Thursday, December 13, 2007

Academy of Art University

Academy of Art University occupies a series of separate buildings scattered throughout the steep streets of San Francisco near Union Square. I visited two of those buildings: the performance hall in a converted church, below, where I gave my Dinotopia slide presentation, and the illustration and animation building around the corner.

It’s a big school. In the illustration major alone, there are 900 students enrolled in the graduate and undergraduate levels out of a student body of 12,000. Every student and every teacher we met seemed to have a genuine zeal for their work and an affection for each other.

Like the other two west coast schools we visited, (Art Center and SJSU), AAU has responded to the growth of the video game and CGI animation business by building a first-rate course of study for animation, storyboarding, and visual development—or to use the current lingo: “vis dev.”

This cutting-edge curriculum is founded on traditional knowledge and skill at drawing and sculpting the figure, with an emphasis on story and character.

“The ability to think with a pencil is the core of surviving in a 3D world,” illustration director Chuck Pyle told me. “We’re not here to train them for today or tomorrow. We want to give our students the skill set they can use forty years out.”

We visited a class that was drawing from the costumed model in a high-ceilinged top-floor ballroom. Students clustered around a pair of models dressed in the theme of a doctor and his patient. They drew what they observed within the 20-minute poses, but also used their imaginations to elaborate the characterizations.

Other themes have included Knights, Witches, and Barbarians. Clothing and costume are a key part of the training, taught by Lisa Berrett and Barbara Bradley, the latter a veteran of the famous Cooper Studios.

There’s a class in maquette building, with gray clay models (above) of imaginative cartoon characters. We also looked in on a class of traditional drawn animation.

For those of you who are chemically sensitive to oil solvents, you might be interested that AAU has state of the art ventilation and waste disposal technology.

Students can take a sculpture course where they build the figure from the bones outward. Legendary ILM creature designer Terryl Whitlatch teaches animal drawing. Once she brought in live ocelots. European-trained figure drawing master James X. Barbour teaches a whole course in drawing the head and hands.

The school is particularly strong in teaching the history of illustration. Instructors can borrow original art from the teaching collection, which includes works by illustrators from the last five decades. Unlike many art schools, where the ability to teach illustration history is controlled and hampered by snobby art history department admistrators, AAU lets Steve Kloepfer, one of America’s foremost experts, teach a whole course on the subject.

As I signed books after my talk, I had a strong feeling that I will be hearing again from each of the students five years from now, from the point of view of their successful positions inside the industry or out there as published illustrators.

To all my new—and old— friends at AAU, congratulations and best wishes!


Anonymous said...

God, I'm so jealous! I'm from the Netherlands and Art Schools are truly rare here. Nearly thirty years ago I applied for the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague because I wanted to become an illustrator (my great hero being Rien Poortvliet) and I was laughed away: illustration was good for decorating biscuit tins. Sneeringly I was asked if I had a fetish for wide eyed fluffy kittens as well. I had to understand that they were an ART school, and pupils were taught to become ARTISTS and this did not include such things as perspective, use of colour or anatomy!
Indeed, Dutch artists, it said in the newspapers a few weeks ago, can't make a living with their art. They hardly sell a single piece a year. I blame the academy. They induced the students with an inflated sense of importance ("ART changes the WORLD!!") but failed to give them the tools to actually make truly great art. They *sneered* at those tools. They spit on the idea that art has to be marketable.
So I'm very, very, *very* jealous of these kids.

Marion Ros

The Ginger Darlings said...

I think if I had been to an artschool like that I would have learned something. Instead I had three years in an elegant stately home to play and draw, and then began serious learning of the craft of illustration on leaving. Looks amazing. When I am not caring for too many cats I spend my time painting, most recently a Snow Leopard book, and was lucky enough to go an draw leopards and spend some time with them, albeit in captivity. Wonderful animals and the only way to learn to draw them.
Best wishes to you from Jackie and the Gingercats

Anonymous said...

Anonymous speaks for many of us (me included) who couldn't find good training back then. I also admired people like Norman Rockwell and Rien Poortvliet who were out of fashion in the art schools. That's why I had to teach myself by sketching at the zoo and reading old how-to books.

It is different now, thanks to people like Chuck Pyle. He will only hire working illustrators to teach. He said, "If they can't walk the walk and talk the talk, they don't have a job here."

Nicolas said...


I'm from France and I can tell you one thing : the situation of Art teaching in France is the same that in the nederlands apparently. American kids don't realize how lucky they are to learn a real job and to be taught by real profesionals. Schools in France are made by and for lousy teachers in 90% of the cases.
Being profesional, earn a living one day is considered vulgar qnd I'm not talking about drawing since we don't need to learn to look at things anymore : we have cameras and computers for that. Using your eyes is so antique, what matters is the b******t concept. And if your technique sucks, that is even better, that makes you a human being !
It makes me sick.

Anyway, I'm happy that in some country, such old-school habits like seeing and making are still taught and learnt.
Lucky you !


Gina said...

Looks like a wonderful place to learn!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great school.

Are you going to be doing this tour again? I'm a risd student and sadly I missed your presentation.

K_tigress said...

Yep I can definitely relate to that as well coming from a small lunch box city that’s narrow vision was the auto industry. Plus not having any one in the media industry to help you is also a real drag.
So as with every thing, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade, lemon pie and repellent. LOL
Like Mr Gurney said, about the books and practicing, sometimes you have to customize your education in order to gain the knowledge you want and never stop learning something new.