The school advances a lofty idea that, for most of the past 100 years, has been out of favor — that the mere act of seeing the world clearly, then copying it, has value.
ON THE FIRST day of Seattle artist Juliette Aristides’ weeklong figurative drawing workshop at Gage Academy of Art, she tries to loosen up the class with a reassuring lecture on her belief that anyone, even someone with no natural ability, can learn to draw.
But in an age when technology allows us to cut and paste images, and instantly share photos we’ve taken, why would anyone want to?
For 25 years, the privately run Gage has been answering that question with short workshops, classes and long-term programs for the public that promote figurative art techniques in drawing, painting and sculpting.
The school advances a lofty idea that, for most of the past 100 years has been out of favor — the mere act of seeing the world clearly, in all of its nuance and subtlety, then copying what you see on paper, canvas or modeling clay, has value in and of itself.
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To walk into the Gage school, located atop Capitol Hill next to St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, is to leave a society seemingly content with quick-click browsing and fleeting glances and enter a dramatically slowed-down realm in which objects, in order to be appreciated, must be “very particularly observed,” as Aristides says.
The implication is that our everyday reality — the natural world, man-made objects, animals, other people — flies by so fast we hardly have time to appreciate how vivid, textured and inspiring it actually is.
Aristides promises, however, that step by arduous step, the dozen or so students in this workshop, one of many offered at the school, will be able “to make real life more real.”
It’s a tall order. But history is full of representational artists whose ability to capture the real world yielded transcendent and enduring works.
Under the broad umbrella of representational art fall painters and sculptors as disparate as Michelangelo Buonarroti, Francisco De Goya, Paul Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, William Turner, Frida Kahlo, Andrew Wyeth, Jacob Lawrence, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Deborah Butterfield, Yue Minjun and Banksy.
Exhibits at the Frye Art Museum on Seattle’s First Hill celebrate realism in all of its many forms in the 19th and 20th centuries, from Munich secessionists to R. Crumb.
Despite the stylistic differences and varied motivations of representational artists, their depictions are, quite recognizably, drawn from the observable world.
Now it’s our turn to try.
Aristides says this workshop, which focuses on creating works on toned paper, is not just about drawing; it’s also about “cultivating sight.”
Seeing the world in front of you, really seeing it, she says, takes focus, time and practice, and it’s almost counterintuitive in contemporary life.
Aristides cites a much-used statistic to make her case: Facebook users reportedly upload 350 million pictures to the social-networking site each day.
“In five days, how many images would go up on Facebook while we tried to bang out one piece?” she asks.
“When you step into something like this, it’s a bit of a free-fall,” but just go with it, she tells the class.
“I don’t care if you do horrible work,” she says. “Take risks: Make a big mess.”
THAT MORNING’S model disrobes and fixes herself into a pose, and Aristides guides the class through drawing techniques using charcoal pencils on toned, textured paper.
She says we first have to learn to break down the world into “values,” the dark shadows, midrange shading and highlights that make up visible reality.
Once we are let loose to draw, the “make a big mess” part comes all too easily. The charcoal pencils, short sticks as lightweight as spent embers, stain the fingertips black.
In a moment of deep discouragement over the progress of his own artistic training, Vincent van Gogh once wrote that he wanted to become “master of my pencil.”
That sentiment resonates, because right now, my pencil is master over me.
Drawing with charcoal requires some degree of finesse. Scratch that. A lot of finesse. The sensation should feel a bit like rubbing cloth against cloth.
An assistant puts on chant-like motets by the Renaissance composer Palestrina. The music creates a meditative mood, but it doesn’t help.
My first nervous, caveman attempts leave dark, erratic streaks on the paper — not supple at all.
Strolling the artwork-lined corridors of the school, people look like people, trees look like trees. Surely, this can’t be as difficult as it seems today.
Aristides teaches that an effective figurative artist will stand at the easel in such a way as to allow a full view of the model just beyond the drawing surface’s edge.
She says we should spend a minute or two carefully observing the model, squinting to break down the body into the broad, geometric shapes that come together to make the human anatomy: The chiseled oval of the head, the torso’s angular vessel, the pelvic triangle, the elliptical heft of the thighs.
Once we’ve sketched out the boxy and curved shapes that vaguely represent the head, torso and extremities, the rest is just a prolonged process of measuring, shading and fine tuning until those rough, angular shapes ever more closely resemble human features and ultimately, hopefully, the person posing in front of you.
We’re advised to stand back periodically to assess shape, proportion and shading to make sure the drawing is heading in the right direction.
But whenever I stand back and gaze at my heavy-handed and inaccurate first drawings, I want to turn and run out of the room.
“It will always feel just beyond right where you are,” Aristides says of the pursuit of artistic skill. “It’s hard to step back from what you think something should look like.”
Over the course of a couple of days, as Aristides introduces new techniques with charcoal and lead pencils and puts the class through numerous, timed drawing drills, moments of frustration give way to minor breakthroughs.
Slowly, my hand draws what my eyes see, as plain as day, right in front of me.
It no longer seems like a Jedi mind trick.
OBSERVATION, METICULOUS rendering, faithful representation. How could such basic skills ever go out of style?
From the beginning, Gage’s founders, the husband-and-wife duo of architect Pamela Belyea and artist Gary Faigin, wanted their school to be defiantly different, to take on the revival of classical art instruction as a core mission.
In the process, they’ve won accolades as well as loyal patrons.
Faigin says Gage is more financially stable than ever.
Recently, the school, with an annual budget of around $2 million mostly from tuition, received a $1 million gift from longtime student Anne Steele to help fund scholarships and low-cost youth programs, among other things.
Belyea stepped down as executive director two years ago, but Faigin remains as the school’s artistic director. He also writes about the local art and gallery scene for this newspaper.
He talks about the need for classical art in contemporary life with the spirit of an evangelist.
“The reason that Gage succeeded — and it was a risk to get it started in the first place — is because it tapped into something that people saw as a fundamental human instinct or need, kind of a core value — a core value that’s been neglected for a lot of complicated historical reasons throughout much of the 20th century.”
As new, more abstract, idiosyncratic and conceptual art movements emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, classical art training, with its emphasis on rote skills and objective rendering, wasn’t cool anymore.
Also, for many influential artists, there was something subversive and liberating about poo-pooing an art style that had come to be associated with Europe’s royal art academies and the rulers who sponsored them, Faigin says.
When Faigin moved to New York in the late 1970s at the start of his career, he’d tell peers he wanted to do representational art, only to have them scoff.
“They looked at me like I had a communicable disease, the young artists,” he says.
To look at something and draw or paint it at the same time just didn’t jibe with what artists aspired to do then.
When applying to teach art at a school in Vancouver, B.C., after settling in the Northwest in the early 1990s, he was told by the dean that classical figurative training “stifled creativity,” Faigin recalls.
“He was giving me the company line from about 80 years earlier,” Faigin says.
But he and Belyea thought differently.
“Many of the modern greats also learned to draw from observation,” Faigin says.
He modeled Gage on his own experiences learning and teaching at the Art Students League of New York, where individual master artists drove the curriculum and pace in their studios. Also, there would be no entrance requirements, meaning anyone from the public could enroll. The school would be non-accredited and not offer degrees.
Gage enrolls about 5,000 students over the course of any year in a variety of programs from weeklong workshops to yearslong ateliers under Aristides, Faigin, painter Mark Kang-O-Higgins and sculptor Michael Magrath. Sixty to 70 students currently attend Gage full-time.
Faigin insists that all the rigorous training and observation will pay off for artists whose greater aim is to develop a distinct style.
“That gives you the tools to help you find your own vision of reality,” he says.
BACK IN THE workshop, Aristides, master and all-too-necessary mentor, visits each artist, offering calm advice, adding corrective touches to the drawings to illustrate her points and tempering insecurities.
The setting is designed to resemble the literally old-school art ateliers of Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Ingres and countless other artists learned principles of drawing and painting passed down at least since the days when Raphael oversaw packed workshops during the Italian Renaissance.
Aristides says of the Gage method: “In many ways it is a counter indicator. Not only is it outmoded, it’s bizarrely out of place.”
Gage might be behind the times in some ways, but in other ways it’s ahead of the curve.
Workshop participant Christopher Tsongas, a software engineer and budding artist who lives in Portland, notes that a decade ago there were only a few classical ateliers in the world like the one Aristides runs at Gage. Today, he says, there are more than 50.
The stigma attached to realism and classical training is starting to fade as a new generation of artists rediscovers age-old styles and learning methods.
The walls of the bar Capitol Cider at East Pike Street and Broadway are lined with master copies of historical paintings made by Gage students, thanks in part to the fact that the bar’s owner is former Gage board of trustees President Julie Tall. The bar holds public drink-and-draw nights each second Thursday, complete with live models.
“It’s kind of cool to be getting this knowledge that’s been passed down from generation to generation,” says Tsongas, who has studied metalwork at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle’s Central District, which also boasts a highly regarded glass studio. “To me it’s ultimately about self-knowledge and learning to express that through art.”
Brenda Doyle, a high-school art teacher who lives in Denver, flew to Seattle for a week just so she could take the Aristides workshop and gain skills she can pass on to her students. Even though she has art degrees and decades of training, most of it is in the field most commonly embraced today by colleges and universities, conceptual art. Gage helps fill in the gaps.
She calls the school “a national treasure.”
One of Aristides’ former atelier mentees, Tenaya Sims, runs a similarly intensive academy led by master artists called Georgetown Atelier in South Seattle, further proof of the newfound allure of classical art instruction.
Now the atelier serves as a Gage satellite institution — Tsongas studied there for a year.
“It was more successful than I imagined it would be,” says Sims, who left a career designing video games to pursue his passion to be a painter.
On a recent morning, a nude male model poses under theatrically dim lighting in the center of a circle of easels as 14 artists make likenesses of him.
Sims says about half of his students want to become traditional artists, while the other half want to use their learning at the atelier to launch careers in industry, working as illustrators, video-game designers and the like.
At about $7,000 a year, the tuition at Georgetown, which is similar to that at Gage, is an affordable way to gain marketable art skills, even if no formal diploma is offered, Sims says.
In any case, there’s more going on inside these ateliers than the mere teaching of skills.
Aristides describes what goes on at Gage as a kind of resistance movement, one aimed at bringing us back to fundamental ideas about art and beauty while emphasizing the inherent value in being truly present not just in the studio but in our own lives.
“That direct encounter between the mind and the world around us,” Aristides explains, “that’s what leads to art.”
At Gage, life informs the art.
But the thing to walk away with from any class here is that the opposite also is true.