The Altelier Method Of Learning Art:
A Living Tradition
by Peter Bougie



Around 1950, the obscure Boston painter R. H. Ives Gammell began to acquire a few students. He set them up in a room at the Fenway Studios in Boston, where his own studio was located, and began to instruct them in an old, neglected tradition of painting. Gammell was by this time middle-aged. Strong willed, opinionated, and extremely knowledgeable about the art of painting—he had just written and published Twilight of Painting—he was one of the few people alive in America to not only have first hand knowledge of painting directly from some of it’s most skilled practitioners but also to have personally known those painters and their art world. The artists were known as “The Boston Painters”: William Paxton, Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, Joseph DeCamp, and others. Their art world was pre-World War I.

The students Gammell took on were a handful of talented youngsters who has been seeking in vain for traditional art training, for it was virtually absent in America—this was, after all, the dawn of Abstract Expressionism. First, there was the late Robert Cummings, and later, Robert Douglas Hunter, Richard Lack and Robert Cormier. Through Gammell and these young men, his earliest students, a tradition of painting skills passing from teacher to students could be traced all the way back to the French Neo-Classicist Jacques Louis David. And through these few men that tradition was preserved during the middle years of the twentieth century, a time when there was not only little interest in this tradition but active hostility toward it. This tradition of teaching established Western art techniques is literally handed down orally and by means of demonstration from teacher to student. Gammell received his training from William Paxton, a Boston painter of superbly crafted portraits and interiors. Paxton had studied with the American, Dennis Miller Bunker (a friend of John Sargeant and a student of both William Merrit Chase and the great orientalist, Jean Leon Gerome) and then went on to Paris to study with Gerome himself. Gerome received his training from the history painter Paul Delaroche, and Delaroche received his directly from David, whose aesthetics were founded in love of classical antiquity, both in admiration of such masters as Nicolas Poussin and in reaction to the excesses of Rococo Mannerism.

This kind of teaching had become known as “the Atelier system” or as “Atelier-type training” (atelier being the French word for “studio” or“ workshop”) because of its roots in nineteenth-century Paris ateliers. In America it came through Gammell, or, as it was later standardized, by Richard Lack. This training is characterized by a one-on-one student-teacher relationship. In an atelier or studio school, one or two teachers have complete responsibility for a small number of students, and they personality guide them over a period of years through a curricula designed to facilitate the sound observation of nature and the fundamentals of the crafts of drawing and painting. The essence of this type of teaching occurs between the student and the teacher, as the teacher continually and constructively critiques the student’s work. Much of the knowledge contained in this tradition has been and is being written down, but the essential teaching is only really meaningful in the context of the on-site, at-the-moment personal critique.

Richard Lack, who founded Atelier Lack in Minneapolis in 1969, said: “The main concept, the seeing part, as I kept saying while I was teaching, comes from Paxton via Gammell. Gammell was teaching in the way that Paxton painted. Getting the note, lost and found edges, warm and cools, scumbling out an area and painting broadly—these are all things that Paxton worked for.” One of Lack’s primary reasons for opening his school was a feeling of obligation that he held about passing his knowledge on to younger talents in order to keep the tradition alive. Today, there are about a dozen ateliers being run by former students of R.H. Ives Gammell or Richard Lack, some of whose owners studied with both.

The present ateliers and studio schools—descendants of Lack and Gammell—do not represent a monolithic movement. They vary widely in their emphasis and approaches to teaching, and because they are all small, they are highly influenced by the personalities and examples provided by their instructors. They do, however, have much in common: they all are dedicated to teaching the student to “see” correctly. They put the study of the nude at the core of the curricula on the premise that it amounts to a kind of encyclopedia of nature. The demands that the rendering of the nude make on the eye, hand, and brain of the student cultivate the skills necessary for representational mastery over all other subject matter. Drawing skills are emphasized first and foremost. Beginning students work in charcoal or pencil or both—pencil for shorter studies (a few hours) emphasizing shape, and charcoal for extended studies, emphasizing value (several weeks). The extended drawing study then gives way to painted studies for advanced students, sometimes in monochrome (grisaille) to facilitate basic mastery of paint handling and modeling. Once this step is mastered the problem of color is undertaken, in pastel or oil.

Beginning students execute carefully studied charcoal drawings of plaster cast that are illuminated by a single light source. This provides a perfectly-controlled situation for the study of form and value because the cast, unlike a live model, never varies in shape or gesture; therefore, the study of it is the most sound and fundamental way of training the eye to perceive shapes and gradations of value. The lessons learned at this level build technical skills as well as psychological confidence, and both are transferable to all other pursuits, especially drawing from life. In addition, beginning students often do copies from plates and master drawings. In many ateliers students will proceed from cast drawing to cast painting in grisaille, again to gain an understanding of manipulating oil on canvas. After cast work is completed, students move on to doing head studies, first in charcoal and later in pastel and oil. Also taken up is still life painting (especially for the study of color and elemental design) and landscape sketching. Advanced students will often undertake projects combining still life, portraiture, and figure work in an interior composition, or a landscape with figures, as a way of developing their design sense and skills.

All of these studies are undertaken using the “sight size” method, which involves the use of a plumb line for taking measurements from a fixed point of view. Since its proper use makes it much more difficult to commit errors of proportion, this is a useful technique for any artist, but as a teaching tool it is superlative. Because student and teacher both view the subject from the same point of view using the plumb line as a device to compare points in nature with points on the drawing pad, absolute comparisons of shape can be made, allowing solid, instruction to be given on how to improve them. Robert Douglas Hunter said this about the sight size method, as handed down to him by Gammell: “One of the most important things he taught me was working sight size. I had never heard of it before—none of us had ever heard of it before. It was most enlighenting and most enabling. It was the single most important thing. Unless your eye was screwed up, or you were lazy, you could see shapes better, you could make them better.”

Much of the teaching process in the atilier tradition takes place when the teacher points out differences between what the student has drawn and what nature actually looks like, after which the teacher ask the student to step in and compare the same. The teacher then asks, “How is what you have drawn different from what you see? Is it more curved or less? Longer or shorter? More to the left or up higher? Or what?” Thus the student is led to make the proper adjustments. This process becomes increasingly difficult as the student progresses. Corrections become ever more subtle, requiring the appropriate response from the eye, mind, and hand of the student. And so the training continues, from the relatively simple to the ever more complex. Mastery of the best of the student’s ability is required at each step along the way.

Emphasis on seeing accurately is the necessary discipline of the student years. Apparently people who are attracted to the realist tradition of art love the visual experience of real life and feel compelled to express themselves in those terms; that is, in the making of pictures based on the true representation of the way the world looks. The world, of course, has an infinite number of faces. But in order to represent any of them well, the student must first learn to see what is. And this is what the discipline of technical training is all about. In addition to core curricula, an atelier or studio school provides instruction in anatomy, design or composition, memory drawing, pigments, mediums, and other technical arcana. But throughout it all the foundation of the curricula is the one-on-one student-teacher relationship. On this subject, Robert Douglas Hunter has this to say of Gammell and Paxton: “[He] came in and criticized Gammell on what he was trying to do. And according to Gammell, he [Paxton] was always on target. Not only in the drawing, which goes without saying, but also with the designing. He had this in his background—Gerome, Gerome, Gerome.”

Thankfully, today, an atelier is not the brave and lonely enterprise it was when Gammell and Lack established their studios; nevertheless, it is a difficult undertaking and still remains well outside mainstream society. Since they focus exclusively on training painters, these types of schools cannot offer a wide range of academic courses, so they cannot be accredited; therefore, it is impossible for students to finance their tuitions through conventional student loans. Instructors’ salaries are far below college and university levels. Some of these school are nonprofit organizations and eligible to apply to grant-making bodies for funds, but in the daunting, capricious world of fundraising, small studios face many obstacles. Fundamental to all of these is the general, contemporary attitude about art. The so-called, self-styled avant garde like to continue to pose as revolutionaries, but they really own the art world now. They are establishment; they are the Academy. And although there is increasingly more interest and receptiveness in our culture to representational work, realism, in general, is still widely viewed as retrogressive and passé. Furthermore, atelier-type schools often do not have the kind of profile desired by corporate sponsors. They are small, they serve a handful of students directly, and they have little apparent impact on the neighborhoods and communities in which they are located. There is, of course, ample evidence of their positive impact on painting and on the culture at large (observe the increasing amount of representational art exhibits being produced nationwide), but that is difficult to demonstrate on a large scale. Finally, the directors of these studios are understandably not up to the time consuming task of fundraising. An atelier Director already performs a job description that reads: teacher, bookkeeper, office manager, school counselor, bill collector, janitor, handyman—in addition to making their own art. It’s no task of the faint of heart.

It is the mission of each of these schools to not only carry on the tradition as it was handed down to them but also to add to it. Art—to be good—must be a living tradition. The thorough grounding in disciplines of craft ensure the maintenance of high standards of execution, thus making possible the creation drawings and paintings of rare beauty. Far from hindering expression (the litany of most contemporary “artists” without technical skill) the acquisition of demanding art skills liberates the artist to make fine and original works. The atelier system of teaching art in America is vital to the furtherance of art in the next century. It is proven. And it continues to produce beautiful art, which is its purpose and its pleasure.

[Quotes of Richard Lack and Robert Douglas Hunter were originally published in The Classical Realism Journal, Volume II, Issue 2. They are reused here in a different context by permission of the Journal.]

Peter Bougie is a painter and teacher. He is the Director of The Bougie Studio in Minneapolis where, along with Brian Lewis, he has taught drawing and painting since 1988. He was an Associate Editor of The Classical Realism Journal and has published numerous articles. He has exhibited around the country and abroad, and his paintings are in many private and corporate collections.

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