A New, Old Way to Teach Art

In All, Blog by Robert Pool1 Comment

We all have our weaknesses, things we’re just not very good at, and one of mine is drawing. When I try to draw a person, the result is somewhat more sophisticated than a stick figure, but still pretty abysmal. My landscapes are not much better. So when I look at people — like my wife — who can draw things that look totally realistic, I find it easy to believe that they were born with something I wasn’t, some sort of art gene perhaps. And I say that even after having written an entire book (Peak) arguing that it is practice rather than innate talent that determines how good you are at something. Blaming one’s weaknesses on a lack of talent is a hard habit to break, I guess.

Mandy Theis

Fortunately, after a wonderful meeting a few weeks back with Mandy Theis, the co-founder, along with Kara Lysandra Ross, of the DaVinci Initiative, I now have something new to blame for my lack of artistic ability: not bad genes but rather the wrong sort of art instruction. I also have a whole new level of appreciation for the power of deliberate practice.

Here is some of what I learned from Mandy: A century and a half ago, in the late nineteenth century, anyone who wanted to be accepted as an artist had to have acquired a certain set of skills — specifically, the ability to draw and paint things in a realistic way that accurately captured how they looked in real life. To learn these skills, aspiring artists studied under established artists or in academies where they were taught with time-tested methods. The approach to learning how to draw, in particular, had all of the hallmarks of deliberate practice — taught by a qualified teacher with exercises designed to teach specific skills, with plenty of feedback given to let a student know what needed additional work — and after a few years of study the student would emerge as an artist capable of capturing nature with a pencil or paint brush.

Over time, however, that approach to learning art almost completely disappeared. Beginning with the impressionists and continuing with the cubists, the Dadaists, the abstract expressionists, the conceptualists, and a slew of other ists, art came to be seen not as a way of representing the world as it is but as showing the world in a new and different way and, in especially the case of abstract painting, creating something that might have no connection whatsoever with the world we see around us. And with the rise of modern art, the classic representational skills came to be valued — and taught — less and less. Why spend years learning how to draw and paint realistic representations of the world when you’re just going to splatter paint on a canvas or put a shark in a tank of formaldehyde and call it art?

By the 1980s the classical drawing and painting skills, which had always been passed down in a very personal way from teacher to student, had been mostly lost. Only a few artists kept the old knowledge alive.

Think about that loss for a minute. It’s as if the music world had turned away from the performance of classical music — and all of the skills that such performance requires — and instead focused on abstract noodling of various notes with no clear structure or perhaps on “music” that did not require the playing of any instruments at all. With time there would be few who remembered or possessed the skills required to play a Bach concerto or a Chuck Berry guitar solo and fewer still who could teach those skills to others.

That is what art had mostly come to. Even dedicated art schools did not teach their students how to draw an accurate human figure or paint what they saw rather than what they imagined.  Those who could draw and paint in this way were mostly self-taught through trial and error. And so it was that I and millions of others like me made it through elementary and middle school art classes without ever learning how to represent something accurately or even realizing that there are training methods by which anyone can learn to do just that. So when a classmate actually could draw or paint accurate representations, the obvious conclusion was that he or she must have been born with a special talent — and that if you hadn’t been born with such talent, you might as well not even try.

Ray Wanda Totanes, Perception of Self, 2015. Trained in the atelier method, Ms. Totanes was 16 when she painted this.

This is the situation that Mandy Theis and a few other like-minded people are trying to change. An artist and an art educator, Mandy had studied art throughout her schooling, but it wasn’t until she ran across a book by Juliette Aristides called Classical Drawing Atelier, that she began to feel as though she really understood that sophisticated artistic skills could indeed be learned and taught. It was as if a door had been opened to a new universe, she says, and she remembers feeling angry that throughout all of her schooling no teacher had ever told her about this approach. She ended up training with Juliette Aristides as well as a handful of other artists for more than six years, developing her own artistic skills and rethinking how she would teach art to others.

The method that Mandy learned and now teaches to other art educators through her work at the Da Vinci Initiative is called atelier training. It is based on what classical artists learned over centuries of developing their skills, and the major goal is to be able to accurately and beautifully translate what you see in the real world to canvas or paper, particularly the human face and body but also any other subject of interest. It is something that takes years of practice to master, but it does not require some special talent, only dedication, focus, and hard work.

I got just a taste of what is involved when Mandy gave my wife and me a short lesson on reproducing a drawing of a man’s face in profile. She explained how to analyze the drawing in terms of lines and angles and then use those to create a sort of scaffolding on which the profile could be drawn. We didn’t have enough time for Mandy to finish the lesson, but I saw enough to realize that creating accurate reproductions is a skill that can be taught in a logical, step-by-step method where you build your ability bit by bit with exercises and feedback. It is not some mysterious power but rather an ability that can be trained.

And perhaps the most interesting thing I learned from Mandy that day is that to be able to create accurate reproductions, the most important body part is not the hand or fingers but the eyes. The key to atelier training is to learn to see objects in a particular way, breaking them down into component parts that serve as the basis for your reproduction. These parts can be lines, angles, curves, proportions, shading, and so on. Once you train your eyes — or, really, your brain — to see things in this way, you can look at an object and quickly map out an approach to reproducing it in a way that captures how it really looks. It becomes almost automatic.

This ability to analyze a challenge or problem and break it down in a way that helps you find an effective way to approach it is a hallmark of expert performance in almost any area. Think of a chess grandmaster analyzing a chess position to come up with a short list of possible moves or a surgeon visualizing the various ways that a surgery might proceed or a racecar driver seeing the positions of the other cars and planning the best path through them or a writer figuring out how to present information in the most effective way. In each case, performance depends upon developing effective mental representations of the challenge in front of you and using those representations to find the best way to meet the challenge.

And, ultimately, this is what atelier training is all about. Yes, you need to learn to control your pencil or paint brush so that it does what you want it to do, but the foundation is looking at an object and breaking it down in a way that tells you how to proceed. That is where the art starts.

This approach is what was almost lost with so much of the art world turning away from representational art — not just a set of artistic skills but a way of seeing and understanding the world around us.

Today Mandy Theis, Kara Lysandra Ross, and others at the Da Vinci Initiative and elsewhere are trying to reintroduce this way of thinking about art by training art teachers in this classical approach, with the hope that these art teachers will produce a generation of art students who understand that producing realistic art is within the reach of anyone who makes the effort to learn how. I hope they succeed.

A group of art teachers who had attended training at the Da Vinci Initiative, holding the portraits they drew at the workshop. Mandy Theis is second from right.



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