ACADEMY OF ART CANADA: Frequently Asked Questions


   In addition to these fundamentals, our program delves quickly into pictorial thinking. This involves training in how to solve the artistic problems that inevitably present themselves when one begins to make paintings. It is one thing to learn to paint a head and another to paint a portrait.

   The AAC also offers a number of supplementary exercises that expand the student's understanding of master painting. These exercises isolate and explore different aspects of the visual language in order to prepare for larger challenges.

   For example, the study of grace lines in the rhythmic movements of the figure is examined outside of figure drawing sessions. Another example is the preliminary work in paint application and practical color theory that students are required to complete. At the AAC, we believe that students can get a substantial grounding in such areas faster and more efficiently if they undertake these exercises without having to assimilate them with other skills. Naturally, there is no substitute for the practical experience students gain as they carry out exercises of a more artistic type, such as head studies from life. However, there is an upside to illuminating separate aspects of the language of picture-making prior to making use of them.

   Our program's study of landscape includes learning to contend with the changing conditions of on-site 'plein air' work. This is clearly an area where too strong a literal fixation proves inadequate. Many master landscapes were elaborated explorations of their field studies, conceived and painted in the studio, essentially made up out of their heads and their highly trained visual memories, describing a specific time, place and set of conditions that in nature would have lasted for a very short time.

   Research into traditional teaching and practice lets us know one thing for certain, and that is that Leonardo da Vinci's working requisite of a sufficient amount of natural, slightly diffused north light was by far the most sought-after studio feature. Lack of this type of light forces the student to contend with inconsistent or artificial lighting effects, a problem that can easily be underestimated. Artificial light is not adequate for surface study from life that conforms to traditional pre-1900 standards. Exposure to unnaturally lit subjects can easily undermine students' efforts, especially if they are being taught in the context of the appreciation of the masters. Effects studied under artificial light are in discord with the artistic decisions made by the masters they are trying to emulate.

   If artificial light is to be used at all, it should be set up to match very closely the natural effects of daylight, hence the necessity of having studio natural light available at some point in the day. Specially marketed "daylight-style" light bulbs may go some way to correct color temperature but fall considerably short of matching the subtle form-modeling qualities of natural, slightly diffused, north light. The masters used natural light for artistic reasons, not just because most of them lived before the invention of electric light.

   In an academic setting, it is best to have both dimly lit and brightly lit areas, the appropriate type of lighting for the two basic kinds of assignments, including studies done from life and casts and general copy work respectively. (It comes as a surprise to many people just how dim traditional lighting for life and cast work ideally should be.) The AAC has a good balance of both types of lighting.

The program uses oil paint, plus some oil emulsions and tempera, but most of the principles can also be applied to other mediums.

   Elementary paint studies can be introduced early in level one. These exercises include the study of tints, tones and shades as well as mass design and mood keys. They build a bridge between what the student has learned in rendering in monochrome and the more organic aspects of modeling and paint manipulation covered in advanced levels.

   A strong emphasis is placed on painting's relationship to drawing. Different color theories and palette set-ups are covered.

   In addition to the more commonly known direct method of painting, indirect techniques are also studied. Grounds and their respective absorbencies are examined. Historical techniques are de-mystified and taught in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step manner. Mixed techniques involving oil and tempera such as "putrido" and the "tempera grassa" method employed by Pietro Annigoni are introduced. Varied uses of many different materials, including hard and soft varnishes, are explained along with the different properties of quality tube colors and genuine hand-ground pigments.

   It is a tenet of the AAC's program to not dictate to someone how to paint. However, that being said, it should be stressed that some principles are common to all methods. We prefer to expose the student to the different historical techniques. A key feature of our program is to make clear what these varied methods have in common as well as how they differ, thereby enabling the student to settle on the technique for painting best suited to his/her own purpose. In this process, it is important to learn how to read a painting in terms of technique, to be able to look at the finished surface of a painting in say, a museum, and immediately understand what it would have looked like at each of its individual stages prior to the application of the last layer of paint.

   Our experience suggests that 12 is probably the earliest age to start. Historically, there haven't been prodigies in this discipline as in pattern-oriented disciplines like music, mathematics or chess. Traditionally, a young person would apprentice in the studio for a couple of years, grinding pigments and keeping the studio clean, followed by the introduction of some basic drawing exercises.

   Keeping in mind the above, the AAC welcomes students of all ages and backgrounds. Young people are welcome to tour the school during a class to help them decide if they will feel comfortable learning in an environment comprised of students of all ages.

   No. However, the ability to listen and receive instruction is a strong asset. Also, the level of enthusiasm and stick-to-it-iveness are important. It is worth remembering that there were very few self-taught masters between 1400 and 1900. Prior experience is not at all essential to begin learning, but any applicable experience, however gained, will accelerate progress within certain pockets of the program. Also important is painter David Leffel's idea that the student has to want to learn for the right reasons. If you don't genuinely love the learning of drawing and painting you probably won't learn as easily and quickly.

   Talent, defined as a natural affinity to learn something easily, is always a welcome thing, but if it is not developed it really doesn't amount to much. Talented athletes come in many different shapes and sizes, and fine representational painters are not much different. Commitment will often make up for a lack of talent, if it doesn't in fact eclipse it. On a scale of one to a hundred, talent might start you on square 15 instead of square 1 and you might learn 30 percent faster than the average student, but once you have learned all that you need to know to make the pictures you wish to make, will anyone care that it took you five years to learn what someone else learned in six and a half? At that point, what will matter is the quality of attention you bring to your work, which is far more related to one's being and their unique life experience, and is something that essentially cannot be taught. How you make use of what you have learned probably doesn't need much teaching, because an artistic sensibility develops in the context of the taste and judgment of great masters, honing your perception of the visual world around you. In all areas, the AAC wants students to develop a good artistic link with the masters, so they can enhance their own art with the same fine qualities.

   The instructors are Tanyss Horsley, Harvey Nelson, Jeff Nelson and Francie Wyland, four working artists committed to traditional painting. Students benefit from the direct experience of Tanyss, Harvey, and Jeff having spent considerable time with different instructors at various private ateliers and schools, including the Florence Academy of Art and the late Timothy Phillips, who spent over 12 years as a personal assistant to Salvador Dali after apprenticing under Augustus John and Pietro Annigoni. Time in the 1980s and 90s was also spent working with Paul Young, Michael J. Angel, Daniel Graves and Richard Nevitt.

   In fact, the four AAC instructors are part of an artistic lineage that reaches back to the early-19th-century atelier of Jacques Louis David, the official painter of Napoleon. They have spent extensive time in European and North American libraries and museums independently researching historical methods. They have served as consultants and painters for the film industry, including a series for television dramatizing the lives of Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer, Winslow Homer and Marie Cassatt. Harvey, Jeff and Tanyss have received individual and collective grants and awards, highlighted by the City of Toronto Millennium Commission to produce celebratory multicultural local portraits. Their works are in collections in North America, Europe and Asia.

   In March 2014, we introduced our newest faculty member Francie Wyland. Francie had been a student at the academy up until that time and is now a welcome addition to our faculty. We are certain that her abilities, dedication, helpfulness and generosity will be felt by all at the AAC. As is custom with all AAC teachers, a good amount and variety of her work is always on display at the academy for viewing by appointment.

   A very step-by-step approach is taken. Students at all levels work on assignments that are based on the logical progression of their individual development. Demonstrations are not infrequent. The newer students see what the more experienced students are up to, while the more experienced students hear the fundamentals reiterated. A lot of information is provided.

   The program has three levels. The first level covers preliminary color, the basics of rendering form and the fundamentals of figurative drawing.

   These skills are developed in the second level in a number of areas: the rendering of more difficult form, learning to draw form more essentially with a minimal use of value, and further aspects of rendering form such as morphology and rhythm. The student is introduced to basic painting in all its stages while studying the figure and head. A series of application and manipulation exercises that have little or no pictorial element demonstrate what paint can do, and this is fleshed out by the teaching of various historical techniques. Still life work is begun as a means of introducing the student to painting from life. The student begins to understand how to develop his or her concept(s) within the context of the overall steps in picture-making.

   Level three focuses primarily on picture making. However, other topics such as landscape elements and drapery studies are included. Students key on the differences between painting from life and painting from a series of preparatory studies.

   Following full completion of the three levels the student is encouraged to take part in consultative discussions with faculty members that deal with his or her artistic and professional growth. Topics such as artistic direction, representation, commissions and contracts are discussed.

   Students are encouraged to draw the live model as soon as they have completed the preliminary figurative exercises included in level one. Although almost everything that is learned is applicable to figurative work, these particular exercises feature the figure as a learning vehicle, helping the student to become familiar with the essentials of mass placement, gesture and proportion in both contour and light/shade as it pertains to the figure specifically. Related aspects of figurative drawing such as rhythm, design, morphology, construction, modeling and different historical treatments are dealt with in subsequent levels.

   Many programs allocate a sizeable portion of the student's early study time to drawing the figure, simply because they feel it is expected by anyone entering a full-time program. These programs may actually be right about potential students wanting to work from the life model right away, but are they correct to allow it? The AAC is very traditional in that it strongly maintains that much of what needs to be learned about drawing well from the model can best be achieved without the model. Trying to learn what they need to know early on directly from the life model is inefficient at best, and too often ends in frustration and discouragement. The student should ideally first learn ideas about how to approach drawing from the live model and should have a sound grasp of most of the skills employed in life drawing. This is especially true if they wish to have a strong traditional, less literal result. They are then encouraged to practice the application of their new awareness to working directly from the live model.

   We teach both methods. The AAC believes that by introducing the student to both methods, in combination with what they will learn in the separate study of historical techniques, they will be more than adequately prepared to find their own empirical path. We do not want to impose any one method or one version of one method on the student. Technique or lack of technique is a big part of the art of painting (although it is secondary from a picture-making standpoint) and is very individualistic. Here, the AAC welcomes variety and exchange. Looking to the masters, it is clear that there is not just one way to paint. This, however, does not preclude teaching the common dos and don'ts of all painting mechanics.

   Although "direct" and "indirect" are terms that are both somewhat oversimplified, they do represent two basic painting methods and there are different variations of each.

   The so-called direct method is more widely employed today. If you want the right hand side of your apple to appear darker, you take some darker paint and apply it appropriately or you lighten the area around it with lighter paint. It is often done in a single session 'alla prima'. Indirect painting, on the other hand, tends to build things up in a more roundabout way and involves the layering of paint applications of varying degrees of opacity or transparency to form more complex surface effects. This often means painting things differently from how they will eventually appear. Many of the old masters worked this way. It generally allows for a more premeditated execution that separates the drawing and painting, making extensive use of glazing effects and optical transparencies.

   The indirect method can be adapted to a more direct approach. However, learning to paint in the direct manner doesn't equip students with what they need to know in order to apply subsequent layers of paint to achieve what usually registers as a learned and masterful appearance.

   The indirect method is in many but not all ways more difficult to learn. That said, it would suit the temperament of many painters today if not for the fact that is simply not well understood. It is ignored by many realist painters today mostly because of a lack of clear information on how to practice it. It is felt to be slower, and its effects are believed to lack the spontaneity associated with the direct approach. It was the clear choice of many of the Baroque as well as Renaissance masters due to its adaptability to a careful, methodical way of working that allows for a high degree of control over drawing and composition. It is also well suited to the creation of sumptuous color effects and heightened luminosity similar to stained glass as well as offering an expanded capacity for modeled effect.

   Upon full completion of all three levels of our program, the student is presented with a certificate of completion, a paper that will fall substantially short of reflecting the considerable abilities that will be demonstrated by work completed in the program. Students will, upon completion of their studies, be sufficiently skilled to produce fine art of considerable quality. Remember, essentially, nothing much has changed. The formula is a simple one. Good effort. Good teachers. Good light. Good academy. Good artist.