Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Gammell on Training Painters

R. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) carried the torch for academic painting in mid-20th century America. He published Twilight of Painting in 1946, an argument for the value of traditional painting skills that he found lacking in the art world* around him.

Gammell makes an interesting point about art teaching:

“A painter’s training does not consist primarily in instruction as to the handling of his materials. Such knowledge is extremely important, of course, but it is not the main thing. The essential purpose of a painter’s training should be to equip him with the means of solving any problem suggested to him by his creative impulse.”

He argues that all painters must begin their inspiration with the visible world, and that “a sound tradition of painting is, perhaps more than anything else, an attitude toward the visible world, and its teaching seeks to make that world more understandable and more accessible to its disciples.”

He describes bad teaching as that which makes the student follow canned formulas for painting, or as he says, “ready-made interpretations of natural appearances and recipes for rendering them.”

Above: Gammell: “The Law,” 1936.

How would Gammell address those higher goals? How, exactly, does the teacher equip the young painter to respond to the creative impulse? What good would such guidance be if the student didn’t already know how to stretch a canvas, and apply paint? Especially in a world where basic practical knowledge had been mostly lost, isn’t it the duty of an art education to have mastery of the mechanics of paint and brushes, perspective, anatomy, and accurate drawing?

As I understand Gammell’s argument, he would agree that it’s the teacher’s duty to help the student through all of the mechanics, which take years of dedicated effort, ideally in a small atelier.

But it’s the rare teacher that is able to equip the student with the higher tools for bringing their dreams into focus, and for manifesting them in a way that is right for that student’s unique sensibilities.

Once the practical foundation is laid, teachers can offer students proven strategies for shaping their dreams into material form. The process of developing sketches, preliminary studies from the model, and so forth, is a time-honored procedure that has served artists with all sorts of visions and styles.

*Note: Gammell’s view of the art world scarcely includes the field of illustration. Although he mentions Howard Pyle in passing, he ignores his contemporaries such as Andrew Loomis, whose  Creative Illustration was published in the same year as Twilight of Painting, and he doesn’t acknowledge the artists of the Famous Artist’s School, who were active in the mid-40s. Those artists had substantial skills at representational painting and they passed them on through innovative channels. It can be argued that the training of illustrators carried on much of the tradition that Gammell found absent in the gallery art world.

Wikipedia on Gammell
Steven Gjertson’s essay on Gammell, his teaching, and his times.
Twilight of Painting


Darren said...

This is a minefield so I'll step gingerly and generalize. Clearly there can be a lot of crossover.

Gerome taught what turned out to be two streams of Americans: Observers and Constructors. I would imagine that there are far better terms so I'll not argue them.

Anyway, the observers through Paxton (one of Gammell's teachers and a prime mover in the Boston School) and the constructors through Bridgeman (who taught Rockwell and Loomis at the ASL).

At times, these two camps are still poles apart and IMO it's likely that Gammell would have considered the constructors to be mannered.

Will Kelly said...

Hi Mr. Gurney,

I have a question somewhat unrelated to the post (although it was fabulous as usual!)

I am really wanting to begin to get serious about learning to paint with oils, and with no previous experience, I'm wondering if you have any books that you would recommend on the subject that would give me a good knowledge of the basics.

I downloaded your material list from the IMC website, which was incredibly helpful as far as materials. Any input would be very welcome! Thank you!

James Gurney said...

Darren, I like that: Observers and Constructors. Can we be both?

Will: I recommend Andrew Loomis's "Creative Illustration" (now out of print but soon to be back in print--and available as PDFs online), and Harold Speed's book on oil painting from Dover. There are other good books, but those have lots of solid knowledge and they explain all the basics.

mj said...

It looks like the bottom 3 links all point to the Twilight of Painting Amazon link.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, MJ: I redid the second two links. Sorry they look like blatant ads.

Will Kelly said...

Thank you so much for the recommendations James! I will definitely check these out. I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...
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Darren said...

Observers and Constructors. Can we be both?


Thomas R Dunlay said...

Hi Mr Gurney,
I had the very good fortune of having been a pupil of Mr Gammell. Unfortunately what he left in writing regarding Howard Pyle in no way reflects what he thought him. He talked about him very often and admired his work enormously. He thought his system for training painters was amongst the best and modeled much of his own teaching after Pyle's approach.
Tom Dunlay

James Gurney said...

Tom, thanks for that interesting insight. It reinforces what Mr. G said in his book, which was that Pyle's school was the best kind of art instruction format, where a select group worked closely with a master. You're so lucky to have studied with Mr. Gammell.

Ken said...
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Ken said...

Hi Mr Gurney, i have a unrelated question too.

I noticed in one of your old posts a student created a master copy using your gamut map system.

Is this a good alternate to painting from nature for those of us who don't have a live model or any pretty scenery nearby?

Sorry for the bad grammer.

James Gurney said...

Ken, yes, master copies are an excellent learning tool. I often do them from reproductions, though you can do them in museums from originals if you get permission first. Or you can just do quicker pencil or ink thumbnail studies in museums. Whichever way you do it, it helps you to appreciate a master's work at a deep level.

But it's not a substitute for working from life. You should do that too, separately. If you dug up your heroes from the grave, I guarantee you they would say, "Why are you copying my paintings? You should paint from Nature instead!" There are subjects all around you: people, animals, scenery.

Eric Prout said...

I think what Gammell meant was that if the painter had the skills to solve any problem suggested to him/her by his/her creative impulse. The technical skills would come with practice.

My Pen Name said...

You don't need pretty scenery - remember James Gurney's mud puddle painting? Or Albrect Duerhers turf paintings?

As for models - you don't anyone who could pose? if not, there is always a mirror.

I also agree James, that master copying is great practice especially from the real painting (there is a world of difference between reproductions and the original

jeff said...

I personally look at it this way: the old masters were pretty much both observers and constructors to borrow from Darren' post.
Rembrandt, Titian, Veronese to name a few did a lot of biblical and mythological illustrating.

I've seen some NC Wyeth' that are clearly in both worlds.

Alessandra Kelley said...

I've been aware of Gammell and his teachings for some time. While he had an admirable insistence on good technique and care in study, I found myself ... underwhelmed by his art and that of his followers. He had a sound foundation, but his and especially his students' approach to imagery seemed to me thin and somewhat lacking.

I think Gammell's lack of recognition of illustration weakened what could have been a fertile cross-pollination. He played less with the imaginative than he could have.

I enjoy creative and skilled illustration work like yours. It's always heartening to see a lively imagination wedded to meticulous technique.

Frank said...

I believe that subject matter is the primary reason why guys like Gammell don't talk much about illustrators. It comes down to believing in the importance of your subject, rather than in the beauty of the technique.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I am passing this message on from another Gammell student- who is a masterful painter and teacher, but not so good at commenting on blogs:

"Such an odd thing to say, that Gammell would not have appreciated the illustrators. His was the 'constructor's' approach entirely but it was dramatically informed by long personal observation, not controlled by borrowed observation such as the Loomis or Riley methods. The 'source' was always nature not method. He would have quoted Ingres' discussion about the use and abuse of the 'formula'.

Hey, Tom Dunlay, nice to see you here defending Mr. G.


Brandy Agun said...

Thanks for this sensitive post. I love how Darren has coined this duality that seems to exist - observers and constructors. And it does seem that the current classical ateliers are more paint/draw what you see and the illustration/gaming schools are more paint/draw what you know. I've found both have some formulas which can lead to under-achievement and both have great merit. So I propose one learn both to observe nature closely and to understand it intellectually via learning anatomy, perspective the science of light and anything else that is useful. I'm lucky I'm in a classical atelier that is observation heavy right above a sculpting school that is construction heavy. And boy do we participate in as much as we can in the sculpture school!

Darren said...
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Darren said...

I'm not sure who initially wrote that Gammell did not appreciate the illustrators and I hope that the end summation in my comment was not misunderstood nor passed on as such (and perhaps it wasn't). To be clear though, it was not meant to imply that Gammell did not appreciate illustrators, especially Pyle. Rather, it was meant to imply that his view of those illustrators who rely solely on formula (constructors, in my invented and possibly too broad definition) may not have fit his ideas of how an artist ought to be trained. I believe that this aligns with Ingres' quote. As a former student of 2 of Gammell’s students, if anything I am a defending Gammell.

Relative to Gammell’s ideas about teaching art students (James’ topic), I find it odd that Gammell’s student considered his approach to be entirely constructive. Besides my former teachers, I know a number of former Gammell students and they’ve never given me that impression. However, as too Gammell’s work as an artist himself, now that’s another story.

I love the term borrowed observation!

I also thoroughly agree with Jeff's post.

Richard, I’d like to be in contact with your friend (and any former Gammell student). Please pass on my contact info if you wouldn’t mind.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

The quote I posted was from my teacher, Paul Ingbretson, who has a teaching studio in Manchester New Hampshire.

Darren said...

Thanks Richard.
I guessed either him or Stape. :)
Paint well.