I must admit that I was apprehensive about my visit to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. It has been over 25 years since I was a student there (I was only able to stay for two semesters), and I wondered how it had changed.
In the early 1980s the Art Center illustration program was focused primarily on modern-art inspired “concept” illustration. Students were groomed for painting trendy magazine illustrations and album covers. The emphasis was on style. There was no encouragement for careers in paperback covers, children’s books, wildlife art, comic art, animation, movie production design or landscape painting. A few teachers demonstrated the skills of traditional realism, but they were in the minority, and some of the best of them ended up leaving to teach elsewhere.
Art Center is a different school now, and the changes are all for the better. The school is housed in a long black building set in the hills above Pasadena. But gone is the minimal, sterile look of the 1980s. Glass cases filled with student work now cover walls that once were blank. One display held a group of beautifully-observed paintings made in Gary Meyer’s class based on a live model wearing an interesting clown outfit.
Bob Kato is one of the new generation of teachers. He was taught by Dennis Nolan (the Hartford teacher). Himself a master draftsman and painter, Mr. Kato leads his students to a high level of proficiency. During the fourteen week term of his Sketching for Illustration class, he starts with line and value, follows with a model lit from a single light source, and ends with costumed models lit from multiple colored light sources. Bob Kato also hosts extracurricular sessions called The Drawing Club.
We visited Gary Meyer’s perspective class, where he was discussing fisheye distortion. Because of its industrial design component, perspective has always been a strength of the school, and Mr. Meyer is ably following in the very large footsteps of Ted Youngkin, now retired, who taught the likes of Syd Mead.
Much of the buzz about Art Center now revolves around its new entertainment design department, headed by Scott Robertson. His students were responsible for the recent book Skillful Huntsman, an exercise in production design that holds its own in print with publications by working professionals. Combining industrial design with illustration, students in this new major learn the skills they’ll need for visual development careers at the nearby movie studios, with classes often taught by instructors from DreamWorks, Disney, and Imageworks.
The school now has a prop room, filled with costumes, mannikins, musical instruments, and everyday objects to use for staging an illustration. Students can check them out to take home, or models can pose with them in school.
Every Art Center student learns how to use woodshop tools. Here’s a display of working pull toys.
Illustration chair Ann Field typifies the exciting new spirit of the school, keeping right up with the times, but respecting timeless tradition. She told me that she respects the school’s duty to provide a strong foundation in traditional drawing and painting skills that can outfit a graduate for success in any career direction. “Some things will forever be true,” she told me. No matter how art and styles change, “you will always need to know how to paint and draw.”