Michael John Angel Studios by Peter Bougie

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Michael John Angel Studios

by Peter Bougie

Michael John Angel Studios (MJAS) are amongst a mere handful available in an art world that has been decimated by several generations of Modernist ideology. A figurative and actual voice in the wilderness, this oasis of sanity and preserved knowledge is a private institution that teaches drawing and painting in the old master tradition. Thus students learn the skills needed to express and portray the reality of contemporary life, as well as timeless themes about humanity and the world. While this tradition has its roots at least as early as 14th century Italy, the curriculum and the teaching techniques are grounded on those of the 19th century European academies and are the result of over 30 years of research and experiment by the school's founder, Michael John Angel. The resulting, step-by-step process successfully teaches the student to thoroughly appropriate the skills needed for representational painting.

Michael John Angel Studios (MJAS) are amongst a mere handful available in an art world that has been decimated by several generations of Modernist ideology. A figurative and actual voice in the wilderness, this oasis of sanity and preserved knowledge is a private institution that teaches drawing and painting in the old master tradition. Thus students learn the skills needed to express and portray the reality of contemporary life, as well as timeless themes about humanity and the world. While this tradition has its roots at least as early as 14th century Italy, the curriculum and the teaching techniques are grounded on those of the 19th century European academies and are the result of over 30 years of research and experiment by the school's founder, Michael John Angel. The resulting, step-by-step process successfully teaches the student to thoroughly appropriate the skills needed for representational painting.

M. J. Angel, born in England in 1946, has been painting and studying art since his mid-teens and studied under the great Italian master, Annigoni . Through Annigoni, Mr. Angel was made aware of the lack of virtually any effective methods of teaching in the universities and public art schools, that sadly, are populated entirely by an assemblage of people holding meaningless credentials often from top universities that have bestowed upon them virtually none of the skills or knowledge needed to transmit the essential disciplines of drawing and painting. Even in Europe, where some vestiges of the old methods of cast drawing and still-life remain, the official schools lack the knowledge to effectively teach Realism on the most rudimentary level, and frustrate the talented and serious student by trying to force upon them various 20th century concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with an education in fine-art. At Angel Studios, on the other hand, the procedures involved in these disciplines are founded upon bedrock principles that can be concretely described, integrated and transmitted, until the students fully master them through a series of carefully developed exercises planned out over a five-year course of study.

The Programmes

There are two programmes of study available through the MJAS Studios. The Fundamental Programme evolved from a combination of Mr. Angel's research and that of a number of students of the great American painter, R.H. Ives Gammell , whose pedigree, in turn, goes back to the French Academy.The programme begins with work from a specially prepared set of lithographs, which quickly teach the student the basic skills of accurate rendering.Angel Studios uses the best set of instructional drawings available, those made by Charles Bargue in the 19th century, at the behest of Jean - Léon Gérôme (the studio owns many of the originals).With these new- found skills, the student progresses to cast work, first in charcoal, then in oil paint, and from that to still - life, the best arena in which to learn colour, texture and the illusion of three dimensions.Work from the live model begins immediately and is central to our programme.

To acquire the utmost in accuracy and execution, the school uses the venerable "sight-size" method. Beyond this, MJAS teaches a system of comparative measurement in which the student learns to incorporate the conceptual with the realistic. This system is unique among modern-day Realist ateliers.

The Graduate Programme comprises two electives: Portrait Painting and Composition. Both involve the study of Form and Colour. Work from the live model always continues throughout.

The Working Studio

Beyond the Graduate Programme is a Working Studio, based on Renaissance and Baroque principles and open to all our graduates. The student works on actual commissions, such as mural panels - figurative and decorative; and portraits - drapery and backgrounds. Angel Studios is unique in offering this on-the-job introduction to the realities of professional painting and the techniques and excitement involved in large-scale work. Every so often, the studio creates a show for New York or London which generates much involvement and enthusiasm from all involved.

The studio emphasizes the importance of professionalism for those who intend to pursue painting as a career. Contrary to popular belief, the profession of artist is a very real one; a properly trained painter can expect to earn a salary equivalent to that of a doctor or lawyer. Study with us should be seen as a career investment. About half of our students are professional trainees. The rest are gifted amateurs with a genuine love of this fine tried and true methods and a determination to learn them. We welcome them as well! One can never tell with certainty which students may ultimately become the next great masters.

Two Studios - Canada and Italy

Angel Studios has two campuses: one in Toronto, Canada, with 70 students and one in Florence, Italy, with 20 students. Both teach the same programme, but the Florence campus also features some specially designed, short courses for students who are in Italy for only a month or two. Both campuses have full-time and par-time enrollment.

The completed curriculum will allow the graduate to confidently approach and overcome the most difficult projects in drawing and painting. Using the skills, techniques, knowledge, and approach that are taught at Angel Studios and the Angel Academy of Art, works of art of the highest possible quality are attainable.

Michael John Angel Studios' method is one of individual instruction in a group setting. That is, each student is evaluated on an on-going basis and advances largely in accordance with the time and effort he or she can invest. Since the programme is a succession of carefully designed projects, a student's prior training and experience do not influence the assignments given; only the speed at which instruction is absorbed. The atmosphere at MJAS is relaxed and convivial. Competition is friendly, and there is an air of support and respect among both students and instructors: their goals are, after all, mutual.

Some comments from Michael John Angel about MJAS Studios:

Michael John Angel Studios began in Florence, Italy, in 1994, in the historic studio of one of the great 19th-century Italian painters, Niccol├│ Barabino. The programme is based on more than thirty years of research and experimentation in traditional techniques of drawing and painting. Most of the studios from the 1500s onwards produced how-to-do-it texts. These are no longer in print and are only available today, often in the original from alone, in various museums around the world (the British Museum has some great ones, for example). Sifting through these, trying this and trying that, we eventually put in place a dynamite system of training. In 1997, we decided to open a larger school in Toronto, which now has seventy-five students and 3 full-time instructors. The Florence studio continues, but is smaller, more intimate, with eighteen students and two instructors (one part-time).

I studied in Florence, back in the 1960s, with Pietro Annigoni . The instruction was more an apprenticeship; it was not a formally structured school (I would have given my eye-teeth to have been able to learn from the programme we now have in place). Annigoni, himself a great scholar, encouraged us to research the masters and to draw, draw, draw! To watch him paint was a revelation. Bernard Berenson wrote, "Pietro Annigoni is not only the greatest painter of this century [the 20th], but also ranks amongst the greatest painters of all time".

Angel Studios has a two-page prospectus, [see the first part of this article] in which we outline the school's philosophy and approach. At the top of page 1 is the sub-title: "Dedicated to the Continuance of Classical and Realist Painting," which sums up our approach very well. The dedication is evident in our students and our teachers. Their eagerness to absorb and to take the pains necessary is very rewarding for me. Through their dedication we are indeed continuing what was so ignominiously, albeit temporarily, truncated by the First World War (except for the few bright torches kept burning in the hands of such greats as Ives Gammell).

The terms "classical" and "realist" are separated in our motto, as opposed to, say, the phrase "classical realist." The classical aspect is, by definition, rooted in the Ancient world and the origins of Western art. We stand on the shoulders of giants when we view our work from this perspective. Through the classical influence - which no doubt entered my own consciousness through Italian and Renaissance artistic traditions - we are encouraged to consider grand design, beauty, perfection and conception; in other words, the manipulation of Nature for artistic purposes. The realist in us, on the other hand, stems from the bounty of nature as captured by trained, empirical observation. This combination injects into our work elements such as convincing modeling of form and accurate visual impression. Our goal is to incorporate the conceptual with the representational, in part by blending sight-size technique with our unique system of comparative measurement. In my view, this counterpoint of the classical and the realistic makes a noble goal for art mentors of the new millennium: building on what has come before, creating a solid foundation for future generations.

After the fundamental programme, graduates have the option of entering one, or both, of our graduate programmes in Portraiture or Composition. These two huge topics have, naturally, been discussed many times over the course of a student's undergraduate programme, but, because of their importance and complexity, it is not until one has mastered certain other skills that a complete immersion in either is recommended. Therefore, we have created entire courses around these specific areas of study.

We are also preparing to incorporate a working studio, in which high-level students and graduates will participate in creating commissioned work. Here, the student will learn the realities of professional painting: deadlines, composing within a budget, studio logistics, etc. This we see as a cornerstone of a truly professional system of artistic education.

The Art Renewal Center was given the distinct privilege to interview Mr. Angel, who is revered as something of a living legend amongst his followers, both current and former students. These were the responses to some questions about the programme at MJAS.


How is the life drawing structured? Is it daily, a.m or p.m., under natural or artificial light? How many hours per day? What mix is there of long and short poses, and of what duration are they?

[Michael John Angel]

The school in Florence has eighteen students and runs all year. We have a model every morning for three hours, five days a week. The sustained pose, which lasts for two months, is four days a week. Wednesday morning is short poses, using different models from week to week.

The school in Toronto has seventy-five students and is much larger than the school in Florence. It runs all year and has two schedules. During each of the three terms, there are three models (one per room), for three hours each day of a five-day week. The school day is 6 hours long. The model for the painting students at Level 4 holds the same pose for six weeks. The model for intermediate drawing students at Levels 2 and 3 holds either a six-week pose, or a three-week pose. The Level-1 model takes half an hour poses three hours a day, for three weeks, so that Level-1 students can learn gesture, unit-measurement, and outline.

In the interim periods between terms, a single model comes in twice a week, for 3 hours a day. The length of the (sustained) pose varies. The light is 6000K artificial, to avoid the vacillations of natural light.

The Fundamental Programme structure is as follows: 1st-level: Bargue drawings and line work from the model. 2nd-level: Charcoal drawing from the cast and value studies from the live model. 3rd-level: Painting from the cast, and charcoal, or charcoal pencil, renderings from the live model. 4th-level: Still life painting, and painting from the live model. In general, it takes a full-time student three or four years to finish Levels 1 through 3.


How long do students typically work at drawing before beginning to paint the nude? Do they paint the nude in grisaille prior to painting in color?

[Michael John Angel]

We do not create a painted grisaille from the nude. The first cast painting (Level-3) is a grisaille and this introduces the student to the medium, as well as to the structure of a painting (drawing stage; big lay-in; 1st painting layer; 2nd painting layer; glazing, toning). Only 4th-level students paint from the nude.


Can you talk about the working studio aspect of MJAS, and it's exhibitions?

[Michael John Angel]

These are very early days for our working studio, as it is open only to graduates from our Graduate Programme, and we do not have any yet. However, we have made some beginnings: last year, we finished a large ceiling painting that was a combination of figures, trompe l'oeil and decorative elements, for a private residence in Chicago. It was four years (on a very part-time schedule) in the making, oil on canvas, which was finally rolled, shipped and glued to the ceiling. It will be viewable on our websites soon. Every so often, I receive a request for full-scale portraits in the $2000 - $3000 range. This is too little money for me to take them on, but there is no reason why the Studio cannot do them under my oversight. This is tremendous on-the-job training for the students. I am expecting a couple of full-length society portraits by the end of the year and, while I shall be painting them (they are full price), I shall have a couple of student-assistants help with the preparation, the backgrounds, and some of the accessories.

About 12 of our students are currently working on our first drawing show. All our shows will be both selling shows and public exhibitions (for advertising).


You oversee the curriculum; do you also work directly with students, and do you work more closely with advanced students? Who are your instructors? Do they work one-on-one with students and actually correct, that is, work on, student projects?

[Michael John Angel]

I work mainly with the 3rd-Level, 4th-Level and graduate students, while my assistant instructors (Fernando Freitas and Ryan Gauvin, in Toronto; Jered Woznicki and Martinho Carreia, in Florence) teach Levels 1, 2 and 3. And yes, they do often correct students' work by working directly on the students' projects (although I do not).


The prospectus mentions that prior experience does not influence assignments, only the speed at which they are absorbed. Does this mean that pretty much everyone starts at the same place, and that good prior training will allow them to proceed quickly, and poor prior training will have to be unlearned?

[Michael John Angel]

Yes, that is all true and very well stated.


How is your system of comparative measurement unique?

[Michael John Angel]

Our system of comparative measurement is unique inasmuch as it is not taught, to the best of my knowledge, in any of the other schools. The principles are absorbed over a period of some years and it is difficult to conjure it in a few sentences, but consider the example of unit-measurement. We begin by noting that a more-or-less equal unit repeats itself in the model. In nature, this unit is sometimes a little bigger, sometimes a little smaller, and the Naturalist, or "Realist", will draw these differences as they are. The Classical artist, however, will insist on the equality of the unit, modifying nature for the sake of harmony. Similarly, with concepts of form and colour, the modification of nature for harmonic purposes is a classical process. At MJAS, we teach the student all four aesthetic philosophies: Naturalism, Classicism, Romanticism (the modification of nature for expressive purposes) and Narration (the modification of nature for narrative purposes).


What is the advanced immersion program like? That is, for example, what does a student in the advanced portrait program do over the course of study, and in the course of a day's work? How is it different from being an advanced student in the regular program? Is this program in place in both Toronto and Florence?

[Michael John Angel]

The main aim of the Fundamental Programme is to train the student to draw and paint well technically. Some philosophy is introduced (see Comparative Measurement above), but it is not until the Graduate Programme that the student begins to learn expression and aesthetics.

In the Composition elective, the student learns how compositional principles, in Western European Art, stem from a study of the human figure. So, unit-measurement, flow-through lines, single-point origins, parallels, lost and found, etc. are applied to groups and the grouping of groups within big-form patterns. The Composition student works on a graduated series of exercises, which compound and become more and more difficult. These all begin with analyses of pertinent compositional forms in various old-master paintings, followed by a series of compositional sketches and a modello (a maquette) of an original compositional idea, appropriate to the exercise in hand. Similarly, in colour, the student explores various colour systems and harmonic palettes from past centuries. The student continues to work from the live model in the second half of the six-hour class, but now adapts the model to certain aesthetic and expressive ideas, such as a fixed harmonic palette.

The Portrait student learns to adapt nature through study of 17th, 18th and 19th century portraiture, all of which are different, and is expected to complete 4 portrait exercises during the 18-month elective. Some examples of these exercises are: a head-and--shoulders portrait, sight-size; a three-quarter-length portrait with hands, sight-size; etc. These are all done in the studio, under my supervision. We are putting the Graduate Programme in place in Toronto right now, but it will not be in Florence for some years.

At Michael John Angel Studios, we are completely committed to the training and development of professional artists, whose work will eventually be judged to be of the highest calibre. Up to now, most of our students have been part-time: people with jobs, families, etc., but with the desire to become professional artists. Now, however, we have a large percentage of full-time students and a few who are near the end of the fundamental programme. They will do very well, I think.


Dramatic change is clearly in the wind as we move deeper into the 21st Century. The return of Realistic art, as the only valid visual language for expressing emotional and poetic concepts is a given. Paintings of universal human themes are an eternal need of mankind, and nothing more clearly demonstrates this need than the stampede of visitors and members that have been flooding to the Art Renewal Center, whose proven growth rate is expected to bring millions of visitors demanding the highest standards to be once again adopted by museums, art schools, Galleries and especially the artists themselves.

The studios of Michael John Angel will unquestionably be recorded as one of the seminal role models as a proliferation of hundreds of schools and university art departments clamor for Accreditation from the Art Renewal Center.