Drawing Basics: Classical Art in the Modern World

Drawing Basics: Classical Art in the Modern World

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Chicago’s School of Representational Art offers a classical art education in a modern world.

by Mark G. Mitchell

by Steve Ohlrich, 1999, charcoal
and pastel on white paper, 25 x 19.

On the top floor of an old factory warehouse in the arts district that lies just north of the Chicago River, art students work on charcoal renderings of plaster casts. The curtains cut down on reflected light so the students can see the values correctly in the replicas of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture they are copying.

Beyond them the classroom room opens up to a large studio that is bathed in blue daylight from an overhead skylight. Empty easels stand around an empty stage where a model will pose for three hours in the morning. Degas would have felt right at home here, and Sargent too.

The students at the School of Representational Art (SORA) are of a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. They range from recent high-school graduates to professional mid-career artists to empty-nester moms who had always wanted to study art but life got in the way. Some hold B.F.A.s or advanced degrees. It will take four years for them to scribble, sketch, scumble, shade, and glaze their way through the SORA curriculum. By then, if they apply themselves, they will have learned to represent the visual world in the great classical European tradition.

by Bruno Surdo, 2001, charcoal, 26 x 45.
Collection of George and Io Gaitarnis.

Once upon a time in the 13th century, a master painter would gather a few talented apprentices about him that he had selected for their abilities and put them to work grinding paints and handling the routine chores of his studio. In the meantime, the old artist would teach his charges everything he knew about recreating nature on a piece of stretched canvas, with chalks and charcoal, brushes and paints. “For the first six months of their training they would do nothing but copy master drawings, for drawing was considered the backbone of all achievement in art,” writes Fred Ross, the chairman of the Art Renewal Center, a nonprofit group that champions the classical, academic traditions of painting. “They would draw studies from plaster casts to learn modeling, and then spend at least another year drawing from live models. Only then, upon mastering the craft of drawing, were they allowed to pick up a brush and start learning the craft of painting. Then possibly after five or six years of training, they could start to create works of art that could be considered truly professional,” Ross asserts.

Victorian Cast
by Steve Ohlrich, 1999, charcoal and
pastel on white paper, 39 x 23.
Collection the artist.

These “guild schools” flourished from the days of Giotto through the High Renaissance. They probably never went away, but they seemed to fall off the cultural public radar for a while—until, a few centuries later, the official painter of the regime of Napoleon threw the spotlight back on this time-honored tradition of fine-arts education. In fact, he practically turned it into a national franchise. Jacques-Louis David, an ardent classicist and a founder of the new Institut de France, which replaced the old Royal Academy of Art (that had been shuttered in the French Revolution) seized upon the “workshop school,” or atelier model, for training his country’s artists. (Atelier comes from an old French word astele, meaning “a pile of woodchips in a carpenter’s workshop.”) Today, as art colleges and universities scramble to accommodate an exploded menu of market-driven disciplines (such as photography, graphic and web design, filmmaking, animation, computer games, commercial and industrial design), small “workshop schools”—ateliers—have sprung up to fill a perceived void in the basic “first skills” of drawing and painting.

Painter and caricaturist Grigor Eftimov, a Macedonian-born artist who graduated from SORA a year and a half ago, recalls his lonely hours ensconced in one of those black cubicles, wrestling with challenges of learning how to see correctly. “When you spend months copying a cast it becomes your best friend after a while,” says Eftimov, who at age 29 is SORA’s youngest instructor. “When you’re done it is very hard to give up the cast. It was even tough for me to part with my cast drawings. But I had to sell them to come up with the next month’s tuition.”

Those cast drawings are what he came to SORA for, Eftimov says. His previous arts education at the American Academy of Art, in Chicago, left him hungry for the kind of exacting training in drawing that he longed for as a child. “It was fine, but I thought there was more,” he says. “I wanted to paint better and draw better. I loved to do portraits and caricature, and I knew the bottom line was to draw well,” Eftimov says. “Painting is an extension of drawing. I wanted to go where the instructors came from—a definite heritage and lineage. I didn’t want to spend any more years guessing.”

Cast Study
by Michelle Haklin, 1997, charcoal,
25 x 19. Private collection.

“I had a standard for myself in art—it was the work of the Old Masters,” says another SORA instructor, Steve Ohlrich, who earned a B.F.A. at the University of Illinois at Chicago, before putting himself through the SORA curriculum. “I always wanted to draw realistically, draw a portrait and make it look like a portrait, and create believable figures. The Old Masters really weren’t a focus at the university,” he says. “I took advanced painting and was a studio fine-arts major, but the focus was more, ‘Here’s an idea—now how do you get that idea across?’ There were a lot of abstract painters. There weren’t any Old Masters-style painters and sculptors. At SORA I saw the great tradition that I had already connected with. The focus was more on how you apply the paint. I learned how to see values and draw figures. I learned about procedures and working tools. The disciplines are more structured, and the instruction is one-on-one. The difficulty in a university setting is that you are so focused on time. You’re limited by the time in your class schedule—you might have just one semester class of drawing just the figure, and the poses are much shorter. At SORA there are long poses, week after week. It’s also a little different when you have three teachers who have all been through the atelier training.”

by Steve Ohlrich, 2001, graphite
on Bristol board, 9 x 12.
Collection the artist.

Although nonaccredited, SORA asserts a lineage of gurus leading back to the studio of Jacques-Louis David. The school’s founder and director, Bruno Surdo, learned to paint in the classical realist tradition at the Atelier Lack, in the Minneapolis school where another SORA instructor, Michael Chelich, also took his training. Like Eftimov and Chelich, Surdo—a Chicago native—attended the American Academy of Art. A graphic design and illustration major, he came to know that his real love was painting the human form. He would need special teachers for that, he was told. So Chelich and Surdo found one—Fred Berger, a well-known Chicago figurative artist, then on the faculty of the American Academy of Art, who passed away last year. “This man was a huge influence not only as a teacher but also as a representation of what an artist is all about,” Surdo says of Berger. “He believed in the tradition of classical training. He provided an opportunity for me and others to go to school, and he helped me to start this school. He was a friend and a peer.”

Berger eventually suggested that Chelich and Surdo study at an atelier-type school, and encouraged the men to enroll in the atelier of Richard Lack, a leader of the classical realist movement in painting and an icon of classical training for American artists. After three and a half years at Atelier Lack, Surdo traveled to Italy, where he had once lived as a teenager (in Bari) with his family. He worked for a few Florence artists, learning how to grind paints and make varnishes. He also studied at the academy of Charles H. Cecil and Daniel Graves in Florence.

by Bruno Surdo, 2001, compressed charcoal,
27 x 20. Collection the artist.

Surdo returned to Chicago to launch his professional career as a painter, but with the idea of opening “a small community art school,” where he could pass on the principles of his classical training. Chelich spent four years at Atelier Lack and eventually signed on as a faculty member in Surdo’s new school. SORA opened with nine pupils 17 years ago. “People wanted to study like I had studied,” Surdo says. “They offered to come to my house and cut my grass.” Today there are six faculty members teaching 18 students, and a waiting list of candidates eager to begin their training in the Chicago atelier.

“The study of the plaster cast is a time-honored method for training the painter’s eye,” the SORA website says. “Students begin their training by executing several refined cast drawings with black charcoal on white paper. This exercise introduces the new student to the demanding practice of sight-size drawing. … The sight-size method is a scientific approach to drawing that helps to train the eye and mind to observe and render the subtleties and visual truths in nature. Employing this method, tools such as plumb lines, mirrors, and levels are used to analyze a drawing and to check and re-check the student’s efforts. This practice also helps to develop critical judgment.”

by Bruno Surdo, 2000, charcoal,
50 x 40. Private collection.

Surdo explains, “I deal with a lot of frustrated artists who feel that they never got all the training they wanted in college or during their careers. With all that students have to learn to function in the world today, often there simply isn’t the time to build that foundation of skills in a college or commercial art-school program. Here we teach them to see nature in a structured manner and break the bad habits that they’ve collected over the years in their drawing and painting. Students work from the model in the daylight, and daylight changes during the course of a long pose. This means that they must become very sensitive to subtle shifts of light and how it defines the form, and they must make sophisticated decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. It makes their sensibility so attuned that, when they have to do these shorter drawings, they have quite a disciplined approach to it.”

The school also pushes students to explore their individual creativity through composition—an emphasis that distinguishes SORA from many traditional ateliers, Surdo says. This includes the most effective placement of forms in space and using well-rendered figures to evoke specific emotions and themes, as the Old Masters often did.

Composition is introduced during the first year, but assumes primary emphasis in the fourth year, when students tackle their final projects. “We have them make thumbnail sketches—it could be an animal scene, a still life, a portrait, or a landscape,” says Ohlrich, one of two composition teachers. “We’ll pick one and they’ll develop it into a 4-x-5 painting or sometimes bigger, working with all the different elements and principles of composition—formats, dominant curved or straight lines, high-key or low-key light, different contrasts—viewers mostly notice the realistic things in a painting such as surface textures, facial expressions, and other details. What they don’t see is the underlying composition that gives the painting structure, visual impact from a distance, and overall mood.

The Giver
of Life

by Bruno Surdo, 1999, graphite
on Bristol board. Private collection.
Anatomical Mask
by Bruno Surdo, 1986, charcoal,
25 x 19. Collection School of Representational
Art, Chicago, Illinois.

“In the great traditional paintings, everything looks very deliberate, while still being fresh,” Ohlrich continues. “That’s the challenge. Those folds that you see in the clothing in the Old Masters paintings were designed. The clothes are following the form, but they don’t cover up the form.” “There’s beauty in the fold itself,” Chelich says. “If the artists had not worked out their placement and design, these details would be a distraction and would work against the picture.”

“Your whole life is learning to edit your vision,” points out school director Surdo. “Less is more. But in the beginning, there’s a lot of knowledge that must be internalized. We start with plumb lines and devices to help you see the shapes and correct your instincts. Your work is based on tools like those of a carpenter. You start internalizing the tools and what they represent, and they become like your third eye. I tell my students, ‘Eventually you’ll learn how to get intuitive with all of these procedures.’ Time and repetition will reinforce them. A trained artist knows how to use all the devices and modes impulsively, with a little doodle. I tell them that if, when you leave my school, you still can’t do a 30-second or two-minute drawing very well, I don’t think we’ve succeeded. Do I carry the banner of realist art? No, there’s a lot of bad realist art out there. I just like good skill. Art is too pluralistic to emphasize just one approach over another.

“I’m not trying to reinvent art, and there are certain limitations with the traditional atelier school,” Surdo concludes. “I think it can be too technical. Here we try to teach the universal things that work, the universal principles based on nature.”

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