The Most Radical Artists Today are the Ones Who Know How to Draw
I read an Instagram post of someone who not-so-subtly declared an end in sight for the conceptual and abstract expressionist art movements — that have dominated our society for the past 100 years — and proclaimed a return to more classical styles. Another Renaissance, if you will. I’m not sure if we are in the Dark Ages of art, but I will say I am thrilled to see an interest in representational (realistic) art being rekindled.
When I was younger, I felt a bit lost as an artist. I was drawn to a slower-paced approach to art, one that is more about excellence in technique and portrayal of beauty. I struggled to find my place. I have a BFA in design, primarily because I craved the perceived stability that a career in corporate design would provide. I took the same foundations courses as every other art major, plus a few extra fine arts courses to satisfy that itch.
My education was a mix of theory-based design, conceptual installation art (from a professor I loved and respected), and a surface-level introduction to drawing. In each class, I was told that my ideas — first and foremost — were key to success as an artist. Lessons on tools and technique were limited or non-existent. One glaring exception was my favorite class, figure drawing. We drew from life, studied drawings from the old masters, and learned about human anatomy by building the muscles out of clay and attaching them to a plastic skeleton. There, I had a taste of what would later come at the atelier.
The Atelier Movement
Ateliers are teaching studios formed by practicing artists, whose function is to subject students to a rigorous drawing and painting curriculum based on the methods used hundreds of years ago. Through copying old master works, drawing simple cast arrangements, and studying anatomy and figure drawing, students train the eye to see value and proportion with highly attuned accuracy. Whereas colleges today barely teach the fundamentals, these private institutions exist as a response to the “de-skilling” that has dominated the art scene for the past hundred years.
I cannot understand why anyone would want to “dumb down” their abilities or, more likely, not learn any skills in the first place. Fortunately, thankfully, private ateliers are popping up all over the country at an increasing rate. I found the Texas Academy of Figurative Art, and it changed everything for me.
I remember when I started using charcoal at the atelier. I was taught how to sharpen the raw, narrow sticks using sandpaper adhered to a wooden block — wait, you’re supposed to SHARPEN CHARCOAL?? Never in my life had I been taught to sharpen charcoal. (Sharpening vine charcoal to a delicate point will allow it to function similarly to how one would expect a sharpened pencil to perform. There is much more precision in the mark it makes.) This seems like it would be the most basic and obvious thing one might learn in a Drawing 101 class. But here I was, in my mid-30s, learning for the first time that sharpening charcoal is a thing you can do.
Ifyou walked into my atelier on an average day, you would find yourself in a window-lit warehouse space full of people working in absolute silence. I like to joke about how my classmates and I are living in an introvert’s paradise, where there is little patience for chit-chat or eye contact. Earbuds abound — the universal signal to please leave me alone, k thanks — we diligently scratch away at our easels. Although I joke about our seemingly social ineptitude, it stands to reason that artists in the atelier scene know how to put their heads down and get to work.
The kind of talent that makes a successful portrait painting, for example, isn’t accidental. There is an obsessive amount of study behind a painting that is done in a realistic manner. No one walks up to a Rembrandt and declares “my toddler could have painted that!” Its ability to inspire awe is universal. Beyond any symbolism or thematic undertones, realistic paintings can appeal and inspire an audience without requiring the artist to stand nearby to explain their influences. Part of the wonder of Rembrandt is knowing: Not just anyone can do that.
Making Room For Realists
It can be difficult to promote art that has been perceived as out-of-fashion for so long (and is time-consuming to create), especially when you consider some of the larger-than-life personalities that tend to dominate the contemporary abstract art community. Despite the growing number of ateliers, books, and skilled artists emerging in the past decade or so, there exists a lag in public awareness of the representational art movement. You won’t find much press around it, and many galleries still cater to the contemporary abstract crowd. It’s almost absurd to think that realist artists, rooted in tradition, could be counterculture. But everything about their ideals run contrary to popular art today.
Movements and trends in society ebb and flow. I acknowledge the importance of the various modern movements that got us to this point. I’m moved by thoughtful and carefully executed ideas. But where an artist like Picasso had an extensive understanding of drawing and painting before his work evolved into Cubism, many artists today dive into conceptual and abstract art-making without many of the foundational skills in place. Over time, this tends to lead to an over-saturated market filled with watered-down creations verging on novelty. The hobbyist begins to compete with the professional. The audience becomes confused and exploited.
It is up to representational artists to be proactive and educate people about their work. With the abundance of “craft” and “artisan” trends in other creative arenas of society, I can’t help but think the market is ripe for realist artwork.