even know what questions to ask.
The 1960's did not give a young student many options, so I took the logical, affordable one. For me, growing as an artist followed the path of trial and error with some influential and valuable guidance along the way. Mainly, however, I feel I am mostly self-taught. At one point in my career, I probably considered that a badge of honor, but not anymore. Now I consider it a shame and a powerful condemnation of the sad state of art education during my formative years.
Today, with the rise of so many great educational opportunities for artists, from workshops to ateliers, things are much different. Tastes in art are changing. Hopeful students are looking for something more than the self-indulgent painting of the modernist era...those works preferred and promoted by art critics and museums for almost 100 years.
There are now art schools around the world, many in this country, that are intent on researching and restoring the teaching methods of old that produced the world's greatest artists.
We really owe a great deal of gratitude to those who are dedicating themselves to teaching these traditional methods, for we're already seeing the phenomenal results of such training among many of our younger artists.
I am so excited to bring you this interview with three of the best, all recognized living masters who have dedicated themselves to training the next generation of artists. It should be noted that my timing proved to be the worst as they were contacted just as Fall classes were about to begin. For some, my request was too much to deal with...and I totally understand. But for these three...well, what can I say but...Thank You.
In the interview that follows, my hope is that we gain a deeper understanding of what some are calling "Classical Realism." What is it and what are it's roots? What distinguishes classical training from other types of art instruction, and why is it important?
I think you will find this three-part interview very enlightening.
Michael John Angel was born in England but emigrated to Canada during his teen years. Searching for a teacher that would give him the training he craved, in the late 1960's he found what he was looking for in Florence, Italy. Now recognized as one of the foremost traditional painters in North America, he is founder and director of Angel Academies of Art in both Canada and Italy. He has dedicated himself to not only passing on his love for classical and traditional art but also to instill the disciplines that lead to successful mastery of the necessary techniques.
Juliette Aristides is the founding instructor of the Aristides Atelier at Gage Academy in Seattle, WA. and also Aristides Atelier, an on-line teaching website. A prolific writer, she has authored four books: Classical Drawing Atelier, Classical Painting Atelier, Lessons in Classical Drawing, and Lessons in Classical Painting. She believes that the goal of learning to draw and paint is attainable by anyone who is willing to pursue it. It is as accessible as learning to write or play a musical instrument. She has dedicated herself to helping others attain that goal.
David Hardy began his studies with Dallas artist, Ramon Froman, at the age of nineteen. Later he continued his studies at the American Academy of Fine Art in Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. The Atelier School of Classical Realism in the San Francisco Bay area, which David founded, focuses its attention on the marvelous range of technical, artistic knowledge, understanding and observation of nature that helped make possible the impressive accomplishments of the masters of realism.
"Classically trained" and "classical realism" are terms often disputed by fine artists today. What exactly is meant by those terms?
Aristides: Classical Realism was a term coined by Richard Lack. On the surface, it looks like a contradiction of terms. Realism often refers to an unfiltered view of everyday life. Classism works within a tradition striving for an ideal between nature and design. I imagine the term Classical Realism reflects the striving of an artist to see and express the ideal in life. I love this definition of classism from an unlikely source, the Romantic artist, Eugene Delacroix: "I would readily apply the term "classical" to all well-ordered works which satisfy the mind, not only by an accurate, noble, or lively rendering of sentiments and objects but also by their unity and logical arrangements. In short, by all those qualities which enhance the impression by creating a final simplicity."
Hardy: The terms "Classically trained" and "Classical Realism" vary in meaning in the art community because there is a wide range of understanding and cultural sophistication amongst some of those using these terms. I choose to name my atelier the Atelier School of Classical Realism for two reasons: (1) Atelier because I have adapted some of the teaching approaches and concepts popular in Paris in the 19th century. Atelier (French for 'studio') studies brought a limited (small) group of students together to learn from a respected master. (2) I firmly believe, with but a few later exceptions, that the major Baroque artists brought realism to a level rarely touched since. Because of this, I have made an effort to become very involved with Baroque technology. When I think of classical realism, I think of Old Master baroque artists, such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Reubens, Van Dyke, Caravaggio, and Velasquez.
Angel: I hate to start off by being pedantic, but "Classical Realism" is actually a misnomer: the adjective Classical specifically refers to things from the Classical period in Greece (c.480 to 323 BC), and classical (lower-case C) refers more generally to things to do with Greece and ancient Rome. Classic Realism is better, or Traditional Realism. A classic shoe is just that, whereas a classical shoe is a sandal. The only classical painting that we have is vase painting. Realism is a difficult word, too, implying as it does things that we see in reality, i.e. everyday genre painting. This would exclude all symbolic allegory, including mythology, Christian or pagan. It also tends to exclude Conceptualism, but more about this later. I prefer Representational Painting (or Sculpture, of course), but it's something of a mouthful. (Another much-misused word is figurative. It actually means representational: a still life or a landscape is figurative, as are figural works such as nudes and portraits.) Sorry to go on, but you did ask!!
What characteristics are synonymous among all things classical?
Aristides: It was said very well by the artist and author Kenyon Cox, in his book The Classic Point of View (1911): "The Classic Spirit is the disinterested search for perfection; it is the love of clearness and reasonableness and self-control; it is, above all, the love of permanence and of continuity. It asks of a work of art, not that it shall be novel or effective, but that it shall be fine and noble. It seeks not merely to express individuality or emotion but to express disciplined emotion and individuality restrained by law. It strives for the essential rather than the accidental, the eternal rather than the momentary - loves impersonality more than personality, and feels more power in the orderly succession of the hours and the seasons than in the violence of earthquake or of storm."
Hardy: When I think of classical things, I think of search for truth, search for the ultimate in ideals, plus clarity and accessibility.
Why do we credit and accept the Greeks as establishing the canons of beauty?
Aristides: Greek art, in the Classical period, reached a remarkable balance between adherence to proportional cannons and naturalism. The Greeks moved away from static proportional systems, identifying and formalizing the attributes of beauty from nature. When looking at images from an art history timeline, you can see the Greeks so surpassed their predecessors in sophistication that the culture almost appears to spring up out of thin air.
Hardy: Because they were there "firstest with the mostest."
Why the fascination with ancient Greece and Rome?
Aristides: In his book Civilization, Kenneth Clark wrote that "Western Europe had inherited an ideal invented in Greece in the 5th century B.C which was so satisfying to the mind and eye that it lasted practically unchanged for over six-hundred years". During my travels this summer it is easy to see its powerful influence in America - in old city Philadelphia. It not only affected Europe, but when the New World was being shaped our founding fathers looked all the way back to Greco-Roman times, not only as a model for democracy, but also to their arts and architecture. It was the high point in philosophy, art, architecture, civic life, mathematics, etc. and became the basis for Western Culture. The ancient Greeks were seeking after permanence and a perfect balance of reason, beauty, and justice. They were trying to create a model civilization, not just copying what came before them...but innovating. Perhaps we are drawn to the best of those ideals.
Hardy: Because most of the ideals and structure of western society today were fermented and given birth in ancient Greece and Rome.
Is the fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity concerned mainly with appearances or does it also extend to the philosophies of that time?
Hardy: The almost exclusive survival of Greek art has been their statues. Greek statuary was an expression of their belief that all of their pantheon of gods existed as super perfect versions of humans...more handsome or beautiful, perfectly proportioned, more graceful.
Aristides: Today, I don't know that many artists are actually influenced by classical art, and architecture in the strict meaning of the word. Rather, I think there is a desire to understand artistic systems from the past so we can create the best art possible for the times in which we live. I think we are in such a disposable culture, the desire to make something that lasts, that attempts permanence, is compelling. We look back and are inspired to try a little harder.
Mr. Angel has combined these last four questions into the following response:
Angel: The sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome transcends everyday reality. We feel as though we are looking through the specific - the model, the subject - into the eternal, and this is why it haunts us. How do they accomplish this? All representational art should be a combination of the empirical and the conceptual. Modern ateliers teach the basic geometrical forms - at Angel's, we teach that there are four pure ones: the cylinder, the egg, the block, and the pyramid, plus the various hybrids between these - and how to render these, illusionistically, on a two-dimensional surface.
The ancients stressed these pure forms, modifying them empirically just enough to conjure the appearance of a human, but they leave us with the sense of the Eternal, the perennial flux. They combined this with a profound grasp of gesture, itself a conceptual thing, and of grace, which they created by the use of flow-through lines, rhyming forms, and proportion.
A great deal of our modern Realism deals only with the empirical, thinking that this is what the masters did; however, if I were to show you a reproduction of a Caravaggio (or a Ribera, or a van Dyck...) and tell you that this is a photo of some models posing, you wouldn't believe me for a minute. Caravaggio, with or without mirror projections, has changed something; he has conceptualized (simplified and purified) the forms to make them more powerful and, ironically enough, more convincing.
I've heard some teachers refer to classical training for the artist as a "resurrection of the humanist spirit in western art." What is meant by that?
Angel: I may be one of the people you are quoting here. Abstract art generally turns away from the world of people and doesn't concern itself with the nature of Humankind, except for how to grab its attention. Representationalism concerns itself very much with the world of people and how people view nature - hence Humanism.
Aristides: I take it to mean that the figure is, once again, returning as a central subject in art. It is not only a shift in content, but it represents a big philosophical shift as well.
Hardy: Art is returning to the speaking about the human condition and to the miracle of existence within which we find ourselves. Much of western art for over a century has devoted itself to such things as visual engineering and conceptual involvement.
What is your definition of art?
Angel: Art is wide; life is narrow (to paraphrase a Latin aphorism); this also is too big a question. I will say, though, that I believe a painting or sculpture should conjure an emotion in the viewer (it can be a mild one, or strong, lyrical or dramatic) and give the sense of the Eternal behind - the Specific.
Hardy: Art, like love, is more easily described than defined. Both could be expressions of the human soul, the human essence of being. But defining it? I leave that up to the experts.
How would you define beauty?
Angel: I wouldn't even try. Beauty is much too wide a subject.
Aristides: The discussion about "what is beauty" has been going on for millennium. Any attempt to define beauty would be an act of hubris on my part - (however, that never stoped me before - so I will give it a shot:) Beauty in art is a reconciliation of opposing elements into a harmonious unity (between design, content, and execution).
Hardy: Like trying to define love, defining beauty in words is beyond my powers. Identifying examples of visual beauty is more in my line.
What distinguishes classical training from other types of art instruction?
Angel: One has to learn specific skills in order to draw and paint realistically (there's that word again!). These skills - how to make an even tone, how to measure, how to mix paints, how to create colour harmonies, how to model the illusion of form - can be taught, and are taught in the modern ateliers and academies. The state-run schools believe, rather naively, that art requires only passion and that the teaching of skill inhibits creativity. It is also true that many instructors in the state schools haven't been taught well themselves and have no idea how to draw. There is a great (true) story of a life-drawing instructor in the Art Institute (I think) in Chicago, some years ago. It was nearly Christmas, and most of his class had left for the holidays; he decided to draw along with the remainder of his students. After half an hour, he had made an awful mess and said, "This is harder than I thought!". The life-drawing instructor in a prestigious university had never drawn the figure before.
Aristides: An Atelier is a studio run by a working artist (not an educator). An atelier provides a time-tested, progression of curriculum over period years - so that students reach a high level of technical proficiency. Drawing is taught first, then painting. Students often spend half days with the life model and the other half in their studio. In short, it is a skill based traditional form of art education which places its emphasis on the student emerging as a fully trained artist able to open a studio of their own.
Hardy: Classical training involves the sharing of understanding and building of skills that constitute a visual language about reality. This is normally done in small classes with individual guidance. Advanced students in my Atelier when interested, are taught traditional procedures using layered glazing.
Why are we seeing such an interest in classical training for the artist at this time in our history?
Angel: People have always wanted to learn how to make representational drawings and paintings, and they always will. Fashion within the Art Establishment is starting to swing more and more towards Representationalism, and the new "Realists" are getting to be more visible; people are astonished and delighted to learn that this teaching is available to them. I cannot tell you how many letters and e-mails I receive, telling me that the sender thought that representational painting was "forbidden" today!! We are the avant-garde, and we are starting to have a voice - 45 years ago, when I was studying under Annigoni, there was only him, Gammell, Signorina Simi and the Russian academies in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (there may have been one in China); now there are hundreds (thousands?) of good schools.
Aristides: We are living in an important time and need every tool available to fully express ourselves. One way that has been historically achieved is by looking back at our cultural legacy and building on it.
Hardy: Because we are maturing beyond rampant rejection of establishment ideas inherited from five hundred years of evolvement and refinement. We are recognizing the stupidity of believing "if it is new it must be better."
Daniel Graves, founder of The Florence Academy of Art, also a living master and leader in the training of artists, talks about many of these same topics in a paper he wrote titled Tradition in the 21st Century.
He explains the difficulty of recapturing the "tradition" of past centuries. "Why can't we produce Leonardos today? I do not believe it is just because we lack technical knowledge and expertise. I believe it is because there is something in addition to the technique that is also part of the tradition...the essence of the tradition. Given that we do not want to just repeat the work of past centuries, I think one of the great challenges we all face is that of discovering what we are going to paint and sculpt.
The narratives that artists tapped into for centuries, the timeless stories from mythology and the Bible, seem less meaningful to people than they once did. To merely record the surface appearance of "reality" has never been the province of painting, whose language is far deeper. From the beginning, artists have painted, sculpted and drawn things that had meaning for them, and the images they have left behind are a living testament, a record of their consciousness on earth."
Why is it important for an artist to have a knowledge of art history?
Angel: Edmond Burke, the English 18th-century philosopher, wrote that those who don't know history are destined to repeat it ('s mistakes). Why waste one's time re-living the failures that led to the understanding of compositional and technical principles? The paintings of the past are inspirational and instructive, and paintings are painters talking to each other over the centuries.
Aristides: It helps to have a context for human achievement. Being an artist is a very difficult calling (for all but a few). It is a source of real encouragement to see the artists of the past, not as gods, but as real people like ourselves with hardships and struggles. A knowledge of art history can brush away the dust of the past and help us see ourselves in a bigger picture.
Hardy: Art history gives us clues, as artists, of who we are, what we are, why we are, and how we got that way.
How can parents best aid and encourage the development of their child's imagination and creativity?
Angel: Send them to a good school.
Aristides: Limit media, provide plenty of opportunities to be outside experiencing nature, and provide exposure to the arts. This is harder then it seems, parents are under a lot of stress - it is difficult to role model a life of imagination when, so few of us have the time, resources and support to do so ourselves.
Hardy: By encouraging children, when possible and appropriate, to make decisions. Also by accepting, respectfully, childish outreach into the unknown by means of fantasy.
Can creativity be taught, if so, how?
Angel: Creativity cannot be taught, but it can be nurtured. All human beings are more or less creative. What modern artists need is technical instruction, philosophy and art history.
Aristides: I don't think it can be taught as much as encouraged and fostered. The environment needs to be stimulating while providing space and time.
Hardy: By helping the individual to accept themselves and dare to make decisions.
Why are the fine arts (painting/sculpture) important?
Angel: Life without the arts - drawing, painting, theater, novels, films, dance - would be bleak indeed.
Aristides: It has many functions and is important for a multitude of reasons. The fine arts provide us a glimmer of an alternate truth - that there is more to a human life than progress or acquisition. We have an innate love of beauty, learning, challenge and encouragement which can be provided through art. Fine art provides us with a different vision, and something greater, something noble to strive towards that can last through the passage of time. It holds up a mirror to our society and is the expression of our culture and becomes a legacy for future generations.
Hardy: Because the fine arts are a part of the total human range of responsiveness with which we as humans are endowed. Not only are painting and sculpture important, but also music, dance, drama, and literature are part of the gift with which we are endowed. Much like the fact that muscles grow and function more fully for us in proportion to being used, so our involvement with the fine arts becomes more enriched and rewarding when we open up to it.
Are art and beauty synonymous?
Aristides: I think we would be hard pressed to say that.
Hardy: I think this depends upon how we perceive art and how we perceive beauty. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Artists of the Ashcan School responded to the beauty of simple, everyday things and happenings. But that does not forbid me my love of the miraculous beauty of a rose.
How do you encourage and help your students find their own creative path?
Angel: We make them aware of the myriad paths within the discipline of Representationalism. We do this by teaching them technique, the play between Conceptualism and Empiricism, the dialectic between the real and the abstract and a study of art history. We also encourage the students to copy paintings (contemporary, as well as pre-21st-century ones) and explore (absorb?) these various voices.
Aristides: We have a fourth year in our Atelier - a thesis year, where students work with mentors (high achieving professionals in the field) as role models. Students put together an artist's statement, formulate a plan for a body of work based solely on their artistic vision and have an academic year to create it. The work is then placed on exhibition. We then arrange for the graduates to have their first professional show within a year after leaving the program.
Hardy: Belief in and acceptance of one's self is crucial, in my opinion, as a bedrock for creativity. Combine this with the daring to make decisions - to be able to choose the superior between two whatever's that are almost equal, almost identical, is also important. Sometimes it is better to replace "why" with "why not?" When planning student projects, I prefer to have students take responsibility and try out their ideas. If a certain set-up is not quite working. I suggest some possible advice, but it is up to the student to reach final decisions. Even if (very rarely) something doesn't work, there is much that can be learned that will enrich future projects.
Why should art students attend your school?
Angel: I honestly think that we are one of the best. As well as thorough training, we have Florence and the rest of Italy to draw on (Rome is an hour and a half away by train, and Venice is three hours away). The atmosphere at Angel's is convivial and friendly, while the quality of instruction is very high - all one has to do is look at the student galleries on our website: www.angelartschool.com/galleries.html. In addition, we are one of the very few academies that teach the business side - professional painting means painting for a living - as well as the creative.
Aristides: Art students should attend some form of rigorous education to become challenged to produce their best work. There are many great schools out there right now. Aristides Atelier is located in Gage Academy: www.AristidesAtelier.com, and as such, we benefit from a lot of cross fertilization.
Hardy: Because we help and encourage students in how to be effective in their artwork, understand themselves better and prepare for today's professional art world. We train champions. The core of good instruction, in my opinion, should be accessibility and effectiveness (another way of saying dependableness). In line with this way of thinking. I have in many instances invented my own ways of presenting time-proven traditional art technology. The School of Boston did not have a strangle hold on important art procedures and viewpoints. My training came down to me from the Julianne Academy in Paris, plus the Royal Academy in Brussels and the Superior Institute in Antwerp.