Thursday, August 30, 2018

Can there be too much academic training?

In his book on book on drawing and painting, Henry White (1861-1952) cautions against too much time spent with academic training: 

"An academic training in drawing and painting does not necessarily produce a great artist. It should not be continued too long, only long enough to enable the student to express himself fluently. What he does with his knowledge is another thing entirely.

Academie Julian, Paris
"Many Frenchmen and students of other nationalities in the Parisian schools painted from the life model for ten years or more or until they could render it with absolute perfection and the greatest ease. Technique could go no farther. Many of these men never did anything else. Their subsequent work was only a continuation of their school work, extremely clever and facile, but wholly uninspired and distinguished.

Arts Students League
"The average student, given any natural aptitude whatever, under good instruction, should master drawing sufficiently in a year or two at most, sometimes in a few months, for a working knowledge, to be combined with painting for the second half of the time. But no very interesting or valuable result is attained without a full measure of this discipline. Better a little more than is necessary than not quite enough."

Note: White studied at the Art Students League in the 1880s, as he puts it: "in the antique class under George de Forest Brush, who was a pupil of Gérôme and in the life class under Kenyon Cox, who was a pupil of Gérôme and Carolus Duran. Both artists were consummate draftsmen and their criticisms were severe. They held us to the highest standards. In addition, my teacher in painting was Dwight W. Tryon who had studied in Paris for five years in the highly specialized and very select school of Jacquesson de la Chevreuse who was a favorite pupil of Ingres. So I imbibed a triple extract, so to speak, of the best French tradition. It was a potent and ineradicable distillation that has served me well, both in the practice of painting and in teaching."

"On Drawing and Painting," by Henry C. White, 1944


Peter Drubetskoy said...

I think "too much academic training" happens to pupils who allow this to happen. It reminds me of the story when someone asked N.C.Wyeth is he wasn't afraid that all the strict training he was giving Andrew would kill his "marvelous freedom, to which he replied: "If it kills it, it ought to be killed". As I understand this reply, a student who becomes a consummate "technician" without putting his/her skills to actual creative use must probably not have enough of a divine spark to begin with. That said, I don't think there is ever a time where one can say "I have all the skills, no more is needed" - I believe even the best always strive to improve their technique, they just don't do it simplemindedly.

jimserrettstudio said...

Rubysboy said...

This posting reminded me of a poem by the 17th Century English poet, Robert Herrick, entitled "Delight in Disorder"
Some lines:
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness
[following lines list examples: "An erring lace," "A cuff neglectful..."
Do more to bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

The American Way: Find a good thing and overdo it.

Greg Preslicka said...

Great discussion. I don't think the problem is too much knowledge. Rather, I think there is the risk of the student becoming a clone or a cheap copy of the teacher. I have seen that a bit with a very prominent local painter who is a tremendous teacher. Many of his students learn his method but don't develop further into their own. That is a risk that we all are susceptible to even when not in an academic setting. We have that voice in the back of our heads saying "What would so and so do?" The struggle is to find our own way and inspiration based on all the knowledge we have gained.

rock995 said...

Good write up on Henry C. White at the Florence Griswold museum:

Mike Manley said...

Knowledge is not the same as imagination, but having a song you want to sing and having no voice or a weak one is worse.

James Gurney said...

All interesting perspectives, thank you.

Peter, the point you raise must have been on Whites mind, when he concluded "But no very interesting or valuable result is attained without a full measure of this discipline. Better a little more than is necessary than not quite enough." In other words, every artist needs to go through the training, regardless of where they want to use it for. They just don't need to spend five or more years at it unless that investigation is really essential to their vision.

Greg, I agree, and I think the problem with academic training is that it doesn't cover enough knowledge to be able to confront the world outside the studio. Reality presents many visual problems that were and are simply not addressed in the ateliers. To name a few topics: atmospheric perspective, foliage, water, clouds, perspective, animals, and movement. You have to confront those by leaving the familiar routine of the academy.

There's also a risk of making of fetish of the study, or overly revering Art instead of Life itself.

Peace said...

I am astonished, and happy to see that in the first picture, it appears that a man of African descent is not only teaching the class, but is lecturing it seems on the anatomy of a caucasian woman. Obviously not a photo from America at the time. Artists make better human beings it seems.

Peace said...

I found this picture of Henry Ossawa Tanner in the 1890 class. Julian allowed minorities and women, AWESOME!

Staffan Alsparr said...

Very interesting, and I agree to some extent, based on my own experience from academic training. Not that anyone is ever fully taught or is hurt by more knowledge, but rather that academic training, here in the sense of always pushing technique and realism further, can feed the self-critic to an extent where it becomes more powerful than the creative curiosity and drive, when that happens ones ideas are culled before they have a chance to develop. In other words focusing on technique and an endless search for a perfection which can never exist can cause one to lose touch with that playful side of artmaking which is the basis of creativity.

As said though, this doesn't happen to everyone. Some people go through years of academic training and then have no problem at all expressing themselves. I believe the answer lies in the realm of psychology, because people respond differently to different types of training. There is no one golden education path for everyone to follow

Jen Drummond said...

I can definitely relate to this, having fallen in to the pitfall you mention - being so concerned with technical quality that ideas are quashed as they arise for fear of a lack of ability to execute them. It leads to a great deal of unhappiness as an artist! I think it is neccessary to seperate technical training from creative expression and let each have it's space.

Ted B. said...

When I was studying Architecture, one of the most important strictures of my Professor was "...know when to stop, and just walk-away." Both in the sense of "...stop digging your whole deeper", and when it's finished "enough", stop.

JR said...

It just occurred to me that I've come a strikingly different viewpoint, presented in this tweet:

Ewan Morrison @MrEwanMorrison Aug 17 :

no-one needs to go to art school to become an artist.


James Gurney said...

JR thanks for that link. Interesting discussion on Mr. Morrison's Twitter. I think it depends on the art school. There are some that offer really valid instruction, and being around peers solving similar problems can push a person forward. But there are many art schools with faculty who have limited skills and who offer little more than prejudices that a young artist has to unlearn.

But even in excellent ateliers, I think there are skills of imagination and memory that are not taught well or enough, and there's always a risk of conforming to a house style. Independence is a valuable quality in an artist, and that is best developed through independent study.