There is a slow, quiet revolution happening in the art world. Its roots are in a handful of schools in the UK and across America and Europe. It is a movement that many believe will continue to grow and strengthen as time passes and its proponents are dedicated to spreading its philosophy and methods using time-honoured techniques. The resurgence in representational art and traditional approaches to drawing and painting using the atelier system is flourishing. As many people turn away from contemporary art and mainstream art education, this thriving movement offers an alternative to a system that often leaves people frustrated and disengaged. A renaissance in representational art is taking place.
In Wales, such a renaissance is to be found at the Welsh Academy of Art; one of only four places in the UK – and the first of its kind in Wales – to teach the sight-size method of drawing and painting as practised by the Old Masters. Formed in 2012 by Lucy Corbett, who trained in Florence at the Charles H. Cecil Studio, the Academy currently offers drawing and painting courses using progressive and rigorous training methods that have been passed down through the centuries. The Academy presently has a total of 12 students and also runs a series of lectures and landscape painting courses from its base in Glanusk, Crickhowell.
On finishing school in 1998, I struggled to find a course that was designed to teach students traditional methods of drawing and painting. I felt that no university or art college in the country recognised the importance of taking the time to master the craft. Perhaps this was as a result of the movement away from observational drawing techniques towards a system of teaching based upon personal expression.
As a consequence, traditional methods have all but disappeared from art education and we have destroyed many of the values that we once held important. The system of training that ran from the Renaissance, with its apprenticeships and academies, through to the ateliers of the 19th century was centred upon a desire for meticulous craftsmanship. This has somehow been lost and the balance needs to be redressed.
Forming the Welsh Academy of Art gave me the opportunity to pass on everything that I have learned and to ensure that successive generations of students will have the chance to train in the techniques and philosophy of this incredible artistic heritage. Sharing these skills and knowledge will allow artists of the future to carry on that message – that is the principle aim of the Academy.
Titian is one of the first documented artists to have practiced in the sight-size tradition. Not just a measuring technique but also a way of thinking, sight-size provides the artist with a logical and effective method of seeing. The artist draws or paints an object exactly as it appears to them from a set distance. For example, when painting a portrait the canvas is placed alongside the sitter. The artist then stands back to a set point where both subject and image are equal to the eye. The viewpoint is always taken from this same point where comparisons can be easily made between painting and sitter. Drawing from life is key to the tradition of sight-size, a method which can also be applied to landscape painting and sculpture.
Teaching at the Academy progresses gradually and thoroughly and students are encouraged to fully explore each stage before moving to the next. This methodical approach is critical for building a firm foundation, allowing students to increase their confidence and eventually develop their own style.
First year students start with the fundamentals behind sight–size and begin by copying a series of Charles Barge plates and drawing the cast. Still life and figure drawing then follow. When proportion, line and tone have been satisfactorily mastered the student can then advance to drawing the portrait. Second year students are introduced to the medium of oils and are encouraged to make their own canvases and grind their own paint. The Academy runs an annual materials course which covers this along with lessons in mediums, oils, resins and varnishes. Painting begins in monochrome using the cast, and still life painting is introduced. The third year begins with portrait painting using the limited palette before moving on to painting the figure.
By breaking the teaching into a series of distinctive, measured steps, we enable the student to master the craft slowly and in a way that is unavailable in mainstream art schools. The emphasis is not on overwhelming the student with as many styles and techniques as possible, nor is it about allowing the student free reign to express his or her emotions on the canvas at the expense of skill. Expression will come in time but even then, expression without skill is not great art.
It is important to remember that although we use the methods of the past, the tradition continues to evolve. The techniques that we teach do not limit the student but rather free their creativity. Learning a language, with all of its rules and structures, does not limit what you then go on to say in that language. Once they have grasped the techniques, our students are able to develop their own distinctive styles while remaining true to the pursuit of beauty and meaning in their art.
Students at the Academy range from experienced, practising artists to complete novices. Some are also products of mainstream art education, looking for the training they felt was unavailable to them in conventional art schools. Theresa Stabb, a second year student at the Academy who also manages its events programme, returned to drawing and painting after a break of over 20 years.
I completed a Foundation course after my Art ‘A’ levels but then went into a degree in Fashion Design (which I subsequently left before eventually moving to Philosophy). I had always wanted to draw and paint but somehow got lost in the system and lost confidence. Until discovering the Academy, I never felt that I was good enough to return to drawing and painting. It seemed a kind of alchemy that I wasn’t privy to. Finding the Academy and using the sight-size technique has produced amazing results and most importantly, it has redefined the way that I look and think about art. It has opened a door that I thought was closed and restored confidence in my ability to draw and paint. I feel as if I am part of something very exciting.
In addition to running the courses, the Academy has also been busy organising a debate featuring some of the biggest names in art and cultural commentary at this year’s Hay Festival. Focusing on the state of the contemporary art world and art education, the debate brings together Julia Peyton-Jones, Director and Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes at Serpentine Galleries, William Packer former Financial Times art critic, artist and author, Shani Rhys James, one of Wales’ ‘most important living artists’ and the philosopher, author and commentator Roger Scruton. Chairing the debate will be Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Editor.
Lucy describes how the idea for the Hay Festival debate came about through dissatisfaction with the current state of art education and the contemporary art scene:
People are beginning to question the status quo. There is a resurgence of ateliers thriving in the UK and the recent Representational Art Conference in California (now in its third year) is continuing to grow in popularity as it explores representational art’s place in the 21st Century. There is definitely a momentum building behind this movement. In view of this, we thought that it was the perfect time to have a debate on art education and the dominance of conceptual art. The Hay Festival seemed to us the ideal place to discuss these issues and we are looking forward to an exciting debate.
In addition to courses, debates and a move to new premises in the coming months, these are exciting times for the Welsh Academy of Art. The Academy is set to keep the torch burning in Wales for representational art and traditional methods and the aim is that a new generation of Welsh artists will pass through its doors. The Welsh Academy of Art may have its roots in an all-but-forgotten past, but its sights are set firmly on the future.
‘The supreme tragedy is when theory outstrips performance’ – Leonardo da Vinci. Does contemporary art celebrate concept without skill? takes place on Wednesday 28th May at 5.30pm on the Wales Stage at Hay Festival. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hayfestival.com, or by calling the Hay Festival Box Office on 01497 822 629.
The Welsh Academy of Art will be opening its doors in the days leading up to the debate to showcase a selection of work as part of the Crickhowell Art Trail 2014. For further information, please see: http://www.visitcrickhowell.co.uk
For further information on the Welsh Academy of Art, go to http://www.welshacademyofart.com/