The Academy of Realist Art in Toronto teaches its students the skills of careful observation based on classical methods.
One of the principal instructors, Fernando Freitas, recently took me through the building to explain the course of study.
The curriculum is based on the book by Charles Bargue and Jean Leon Gerome, which was originally produced in the mid-nineteenth century for the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
There is no portfolio entrance requirement. Students come from all different backgrounds and ages. Each student follows the same series of steps or levels. They move ahead to the next step whenever they’re ready.
The first skill to master is to reproduce a two-dimensional drawing. The goal is to learn to capture shapes and to understand the division of light and shadow.
The next stage is a vine charcoal or carbon pencil study to understand the effect of light and shade on a plaster cast. The drawing and the cast are set up side by side in the same light and checked until they match perfectly.
This so-called “sight size method” takes a lot of floor space because you have to back up from the subject and see the drawing and the model in one view. Two students generally work side by side from the same cast.
They then move to painted studies of casts, still life studies, and painted studies from the nude model. Some studies can take 30 to 60 hours of work.
Mr. Freitas also encourages students to learn from the classic texts on drawing and painting by Harold Speed. He has produced an instructional DVD called Drawing the Figure, which follows the process of creating a tonal drawing of a standing figure from start to finish.
“We’re more an academy than an atelier,” Mr. Freitas said, “because we are based on an objective, classical approach rather than the working methods of one individual master.”
The atmosphere of the school is focused, energetic, and collaborative, more like a martial arts academy than a free-form art school. It feels like entering the dojo with a clear mind, focused on the task at hand, leaving behind your worldly concerns. One easel was emblazoned with a sign “I SEEK EXCELLENCE.”
The way of learning art at ARA is very different from other schools, and I know that not everyone agrees with it. I’ve heard the criticism that the sight-size academic method it leads to uniform results, or that it amounts to passive copying.
I think those views misunderstand the objectives of classical training. The purpose is not to teach style or personal expression, but rather to give each growing artist a solid foundation to build on, and to offer them a deep familiarity with classical models and timeless standards. Drawing and painting at that level of sensitivity is a very active process indeed. It deeply engages every fiber of a student’s being.
The ARA is not trying to be everything to everyone, and I believe that is their strength. The results that are framed up in the hallway are nothing short of breathtaking, and the sense of shared purpose among the students is palpable.
There is much every art school can learn from the example of the ARA. I believe that every art student should have the chance to go far beyond the 20 or 30 minute poses that are common in many art schools and to see how finely they can tune their response to the visual world.
Official Website for the Toronto school (with a new campus just opened in Boston, MA), link.
Freitas video on drawing the figure, link.
Bargue book on Amazon, link.
More about the sight size method, link.