The Atelier Experience by Kerry Holsapple

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The Atelier Experience

by Kerry Holsapple

An atelier is a place where the transmission of professional knowledge and studio practices in an art can take place. Historically, the atelier has been (and continues to be) one of the major educational systems for training aspiring painters in the fine art of picture making. The other main vehicles for art training in the past were the apprentice system and the academy. For the purposes of this article an atelier is defined as a studio school or workshop where a competent painter trained in the fine art of drawing, painting, and picture making directs the studies of a small group of serious students who aspire to learn the art. As I refer to contemporary ateliers, I am referring to the handful of ateliers who have direct lineage to the great western painting tradition through the Boston School of Painting. There may be other ateliers around the world with lineage to the tradition, but I have little information about them.

Ateliers were especially prevalent in 19th century France and this lineage continues unbroken to this day. As the dominant art center of that century, Paris drew students from around the world to take advantage of its ateliers and academies. Some of the more famous ateliers included those of Ingres , Couture , Pils , and Gleyre before 1850) and those of Gérôme , Bonnat , Cabanel , Carolus-Duran , and Laurens (after 1850). Americans who studied in Parisian ateliers comprise a "Who's Who of American Art" for the 19th & early 20th centuries. Alumni include such well known names as: Hunt, Sargent , Eakins , Whistler , LaFarge , Thayer , Bunker, Dewing , Tarbell , Benson , Robinson , Blashfield , Paxton , Metcalf, Cox , Weir , Brush, Enneking , Hassam , Beckwith , Harrison , Bridgeman , Pearce , Beaux , Davis , Wiles , Melchers , Vonnah, Henri and more. In fact, 2,200 Americans born by 1880 studied formally in Paris. Parisian ateliers exerted a world wide influence as its students returned to their native countries to practice and teach the art they had acquired. For an excellent introduction to French painters, their ateliers, and their American students I refer the reader to The Lure of Paris by H. Barbara Weinberg.

Robert Hale Ives Gammell (American, 1893-1981)
Oil on canvas

Many American painters trained in Parisian ateliers returned home and continued the time honored tradition of passing on professional knowledge and studio practices to new generations. However, ateliers based on the French model never fully took root in the United States. As the country moved into the 20th century the most prevalent system for art training became museum, university, and independent art schools. As the vehicle for the transmission of a then 600 year-old tradition shifted to less appropriate institutions with less competent instructors, the quality of art training declined. The breakdown in the transmission of professional knowledge & studio practices from competent practitioners to talented students is the major reason for the decline in the fine art of drawing, painting, and picture making in the 20th century. (Note: In speaking of the fine art of painting I am not referring to the diverse manifestations referred to as "modern art" whose aesthetics & practices developed on a different line). The reader is referred to Twilight of Painting by R. H. Ives Gammell for a superb discourse on the decline of the traditional art of painting that had taken place by 1946.

Howard Pyle (American, 1853-1911)
Oil on canvas , 1905
Newell Convers Wyeth (American, 1882-1945)
Oil on canvas
86.4 x 63.5 cms | 34 x 25 ins

It is interesting to note that Howard Pyle , often called the "father of American illustration", gave up his post at Drexel Institute with its large classes to form his own atelier. The talented students invited to study in Pyle's atelier became some of America's greatest illustrators of the period, including: N.C. Wyeth , Harvey Dunn, Stanley Arthurs, and Frank Schoonover. They in turn taught the next generation of picture makers such as Dean Cornwell, Mead Schaeffer, & Harold Von Schmidt who in turn taught the next generation, and so on. As a result, the work of this line of illustrators graced American books & magazines for more than seven decades.

Pietro Annigoni (Italian, 1910-1988)
Tempera grassa su tela , 1946
45 x 35.5 cms | 17 1/2 x 13 3/4 ins

Growing up in the midwest in the 1950's—60's the first artists I knew of were the American illustrators & cartoonists of the period. Like many young aspiring artists, I dreamed of becoming a famous illustrator like Norman Rockwell and working for the Saturday Evening Post. There was little awareness of the old masters or the tradition from which they emerged. By the time I graduated from high school in the early 70's the once thriving illustration & cartooning field had almost died. As I studied the works of Leonardo , Michelangelo , Raphael , Velasquez , & others the only glimmer of hope for me that the "secrets of the old masters" still existed was an article in an old 1958 American Artist about Pietro Annigoni . While walking through the pre-20th century galleries of a major museum for the first time at the age of 18 one simple question filled my mind. That question was, "why isn't anyone painting like this anymore".

Johannes Vermeer (Netherlands, 1632-1675)
Oil on canvas , 1660
45.7 x 40.6 cms | 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 ins

With this one question burning deep I began my quest for an answer. From attending an art school, to a trip to New York, I searched. While in New York teachers at the Art Students League told me I already knew how to draw. "Go back to the midwest and paint" was their advice. I knew better. As I walked through museum galleries it was obvious to me how little I was able to do. Viewing Vermeer's Young Woman With A Water Pitcher in the Metropolitan I was captivated by its artistry. My response was the same for works by Holbein , Rembrandt , Hals , Bouguereau , Degas , Theodore Rousseau , and others. While in New York I received a letter from Annigoni who was in the area. I talked with him over the phone and almost met the Italian master. At the time, this was as close as I got to the "tradition". In 1973 I finally located a school with lineage to the art I longed to study. When I entered the Atelier Lack a door opened to a world that would have remained inaccessible. I relate this story only because it is so common to generations of aspiring young artists growing up between 1950—80 who seriously desired to learn the art of drawing & painting as practiced by the masters. Unfortunately for many in their quest, they never found the "grail". This situation is still all too common today. What then is the atelier experience?

To begin with, the painter's experience is centered in seeing. By seeing I mean the sensitive awareness of visual impressions and their many faceted qualities. The deep, rich experience of seeing is the major inspiration for a painter's art. Learning the fine art of drawing & painting commences with learning to see. Drawing & painting begins with an artist's visual experience that then "triggers" an emotional & physical response. To "embody" this human experience truthfully & creatively in expressive visual forms comprises the art. Classicism as practiced by the ancient Greeks was a union of representation & abstraction. This principle was rediscovered during the Renaissance leading to the legacy of western painting as we know it.

The atelier experience is one of connecting with & absorbing a tradition of knowledge and studio practices that link together artists spanning over 600 years.This tradition has given birth to some of the world's greatest artists. Most readers will be familiar with the work of Leonardo , Michelangelo , Raphael , Titian , Rubens , Velasquez , Rembrandt and Vermeer . Even though every painter who has studied & practiced the tradition has not achieved the greatness of the artists mentioned above, the tradition was kept alive through them. The majority were often very competent practitioners who painted pictures with genuine artistry and transmitted their knowledge of the tradition to succeeding generations. Without a Verrocchio there wouldn't have been a Leonardo, without a Bellini there would not have been a Titian , etc. Closer to our time did you know that Barrias & Lamothe were Degas's early teachers? Who can say when another painter in the caliber of a Velasquez or a Vermeer will arise from the tradition to carry the art to new heights. As with all events in nature, certain conditions must be present for an event to occur. Great painters do not happen by accident.

While organization, curriculum, and teaching style may vary from atelier to atelier, basic areas of study include: composition, form, light & shadow, tone, color, & craftsmanship. Topics such as perspective, anatomy, modeling, design & color theory, memory work, aesthetics, and art history are usually included within these studies. The means through which learning takes place includes traditional atelier studies such as: cast drawing, compositional studies, still life, head studies, academies, drapery studies, landscape, modeling, etc. A variety of media are generally introduced as part of training a student in the appropriate use of materials & techniques. Upon entering an atelier, a student is usually assigned studies that match his/her level of development. This begins the process of learning to see space, form, light & shadow, tone, values, color, etc.; to compose; to express seeing & feeling with truth & directness; and to construct drawings & paintings with time-honored craftsmanship.

The key relationship within an atelier is the one between the painter/teacher and each student. A competent teacher can save a talented student years of misguided effort. During the foundation years, time is one of a student's most precious commodities. Certain requirements are necessary for a successful transmission of the tradition from painter/teacher to student. The qualities a student needs to bring into an atelier include: the willingness to learn & follow instructions, a solid work ethic, self-motivation, persistence, and patience. Time is equally important to a teacher whose objective is to preserve the tradition by transmitting it successfully to new generations. Qualities of a competent painter/teacher include: an integrated knowledge & practice of the art, the wisdom to assign progressive studies appropriate to a student's level of development, the ability to match presentation of information with a students' learning style, and the insight to provide a student with essential instruction as it is needed. In an atelier that has a group of full-time students, a positive camaraderie between the students will enhance learning & growth as well as help establish life-long friendships and professional associations.

The life of an atelier revolves around its daily schedule. Typically, the schedule consists of a daily morning & an afternoon session five days a week. Oftentimes the morning session is the time for students to work on their assigned studies. For beginning students these studies may include drawing from flat copy in pencil or drawing from plaster casts in charcoal. Intermediate students may be doing cast, drapery, still life, or head studies in charcoal, pastel, or oil and advanced students may be at work on creative projects. Afternoon sessions are usually reserved for figure drawing from the model. Normally, the painter/teacher will visit the atelier two days each week to critique the work in progress and provide instruction. Teaching methods vary from teacher to teacher and may include a combination of discussions/lectures, demonstrations, and individualized instruction. Emphasis from atelier to atelier may also vary. For example, Carolus-Duran emphasized values & drawing with the brush from the start while Gérôme emphasized expressing form first through line drawing.

It is best if the facilities for an atelier include a clean, well equipped & well lit studio space of sufficient size to provide each student with his/her own work area. Basic equipment includes easels, taborets, model stands, an assortment of antique casts, screens, draperies, and additional lighting. A reference library is useful as well as a display of "top-notch" studies that serve as models of excellence in drawing, painting, & craftsmanship. An atelier located near major museums and other cultural resources is also a plus.A stable, well-funded atelier with a solid program & good management is key to its long term success.

Ideally, a full-time atelier program provides a student with at least 4 years of intensive training. The first two years establish a solid foundation of basic skills which are then refined & applied during the final two years to a variety of creative projects. These projects may include impressionistic, to decorative, to imaginary picture making. If the transmission of knowledge & studio practices is successful, a solid foundation will be established preparing the student to approach any creative project with competence. With a solid foundation a student is prepared to launch a career as a professional painter and bring his/her vision to the world with truth, creativity, and artistry. Hopefully, trained students will then in time open their own ateliers to transmit the tradition to the next generations. And thus the circle is completed & to begin yet another cycle.

For the last 50 years we have been in a period of reconstruction. This work will continue into the foreseeable future. With sufficient resources, solid planning, and progressive construction the tradition can be restored. Ateliers today are generally underfunded and receive little support in relation to the great task they have to accomplish. There are four things serious patrons of the art can do to help restore the tradition:

  1. Help establish & support an atelier in their region if none exists;
  2. Directly support existing ateliers that provide excellent programs yet are underfunded;
  3. Directly sponsor a talented student from your area to attend an existing atelier program, and/or;
  4. Contribute to established atelier student scholarship & atelier endowment funds;
  5. An ideal situation would be the establishment of well-funded & managed ateliers with excellent programs in all the major regions of the United States. This is feasible as well as possible.

Last year in support of present & future atelier students, I helped establish an Atelier Student Scholarship Fund through the American Society of Classical Realists. Because of this fund, a yearly scholarship will be awarded beginning in the fall of 1999. For more information about the ASCR write to:

American Society of Classical Realists (ASCR)
1313 Fifth St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414

My own atelier, Atelier Indiana, currently offers an independent study program that is individually designed for serious students. Also available are atelier workshops & intensives. Plans for expansion to include a facility for full-time students is in progress. Currently in development as an introduction to the art is an Atelier Workshop (that can be brought on location to sites within the continental US) and an Atelier Distance Education Program.

For more information individuals or organizers can contact:

Atelier Indiana, c/o Kerry Holsapple
2547 South Greensboro Pike, New Castle, IN 47362
Phone: 765.521.0200

First Publication: 1998 — Traditional Fine Arts Online ( Revised: May, 2000.

Kerry Holsapple is an award-winning artist with direct lineage to the master tradition via the Boston School of Painting. He received his introduction to the tradition through study with Richard Lack at the Atelier Lack & with R.H. Ives Gammell at the Fenway Studios in Boston. As an educational researcher & scholar of the tradition, the artist continues to research the studio practices of the great artists & schools of painting. His works are represented in private collections in the United States & England. He has been teaching drawing & painting to both adults & children for over 25 years.