Painting above by Kevin Murphy, 17 year old high school student trained in classical skill-based art. Image courtesy of the Da Vinci Initiative.
Design and the 20th Century Modern Art Movement
As early as the 1940s, classical design began to disappear from most art educational programs, along with all skill-based training, because of the Modern Art movement in America. And because this shift towards creating artwork based on one's "feelings" (not technical skills) became so popular with the masses and most art galleries, very few artists in this country were adequately trained in the application of Dynamic Symmetry or the 14 line armature of the rectangle. By the 1980s, over 1500 years of accrued technical skills were on the verge of becoming extinct. Unfortunately, this lack of education and knowledge of respectable design principles is still prevalent today.
For this reason, it's not surprising to hear that the 20th century is considered the worst period in the history of art. As Fred Ross states in the article Good Art, Bad Art, "Three-quarters of the 20th century will go down in art history as a great wasteland of insanity -- a nightmarish blip in the long road of the development of human logic, and reason and art, from which we are only just starting to awake."
Despite the negative impact of the last century, the art world is slowly changing. With modern Conceptual art popularity deteriorating and classical skill-based ateliers emerging all over the country, the next generation of artists is finally able to acquire the much-needed training that will allow them to create masterful art. In fact, if the current trend in the art industry continues, within the next ten years, learning design will be one of the most sought out and demanded "lost" skills in art education.
"Atelier training is no longer a dying tradition. More studios are opening across the country than I can keep track of, and the number of students, once just a handful, is now in the thousands. Despite every reason why this movement might remain small, it continues to grow." - Juliette Aristides, Lessons in Classical Painting
Ateliers are schools that train students in realism skills. They are often lead by one teacher who inherited hundreds of years of collective artistic information from another atelier-trained artist. For example, Paul Ingbretson currently runs an atelier in Manchester, New Hampshire. He trained with R.H. Ives Gammell, who trained under William McGregor Paxton, who trained under Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose lineage goes all the way back to Jacques-Louis David. Contemporary atelier training often requires 2-6 years of full-time study. It is common for atelier students to spend 3-4 hours every day with a live figure model, and an additional 3-4 hours per day on still life and other projects.
Usually, students work only in charcoal for the first year of training. Drawing skills are honed during this time.
Second-year students often begin training in painting, sometimes in Grisaille. Grisaille is a method of painting in black and white. The idea is that students will master paint handling skills before adding the additional component of painting in color.
Third-year students usually paint with a limited or full-color palette. This warm/cool training is an integral part of the curriculum at many ateliers, including the Aristides Atelier in Seattle, Washington.
Most ateliers are not accredited. However, some, such as The Florence Academy of Art, offers associate's degrees to their atelier students. Some are partnered with accredited colleges to offer credit for studying with them, such as Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Others, like the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, incorporate some atelier training into their degree and certificate programs.
Anyone who is interested in learning how to paint in a realistic manner or a classical tradition is highly encouraged to attend an atelier. The gaming industry, motion graphics industry, and fine art market judge artists based on portfolios. Serious students who intend to pursue these career paths should attend an atelier for their artistic training.
What Are the Benefits of Atelier Training?
Atelier training is a method for teaching visual art to students. This method introduces technical art skills in a layered way that build on each other in order to intelligently translate objects into drawings, paintings, and sculptures. This includes being able to sensitively interpret three-dimensional subjects into two-dimensional artworks. In cases of sculpture, students work in a medium such as clay to better understand subjects and their construction in three-dimensional spaces. Just as in music where each new skill requires an understanding of the previous skill in order for the student to learn more advanced material, i.e., students must learn how to play notes before a song, DVI advocates for art classrooms to use this same teaching theory in order for young artists to achieve high levels of technical and expressive competence. For example, in a self-portrait art project, students can first learn how to find accurate angles of lines in the face, combine many found lines to describe the mass of the head, and then build on these skills to combine ideas of proportion, shading, planes of the face, etc.
The Da Vinci Initiative believes that the most creative children are those who have many skills in their tool belts from which to pick from and utilize in their own unique artwork. Additionally, DVI believes that every student should be able to produce artwork exactly as they envision it in their heads without compromise, which often requires a high level of technical competence. Skill-based learning is one of the most effective methods for teaching technical skills.
Benefits of Skill-Based Learning Include:
Continuity in Education
Skill-Based Learning requires a targeted teaching approach so that teachers can better assess what technical skills students can learn, and at what developmental stage pupils can learn them. With clear assignments where children execute specific tasks, continuity is gained in art education. When clear objectives are presented for what a student should learn from a day's lesson, teachers can measure how and what the student is actually learning. Skill-based training allows for accurate assessment of whether a student has learned the objectives for the lesson being taught.
Skill-based methods have been used to teach art since before the time of ancient Rome and continued to evolve throughout the 19th century. A strong foundation in classical training techniques engages students in history by exposing them to art of the past and the training methods that were spread from generation to generation throughout human history. By teaching these technical skills, students can more deeply understand how historical artworks were created. They can also extract greater insight into the artistic choices of paintings that are very much a mainstay in contemporary culture, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Classical training teaches history to students through the application of traditional art-making techniques.
It is important to note that skill-based training at its core forces the human brain to advance its visual intelligence. It is one thing for students to be able to recognize objects in the world around them and it is another for students to be able to break those objects down into specific abstracted shapes, lines, and values. By teaching students how to break objects down and reconstruct them in a different dimension, students gain advancement in their visual perception, and therefore their visual intelligence is increased. Think about the last time you saw an apple for example. Do you remember whether it was taller or fatter? Was the color more neutral or chromatic? Or do you simply remember it as a symbol of an apple? Imagine all of the rich depths of life students gain by learning how to read, and then imagine how similarly, acute visual literacy can enhance students’ experiences of the world around them.
Skill-Based Learning builds hand-eye coordination in a deliberate fashion that engrosses children in creating specific lines and shapes as well as fine motor skills that are easily applicable to many aspects of life. When a specific skill is taught in art classrooms, such as finding the angle of a line, students are often wildly inaccurate at first. When an inaccurate line angle is corrected, students improve how precisely their hands translate information from their eyes. Additionally, it takes a tremendous about of fine motor control in order to draw more and more accurate line angles, and practicing nuanced hand control improves overall fine motor skills. The act of practicing specific skills at a high level of accuracy trains the eye and hand to work together in the precise fashion needed to create skill-based artwork and complete other fine-motor-skill-based tasks.
Common Core Mathematical Understanding of Geometry and Ratios
Whether you agree with Common Core Standards or not, principals all over the country now require art teachers to demonstrate how they are meeting Common Core Math Standards in their art curricula. Teaching skill-based learning in art classrooms is an effortless way to integrate these Common Core Math Standards because draftsmanship skills require extensive knowledge of geometry and ratios. In many skill-based lessons, students are asked to find shapes such as rectangles, squares, cones, and rhombuses. They build complex forms, such as figures, using spheres, cones, and cubes. Students in DVI lesson plans are asked to find notional space by identifying width-to-height ratios of a variety of subjects. They identify and utilize parallel lines to build design and structure in their drawings. They identify and adjust angles of lines by slight degrees. They must add, multiply, subtract, and divide to find the appropriate ratios of the subjects they are drawing, painting or sculpting.
The act of being able to break down complex shapes into simple shapes teaches students how to recognize geometry in the world around them and how the world is constructed from geometric shapes. Additionally, when a student can demonstrate that they can find the appropriate ratios they are looking for by putting objects in correct proportion to one another, an art teacher can assess that a student has an understanding of mathematical ratios which links art to Common Core Math Standards. Skill-based training requires students to practice nearly all of the Common Core Geometry Standards, and many additional Common Core Math Standards, while simultaneously training students in visual literacy and technical competence.
Common Core English Language Arts Standards and Understanding Art as a Visual Language
By depicting objects and people from nature such as a moody landscape of fog over rolling hills, or blooming cherry blossoms on a sunny spring day, whether a work of art shows a mother playing with her child or a fierce battle scene, art literally paints a picture, and a picture is worth a thousand words. A student can equate the word tree for example with an actual tree in the same fashion as they can associate the word tree with a painting of a tree, hence demonstrating a visual language.
Students use recognizable subjects in their artworks to create a language that their peers intuitively understand. Just like other visual art forms such as movies and TV shows use recognizable figures to tell a story, the same is true for paintings, drawings, and sculptures created using skill-based techniques. Teaching students to study nuance and detail in drawings, paintings, and sculpture directly correlates to students identifying nuance and detail in literature. Using skill-based learning in art classrooms meets many of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, especially those standards related to story-telling, identifying character hierarchies, finding details in stories, and more.
Makes Art Exciting
Many teachers are lead to believe that art has to come naturally from within and cannot be taught, but when art teachers make the assumption that art can be taught, everyone benefits. Teaching specific skills to students who self-identify as "not artists" is the most obvious way to convince them that, like all other subjects, hard work under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher will yield impressive results. When the belief that they can learn art emerges, students become more actively engaged in art classrooms. Approaching art classrooms with the belief that art can be taught allows teachers to help all students develop a sophisticated understanding and appreciation for the visual arts and makes art class exciting for everyone.
An Additional Skill Set to Use in Self-Expression
Teaching a student skill-based techniques does not rob a student of the other techniques available to them. It simply gives them an extra tool in their proverbial toolbox. Rather than relying on emotion or innate ability alone, students can incorporate their skill-based training with their emotions as much or as little as they choose in order to attain the desired result. Not having the skill-based training at their disposal only limits the number of choices artists can make when creating their art.
Just like with music, math, science, architecture, literature and virtually all other subjects, adding discipline to art through skill-based training educates students on the rewards of attaining skills acquired through dedication and practice. Since skill-based training requires intense focus and concentration, fortitude is needed to achieve high levels of skill using these methods.
Although not every student will become a professional artist, through skill-based training students experience visual problem solving and can, therefore, appreciate and identify the skills of other artists. Students gain an understanding of the work and dedication needed to create the skill-based artwork that they see hanging on the walls of museums and gain a deeper appreciation for the skills and knowledge required by the artist to create it.
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As I began reading about the old world masters, including da Vinci, Degas, Rembrandt, and Renoir, I learned that Dynamic Symmetry structurally changed paintings from being passive to active and dynamic. Furthermore, I didn’t realize that a small, yet renowned, group of photographers were well known for using Dynamic Symmetry in their photographs of city life and people.
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