Friday, August 8, 2008

Technique and Training

In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s atelier, by all accounts, there wasn’t much talk about technique or method. Hamilton Easter Field, an American student of Jean Leon Gerome, recollected in 1913,

“In the years I spent in Paris I never heard the Frenchmen discussing technique. Simon, Menard, Gaston La Touche, Fantin-Latour, indeed, all my French friends were intent on expression and never bothered about brushwork.”
Kenyon Cox, another American student of Gerome, remembered:

“I think there is a general impression that he is very rigid in his methods of instruction and that his pupils become, almost of necessity, his imitators. As a pupil of his during three years, and one who owes him much, I feel that this impression should be corrected. During all the time I was working in L’Ecole des Beaux Arts under his instruction I saw but two pupils whose work showed any decided imitation of Gerome’s own methods of painting, and I never saw any attempt on the part of the master to change the methods of his other pupils. Gerome has a method of setting his palette which differed somewhat from that employed by most artists: a method which could, I think, only be employed by an artist exclusively devoted to form and comparatively indifferent to qualities of color. When I began to paint for the first time under his instruction he recommended this method to me. I had already acquired other methods and did not change them, and he never again recurred to the matter. His criticism was always of results, and never, after that first time, of methods.”

The American illustration teacher, Howard Pyle, also downplayed the technical side of painting to his summer students at the Brandywine school. According to biographer Henry C. Pitz, “Pyle spent little time on drawing or technique. He looked for a creative spark, a picture that talked back.”

I was surprised to run across these quotes, because I had imagined that 19th century art students were getting a thorough training in paint-mixing and practical methods.

This revelation leads to other questions. First of all, what do these writers mean by “technique?” Cox mentioned “setting the palette.” Do they also mean such things as paint application, brushwork, paint chemistry, color mixing, underpainting methods, or methods of accurate drawing? If the academic masters weren’t teaching technique, was that because they were accepting students who had already received such training? Where was this knowledge gained? What were Gerome and Pyle teaching instead? (Their schools were very different, of course.) And finally, given the differing circumstance of our own times, what role should technique play in the design of an effective art training curriculum?

I did a little more reading and found a few preliminary answers, at least about Pyle.

Pyle himself wrote, “The students who come to me [at the Brandywine School] will be supposed to have studied painting and drawing as taught in the schools.” “My class,” he said, “was formed more for the purpose of encouraging imaginative drawing in the more advanced students.” To life classes, he told the students “not to copy the model but to make a picture.” Students should be taught, he wrote, that “all they are learning of technque is only a dead husk in which must be enclosed the divine life of creative impulse.”

The remaining questions remain unanswered, and I welcome your thoughts.
Preceding quotes from Pyle are from Howard Pyle: A Chronicle, by Charles Abbott, 1925
Cox quotes from The Lure of Paris, Barbara Weinberg, p. 111-112.
Howard Pyle, Diversity in Depth, p. 14, Henry Pitz
The Hamilton Easter Field book is online, link.
Gerome image from ARC, link.


Unknown said...

One of my professors believed that knowledge didn't have value unless you discovered it on your own. He would give definitions, show examples, but he would not teach technique. Then, when the paintings were completed, during the critique, he would verbally tear your painting apart. This greatly frustrated me.

One of the others was the opposite. He would show you a technique and then you had to come up with a way to apply it. Before the painting was finished, he'd offer advice on what could be done to improve it. I was amazed and encouraged.

After leaving school, I learned a lot from techniques in books.

As one who teaches all children, not just the future professional artists, I think technique is very important. I think it adds to future art appreciation. Someday they'll see a watercolor and say, "Oh, wet-on-wet technique -- I know how the artist did that!"

Chinami said...

I agree with you Andrew Wales!
I've always wanted to learn more tequniques than my teachers have really taught me.
I feel that knowing tequniques won't constrain my expression, but help me realize my intentions more easily than just mainly making it up as I go along, and having the teacher give a critique as he passes by. However, I feel a lot of art instruction prefers a really laissez-fair way of teaching.

I'm going to be 16 the August 18th. So hopefully, in the future I can find resources, to teach myself techniques.

Andrew said...

This post actually reminded me of a story my Professor told me about when we trained in Italy (I believe it was, or it was another area near there)...

The school he went to for a short time (this was well after he had been working professionally for years, so this was more him looking to refine some of his methods) had a peculiar way of learning, far different from what I'm familiar with at least. Students, when doing studies and such, were greatly stressed to employ all manners of sighting and measure, plumb lines, proportion checks and other things to recreate a perfect replica of what they saw. The student was not considered ready to advance yet until the drawing was a near-perfect copy of their study (be it simple form, still life, bust, or life model.) While this did force REMARKABLE work out of the students, it also greatly shunted them. Students were able to replicate what they saw, yes, but they were unable to draw from the imagination, and didn't really seem to have the concept of drawing-through the form or anything close to that.

Now, it could be that students already possessed the other training before they entered (considering the place, which eludes me in name, it wouldn't surprise me.)

Now that story doesn't really have much of a point other than to illustrate another European's school of thought, but anyway...

I feel like considering what Pyle mentioned, how he expected students to already be capable of drawing once they came to him, it's hard in some cases for this to apply today. Considering how horrid most public schools are about the arts (Everyone will donate tons of money to the sports programs, but god forbid if you want to keep the last two art classes) it seems hard to come to college (which would be the equivolent of Pyle or the atelier school I guess) already trained and ready to refine your abilities. Granted, people who usually pursue art have had the drive to teach themselves and explore on their own before they arrive, but still, I think in these modern times it all feels rather rushed. We're expected to be ready for professional work within 4 years time, and for some people they are just learning things for the first time!

I'm kinda of the mindset then that technique ought to be stressed upon during those years, since once you have the knowledge of it, you can either implement it into your work through your own view, or discard if you can't find a use for it.

Whew...a long post for my 2 cents, but it got me thinking...

Unknown said...

What did Pyle say about painting? "Throw your heart in and jump in after it" something like that. I think the intention was much more important than the technical skills to get there during this period. Maybe there was a gap between the priorities of the artists and the priorities of the critics.

Victor said...

I think your excerpts imply that students DID learn the techniques of painting in Gerome's atelier, but that there may not have been that much discussion of technique after learning the fundamentals. Even the Ecole des Beaux-Arts didn't teach painting, instead focusing on drawing and leaving the painting instruction to individual artist ateliers.

Sakievich said...

I think it should be remembered that both of these teachers were both masters acknowledged in their own time. Because of that they were both in high demand and could choose from among the best of their applicants. I forget who the author is, but I've read the Hpward Pyle biography and according to what it says, Pyle would receive 3-500 applications to his free illustration school. Among those that applied, he would accept 3-5 depending on the available room at the student studio. In the instance of the Brandywine school you had the best coming there and I'm sure that many already had some great innate or well trained ability. Pyle, in fact was looking more at their imaginative abilities when considering a student.

I have been teaching freshmen animators at Brigham Young University for the last four years gesture drawing and very very very few of my students arrive with much initial capacity. Due to the shortness of a semester I teach a simplified process that has broad application in drawing the figure or whatever else their imagination demands. It's mostly a technique class. My concern has always been that due to the limitations imposed by myself and the university's time schedule that they never move beyond what I teach and really become self-learners. To help counter balance and support what is taught in class there is a large outside of class sketchbook assignment with some copy work, but mostly it contains drawings of their own choosing with only two requirements that they be done in ink and from life.

I think training in technique is definately necessary, but not to the slavish point of absolute imitation as we see demanded in many of the contemporary atelier schools, where fine drawings and paintings of single figures holding sticks in the dark are done and where no real imaginative work is encouraged. This was also Pyle's concern after pursuing academic atelier training himself.

There's my two bits.

Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

Excuse the deleted comment. I was correcting a spelling error and accidentally hit 'publish.'

That school your prof attended was likely one of three in Florence. Of the three, one has a direct link to Gerome (master to pupil, 4th generation) and this is where I was a student and years later an Assistant Director. It's possible I know your prof.

Anyway, these schools (and others like them) exist to train artists to paint based upon a careful observation of nature. No training is given for doing work out of one's head. That would be considered illustration, not in a derogative sense but different from the goals of the schools. This approach is but one of the paths that extended from Gerome.

As far as imaginative painting goes, this is also encouraged for students who are interested. Often, however, it's a subject that is pursued in a 5th (or later) year of training. It, too is predicated on nature as the source. Once a composition is arrived at models would be brought in and so forth... In fact, this what I was trained to do and is exactly how I paint. Not many students take this road however as most are more interested in portraits, etc.

One must be careful in judging student's work, especially for painters. Remember Titian, "It takes a lifetime to learn to paint and another lifetime to paint." These students are taught how to see and the result of their efforts are merely representations of that. Yes, student work is often 'life-less.' That can also be said of some student musicians who study classically. It's mostly after their training that they begin to find their own voice but while in school the goal is seeing, not expression.

Andrew said...


It was a school in Florence, from what I remember, it was just one of those things that was on the edge of my mind...

I wouldn't be surprised if you knew my old Professor, Paul Hudson. Far as I know, he's been around everywhere on this world, doing all sorts of things.

Sakievich said...

I have no problem with the careful study from life, I do much of it on my own too and certainly encourage it. My concerns about the contemporary ateliers do not stem from their being careful about their drawing nor a pursuit in excellence in their craftsmanship, but generally I see a lot of people (some that I know personally) that come out of these programs without any concept of composition and imagination. By imagination I do not mean fantasy art, but simply the ability to imagine an image and finish it. Too many simply cannot conceive an interesting composition and develop it. Or when they try to attempt anything beyond the single figure, it is stiff and boring. It looks like a painting of a posed person, which is what it is. The ability to develop interesting compositions is not tied exclusively to the ability to draw exactly from nature, though much can be learned about it from the experience. Along with that I haven't been impressed by the final compositions that most of these heads of various modern ateliers develop. As I've looked at what's going on over the years that I've been aware of the new schools, I've become more and more convinced that students of art should not wait until their final year to start developing and conceiving their personal vision and compositions. To only start developing this in the final year stunts their artistic growth and their imagination.

I have some friends that have just started a new school that I think corrects at least this problem that the modern ateliers have, though they may have others of their own. Two of the teachers are largely self taught and one has had extensive training at one of the ateliers in Florence (I forget which one). They are going to have their students walk through the process of precise drawing, but also simultaneously they will be developing their own compositions as they develop their skills. I've become convinced that the development of artists' ability to imagine and develop an image may be more important than the skills to pursue that vision. Because without the vision of what they want to accomplish the skills are meaningless. I've become more forgiving of errors in drawing and color than I am of poor composition and value arrangement.
This isn't an attack on the new atelier system, but it does contain my concerns about them. I considered pursuing that sort of study after I graduated (with a BFA in illustration..incidentally). But as I've seen friends go out and study at them and watched their results and seen others results, I've become concerned. At the same time, I've also seen dramatic improvements in their drawing precision.

It's not that these schools are bad or should be avoided, in fact, by and large I think they should be encouraged. It's just that when students are hand fed a specific method, centered around a specific person's method and vision exclusively they tend to end up poor clones of their master. More needs to be done by their teachers to help these students become self learners and self sufficient in their personal vision by encouraging it from the beginning and not the end.

Anonymous said...

I think teaching technique has a lot of value, assuming we're defining technique as things like principles of composition/draftsmanship. A lot of my illustration professors would shy away from teaching technique, because they were afraid it would impinge on our "natural style" or something like that, but the end result was that the draftsmanship-minded students gravitated towards the few professors who did teach what we were looking for.

As far as I know, the technique-seeking group is the one that primarily ended up working professionally once we left college.

I agree with Drew - I sure wish I'd been able to come to college with my fundamentals already rock-solid, but it's just not feasible in our current culture, and I absolutely think you need those fundamentals before you can do the fun stuff like the creativity and expression Pyle adored. I got some of them in college, taught myself some more, and am ever seeking to refine and improve.

innisart said...

I think there is a big difference between the students entering into significant art training these days, from those of the past. There were probably more people turned away decades ago then there are now. Not only have portfolio reviews become less objective, but a school will not likely turn down the tuition because of sub-par art (as one of my teachers said, "This school will take anyone with a pulse and a checkbook, and they're not too picky about the first requirement.").

(As another example of universities being more interested in making money than developing artists, one needs to look no farther than the classical music departments who put out 80,000 graduates per year across the nation, for about 80 openings per year in orchestras. They're not graduating so many in an attempt to fill job openings!)

Technique is very important, and needs to be taught to students, but in the right way. Students need rules, if only to later break them when they become more confident. The rules help you to organize your ideas, and give you a point to return to when you encounter a problem in your work. However, the students need to learn at the same time that they are learning technique, that there are MANY valid approaches, and the technique they are learning from one teacher is only one such method.

At the university I attended, they taught no technique, but were always ready to criticize the lack of it. The main goal of the professors was to teach creative problem solving, though they usually only rewarded the most hackneyed ideas. Unfortunately, very few students had the language to express their ideas, whether those ideas were banal or fresh.

What may have worked for Gérôme and Pyle, did not work for me and my teachers. I was forced to learn from books, and by trial and error. Luckily, I met two illustrators who gave me some technique pointers, which helped me to get started, but still, I was basically looking to get hired so I could learn on the job. In a competitive market like illustration, you can't expect people to hire you until you are already developed, so without a good grounding in technique you're not going to have an easy row to hoe.

My vote is for teaching technique!

Darren said...

I may have mislead us in my initial comment. In the ateliers I've been involved with, no one was discouraged from pursuing imaginative work at any time. But focusing on it is as the main part of training was left until the student had some sort of trained eye.

Of course I don't disagree with much of your last comment Sakievich. But I do think that the lack of imagination and/or compositional skills could be as likely the fault of the student or teacher as the method of training.

Matthew has a point as well. Acceptance as art schools (atelier or otherwise) is often routine.

The name does not ring a bell.

Elena Maslova-Levin said...

I believe the 19th century had a very different approach to teaching children (virtually in all areas, but in drawing as well) -- it was much more about discipline and technique, rather than about "fun" and self-expression. If so, then it would seem natural that a painter's students were in need of some "liberation" as it were, rather than of more and more techniques and methods.

Anonymous said...

At my school, hardly anyone teaches technique. The end result is a 'hot mess'. My Drawing II teacher complimented one girl on her complete lack of technique (perspective) in a drawing of a flight of stairs, and never got more critical than a vaguely worded comment that it could possibly look better. How many times did I wish during critiques that I could say to the artist, "That sucks, and here's why!" while the teacher did nothing but talk about 'interesting' compositional choices as they struggle to remain nonjudgmental and avoid insulting anyone? A lot. That's not fair to the teachers and not fair to the students.

There are a lot of artists at my school with plenty of imagination but not enough discipline to give it a direction. The only ones who are succeeding are the ones who study (draw) on their own outside of class. Why are they paying for lessons if they can do it better all on their own?

I understand the need to not stunt a student's growth or compromise their artistic style, but there must be a balance between imaginative art and practical art in order to give someone's raw creativity a purpose, to create something that everyone can understand and enjoy.

I once read somewhere that these days the only ones who aren't artists are the illustrators.

stephen erik schirle said...

i was never really taught technique in my training, but i was introduced to different techniques. i think its more important to focus on learning the actual skills of drawing/value/color and composing.

once you have those skills you can apply any technique you want and you still have a strong image, no matter if your drawing with a rusty door knob or the finest sable.

there's definetly a place for technique, but i think it just comes alittle later, maybe when your out of school, or in the much later terms.

i guess its just a balancing act.

stephen erik schirle said...

after reading some of these posts im alittle confused at what people refer to as technique here... perspective isnt a technique, drawing isnt a technique, the understanding of value and color and composition arent techniques.

Sakievich said...

When I refer to technique, I refer to a specific process used to produce specific results. It generally refers to the handling of media as well as general image creation.

Some things, like the general principles of design (color, line, value, etc.) are not techniques but can be the result of a specific technical method. Within those principles, specific techniques can be applied, such as the rule of thirds or the golden mean. Or how you would achieve different types of edges.

I think it can be wise to cast your net wide in terms of technique. To learn a variety of methods from which you can pick and choose what is interesting and useful to you, which will also give you something that's uniquely your own as you develop.

judetwee-when I refer to imagination being vital over technique, I'm not saying that poor drawing is ever wise. I'm referring to the idea that ultimately, regardless of how well something is drawn, the overall impact of the final image has primacy. Some of my favorite painters , both contemporary realists and deceased do make some mistakes (or...intentional adjustments) in the furtherance of their final vision.

Universities are generally a poor situation for the study of art. The time limitations of the semester system somehow arbitrarily require that you "master" figure drawing or head painting in less that 4 months. Where getting any kind of grade has no objective standard of comparison. I was lucky enough to enroll in an illustration program that emphasized figure drawing and painting from life. Not everyone takes advantage of this. And certainly, with my objectives as a painter, the program had it's weaknesses, that I've spent a lot of time correcting and will continue to do so

I think ultimately no matter where you go, every place has its weaknesses and its up to the student to find teachers they want to study with and then to take advantage of those teachers while doing their own exploration.

JP said...

My school took the approach that you must "know the rules before you can break them." We did excercises training us to draw, paint, understand color and perspective, and composition. We studied the human form and learned about gesture, construction, and anatomy, we did tons of figure drawing, and we did animal drawings from trips to the zoo. Once all of that was done, we began the "conceptual" classes. We were always encouraged to be intelligent and passionate about our art even in the most introductory class, but we didn't really start letting our ideas fly until the senior years. They told us very specific techniques that worked for them, but many students developed their own special ways of working. I think their examples and techniques were meant to serve as a base to stand on for moments when the work was confusing or challenging and the student needed all the help they could get.

That was a great period of growth for me, and I have my school and teachers to thank for helping me become the artist I am. Still, I feel like I really needed to branch out on my own in order to truely become excited and take risks with my work. That came after school.

One of my teachers remarked at graduation that he hoped the graduates would forget everything--I think he meant that all we absorbed from school should become second nature, like walking. Now that we knew how to walk, it was up to us were we decided to go.

jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeff said...

I think it's important to frame this in context to the period.
In the 19 century well to do students, which 95% of the students in the different academies of the day were, all took drawing from a young age. By the time they were 18 or 19 when the would enter a masters class they already had mastered perspective and basic drawing techniques.

The ones who did enter atelier's such as Gerome's or Carolus-Duran' (Sargent's teacher) were the ones who showed talent for drawing, and this was on a pretty high level.
In Sargent's case he was prodigious.

They then had to pass some very difficult drawing tests to move on up to the next level of study.

I think by the time they were in these classes with Gerome they idea s would be more in the line of nuances and more advanced ideas on painting. I think it was a given that you had technique, you could not get in without it.

It seems to me this was more like studying at Juilliard today.
It's a given you have already mastered your instrument, your there to learn how to become an artist.

Anonymous said...

I believe they just knew that students would be industrious enough to teach themselves technique. I dont buy the "if you dont learn from me you will never learn in a lifetime" sales pitch; a talented person will find a way.

Steven K said...

Jim, one of the best, though certainly opinionated, discussions of this whole era is R.H. Ives Gammel's "Twilight of Painting," where he goes into some discussion of the respective academy and atelier training systems. (And surprisingly, given his disdain for illustration, sings Pyle's praises.)
The problem here, as it is too often in 20th century art training, is semantics. Quite simply, the language for teaching art used in the 19th century was abandoned.
"Technique" was distinguished from "fundamentals" at this time. Fundamentals were things such as perspective, color theory, anatomy, composition, etc. - the fundamental building blocks of making pictures. This training was specifically addressed in the Academies. It would continue in the Ateliers, usually taught by associates, such as the celebrated William Bargue, the drawing master at Gerome's studio. A student did not bother a master such as Gerome with questions of fundamentals, but would address them with an assistant, associate, or "monitor," a senior student in charge in the masters absence.
For all his misguided hostility to the European academies, Pyle replicated much of the atelier system in his own style, creating an "inner circle" of senior students, with Frank Schoonover and Stanley Arthurs serving as monitors.
Also, while Pyle disdained "technique," his most important class was the famous "Composition Class," where he would vigorously lecture and critique for hours on the elements of composition and picture-making, including perspective, demonstrating that Pyle did NOT consider such fundamental elements to be "techniques."
"Technique," in their language, referred to the specific problems of applied painting. For example, "how to paint a highlight in the eye," "how to paint angel's wings," or "how to paint marble" was a technique. A master such as Gerome, Pyle, or Bouguereau would not bother with these things; rather, they would address the larger issues of painting and picture-making, and challenge the students to develop their own "technique" to address them, again with the help of associates and advanced students.
What is most lacking from the current, generally laudable, atelier system is this lack of focus on the larger issues of picture-making, especially composition and staging, which is one of the reasons we do not see epic work of the nature of Alma Tadema, Abbey, Mucha's Slav Epic, Waterhouse, Leighton, etc.

James Gurney said...

Thanks to all of you for these thoughtful and detailed comments. I've learned a lot, and it's really interesting to hear your personal experiences. Steve, I appreciate your clarifying the semantics behind the term "technique." I'll try to do some future posts based on what I can learn from primary sources about the French Academy and atelier teaching.

Joe Salamida said...

steven, you summed it up beautifully. For as much as I like the work of some of the atelier trained painters, the entire system lacks training for making "pictorial" paintings. I know many individuals that have trained in the atelier arena and some have told me that many teachers frown upon their students looking beyond what is being taught in the studio. In our case: composition.
Sure, the greats like Tadema, Meissonier, Gerome, and another one from the depths of academic obscurity Edouard Detaille were certainly superb picture makers but they were also often experts in what they were portraying. They new historical costume They may not have always gotten it 100% correct but they had a good footing in costume of various periods.

Unknown said...

Cheryl:Searching all my life for knowledge to enable to paint like the great masters, I found Ted Jacobs who studied under Frank Reilly at the Art Students league in the forties.
After all is expression of feeling or thought. prior to the mid century when photography
began to displace Illustrators, Artists learned seeing skills. The Charles Bargue reprint
is the great manual that Gerome and Bouguereau collaborated on in order to raise the standard of drawing as visual communication in schools; mid 19th century. As abstract painting and conceptual art replaced traditional pictorial expression,in the mid 20th century,students like myself(77) or Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrom,(79)were disappointed as art majors in colleges.
Ted Seth Jacobs wrote great books and in the mid 80's moved to a small village near Anger
and attracted and taught young people from all over the world the drawing methods I had been searching for . This knowledge opened my mind and enabled me to reach the skill levels I was
unable to reach prior. Jacob Collins carried on by founding The Grand Central Academy in
New York. Gaining knowledge. is a journey . Getting to know where to find it sadly isn't in only one place. Like learning penmanship on the 50's you learned and practiced a skill under direction and supervision just like a sports coach; the your individual expression can be attained.

James Gurney said...

I'm revisiting this topic (which will be endlessly debated) and am glad to revisit all these excellent points. Reading through the comments reminds me of what a golden time it was for blogging in 2008. I'm glad all this info is still available.