Monday, January 24, 2011

Where Can Catholics go to Study Naturalistic Painting?

Where can Catholics go to learn the skills necessary to learn to paint in the baroque style? In a past article I wrote about possible places to study the iconographic technique in depth. However, the baroque is also one of the three liturgical artistic traditions of the Church (the third is the gothic) and anyone who is serious about being an artist for the Church should consider whether they want to learn this form. One place to consider is the Ingbretson Studio in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The ideal education would consist of the following: first, a Catholic formation (perhaps studying a liberal arts degree at a Catholic college); second a sound knowledge of the Catholic traditions in art. For those who wish to learn this aspect in isolation the Maryvale Institute’s excellent distance-learning programme Art, Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective recommended. They are about to offer this in the US, through the Diocese of Kansas City, which saves students on this side of the Atlantic from a trip over to the UK for the one weekend residential requirement. Full-time undergraduate-level students can receive both of these aspects at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. Their liberal arts degree offers the formation and this includes my Way of Beauty program as part of the core curriculum.

The third aspect is to learn the drawing and painting skills. The skills are those of the academic method. This is the rigorous drawing method that is named after the schools that were created in the 16th and 17th centuries (especially that of the Annabale Carraci, his brother Agostino and his cousin Ludovico. The method has its roots in the methods used by the Masters of the High Renaissance going back to Leonardo. This method is different and far more rigorous than that offered in the drawing classes in a mainstream college-level art department.

This training usually begins with cast drawings because casts have no colour and so the eye learns to ‘see’ in tonal values. The casts that are chosen as models of beauty worthy of study, so even at this stage the taste of the student is being educated. After this students progress onto the use of colour; perhaps through portrait painting or still life (I did portrait painting). The value of an academic training cannot be underestimated. It is being able to draw and paint accurately that enables the artist to realize his ideas. Whatever style he seeks to work in he needs a high level of skill so that he can create an image that conforms to what it ought to be, corresponding to the well conceived idea in the mind of the artist. Even my icon painting teacher Aidan Hart encouraged me to study naturalistic art for a year in Florence saying that all the best icon painters were also skilled draughtsmen. I do not regret following his advice.

Most of the schools that teach this method now are termed ‘ateliers’ after the French word for workshop. They are small schools in which the main teacher is a Master painter. A few were established in the 1970s by individuals taught by an artist called R.H. Ives Gammell in Boston, who at that stage was an octogenarian. Gammell, who trained as a young man in the early years of the 20th century, almost singlehandedly kept the academic tradition going after all the established art schools in Europe and the US had ceased to teach it. The best teachers of today that I know of (on both sides of the Atlantic) received their training from him.

If you want to investigate the available ateliers yourself, a starting point is the Art Renewal Centre website, where you can run down the list of approved ateliers. Do be discerning. Look at the work in each school's gallery - this indicates the style that you will be taught so it is important that you respect what is going to be passed down to you. From my point of view, while many of these ateliers will train you to draw, there is a danger in that some tend to push a particular version of 19th century academic art that is detached from Christian worldview. If you are not careful this could affect your style detrimentally. The result will be either the extremes of a cold, sterile detachment (a form of neo-classicism) or a saccharine sentimentality.

If, on the other hand, you are armed with a full knowledge of the Christian context of this tradition (such as the courses at TMC or the Maryvale Institute would give you) you should be able to make good use of the skills you learn. You can contrast some aspects of 19th century atelier art with the baroque style of the 17th century by reading these two articles, written earlier, here and here respectively.

Another problem which would be a concern for some is that one cannot assume that a taste in traditional art necessarily means that a traditional attitude to faith and morality pervades in the atelier you attend. Many have a hostile attitude to the Catholic faith, and students will have to be ready to face this, just as they would in mainstream art schools. Quite apart from the fact that an immoral atmosphere is undesirable in itself, the worldview of the artist affects the style in which he paints, whether done consciously or not. When studying in an atelier, we take precise direction via the critiques of the Master who runs it. For the period that you are his student, your work reflects his taste and style. Having the humility to be told what to do in such minute detail is a necessary aspect of the training. However, if this taste and style reflect values that are flat contrary to your own, then the learning process is not going to be such a happy one. As a quick test, take a look at the online galleries of work, especially paintings of the human person, by the teachers and top students at those same ateliers listed on the Art Renewal Centre. Ask yourself in each case if you think that the figure is portrayed with the dignity that reflects the Catholic understanding of the human person.

The one place that I know of in which the training is of the highest quality and that Catholics can flourish without compromising their faith in any way is Ingbretson Studios in Manchester, New Hampshire. Paul Ingbretson is a modern Master of the Boston school and is one of those I mentioned who was given his training by Ives Gammell in the 1970s. He has been teaching ever since. His school has an international reputation (we were all well aware of it, for example, when I was studying in Florence).

For those who are about to go to college but don’t want to leave their art behind while they study a traditional liberal arts programme at a Catholic college, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is the one place where you can study both. By coincidence Ingbretson Studios is just 10 minutes drive from the TMC campus. This semester for the first time, undergraduates at Thomas More College have the opportunity to study the academic method at the Ingbretson Studios for a a full day a week. Those who have a strong enough interest will also have an opportunity to train full-time for three solid months each summer if they wish to do so. This is part of the college art Guild of St Luke in which students are able to learn also traditional iconography and sacred geometry at the college.

The painting above is The Incredulity of St Thomas painted by Gerrit van Honthorst in 1620. It hangs in Madrid's Prado.

Below are photographs of students on their first day at Ingbretson Studio in Manchester, New Hampshire. Notice how the students are not looking at the cast as they actually put charcoal to paper. In fact they are drawing from memory. The walk back a few feet, make a comparison between their work and the cast itself, make a decision on what to do next, walk forward and draw. Then they retreat again, and check that what they just did is what was intended. And the process is then repeated.

Below are the first drawings at the summer school at Thomas More College, taught by Henry Wingate, who is a former pupil of Paul Ingbretson. These constitute about 5 full days' work.

Below is a still life set up for a more advanced student at the Studio.

Finally I show a couple of typical student finished cast drawings.

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