Artists - Please Learn to Draw

16f90a730d12ba3fbc91a2cfae56d13859b2c1154846039One of the most common shortcomings in the works of artists today is poor drawing ability. There is a perception among some, especially if working in the highly symbolic styles of the gothic, the iconographic or even the style featured recently, the Beuronese style, that the artist can hide his lack of technical skill behind the stylistic elements. I have heard people say that they signed up for icon painting classes for example, because they think that they don't need to be so good at drawing.

The same thing happens in mainstream arts schools, students opt for Expressionistic styles because they know that they can't be held to account for how bad the drawing is - they can hide the lack of skill behind wild and flamboyant brush strokes. Many just forgo the paintbrush altogether, pick up a video camera and go for conceptual art.

This may be acceptable in the context of 20th century art styles, but I suggest this is not good enough for sacred art, no matter what style we want to work in.

In fact it is more difficult to work within a particular tradition and retain accuracy in drawing. It requires the artist to understand both where he must be precise in reflecting nature, and where he must be precise in deviating from natural appearances in accordance with the demands of the style of the tradition.

Artists quite often show me their work and one of the usual comments I make is, you need to improve your drawing. It is great that there are more and more people who are looking to traditional forms as inspiration for sacred art and so I always want to be encouraging. There is hope, drawing is a skill that can be taught. Someone who wants to learn to draw can spend time learning the academic method of drawing - this trains the eye to observe nature and then to render it in two dimensions. Another thing to consider is an illustrators' course, in which one can learn how to create new images without always having to set up a tableau of figures posing for the image. At some point the good artist does need to be able to go beyond simply drawing what he can see. He must be able to draw what is in his imagination too.

Here are two examples of faults that I often see. I don't like highlighting what is bad in other peoples' work, so I'll use examples of mine to illustrate (I have plenty to choose from!)

The first is the drapery of cloth. In sacred art, the figures are often portrayed with draped clothing. It is vital that the folds in the cloth look natural and that there is a sense of a properly proportioned figure underneath. The only way to understand this that I know is to study how material drapes over the human form. One of my frustrations when I was studying academic art was that we spent so much time studying the nude, but none devoted to studying clothes. This would have helped me.

Have a look at this painting of St Silouan the Athonite. At first glance, the folds in the cloth look natural, but if you look closer you can see that the deep red robe is done incorrectly in the region between the arms. The reason is that I didn't really understand what I was supposed to be painting and so just guessed.

In fact, it the red robe should have been doing what St Hubert's is below (in Aidan Hart's icon), hanging in a U shape between the arms.

and then the figure is rotated for a three quarter profile view as in this figure of Elizabeth Prout shown below. Aidan Hart has shown it with the line drawing in black on a plain brown robe rendered without additional shading or highlights.

If we want the figure to look natural underneath the drapery then there are certain pressure points at which the clothing is supported by the figure or otherwise directly acted upon by the figure, while else where it hangs free. This will usually be places such as the shoulders, elbows, knees and the crook in the elbow. If these pressure points are not place absolutely precisely the whole figure looks wrong.

We can see how well John Singer Sargent does this in the painting below, a portrait of Mrs Henry White. So much of the dress is swirling away from direct contact with her body. This means that in order for it to look as though it belongs to her he has very few of these pressure points to work with, but these must be absolutely right. In this case the shoulders and the tight fitting waist and her hips. Her left hip indicated with a tiny little detail, a conjunction of shadow and highlight. If these were not absolutely correct, the eye of the observer would pick it up instantly and everything would look wrong.

Another common area of error is in the drawing of the proportions of hands and faces. In the example below, I copied a famous icon of St Matthew. When I showed it to my teacher, Aidan, he instantly pointed out that his right hand looked distorted. I replied that I noticed this but thought that this was how it had looked in the original. Because I didn't know if I was allowed to change it, I had left it exactly as I thought it had been done by the original artist. (I believed that when I said it, but now that I looked at it, I wonder if I copied inaccurately as well! you can see the original below and judge for yourself). Aidan immediately replied that it didn't matter and if the original looked like that too, then the original was done badly and I should be copying errors unthinkingly. Here's the point: just because we are working in the iconographic style it doesn't mean that we accept anatomical inaccuracy. The goal is to be both anatomically correct and to work with the iconographic style, this is what all the great icon painters are able to do.


The image at the top is the Drawing Class by Sweerts (Dutch, 17th century)

Where can Catholics Go to Learn to Paint in the Naturalistic Tradition?

If you are interested in the baroque, where do you go to learn to paint? In a past article I wrote about possible places to study the iconographic technique in depth. However, the baroque is also one of the three liturgical artistic traditions of the Church (the third is the gothic) and anyone who is serious about being an artist for the Church should consider whether they want to learn this form. One place to consider is Ingbretson Studio in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The ideal education would consist of the following: first, a Catholic formation (perhaps studying a liberal arts degree at a Catholic college); second a sound knowledge of the Catholic traditions in art. For those who wish to learn this aspect in isolation the Maryvale Institute’s excellent distance-learning programme Art, Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective is recommended. They are about to offer this in the US, through the Diocese of Kansas City, which saves students on this side of the Atlantic from a trip over to the UK for the one weekend residential requirement. Full-time undergraduate-level students can receive both of these aspects at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire by taking their liberal arts degree which includes my Way of Beauty program as part of the core syllabus.

The third aspect is to learn the drawing and painting skills. The skills are those of the academic method. This is the rigorous drawing method that is named after the schools that were created in the 16th and 17th centuries (especially that of the Annabale Carraci, his brother Agostino and his cousin Ludovico. The method has its roots in the methods used by the Masters of the High Renaissance going back to Leonardo. This method is different and far more rigorous than that offered in the drawing classes in a mainstream college-level art department.

This training usually begins with cast drawings because casts have no colour and so the eye learns to ‘see’ in tonal values. The cast are carefully chosen to be model examples of beautiful sculpture. This way the taste of the student is developed as well as his skills. After this students progress onto the use of colour; perhaps through portrait painting or still life (I did portrait painting). The value of an academic training cannot be underestimated. It is being able to draw and paint accurately that enables the artist to realize his ideas. Whatever style he seeks to work in he needs a high level of skill so that he can create an image that conforms to what it ought to be, corresponding to the well conceived idea in the mind of the artist. Even my icon painting teacher Aidan Hart encouraged me to study naturalistic art for a year in Florence saying that all the best icon painters were also skilled draughtsmen. I do not regret following his advice.

Most of the schools that teach this method now are termed ‘ateliers’ after the French word for workshop. They are small schools in which the main teacher is a Master painter. A few were established in the 1970s by individuals taught by an artist called R.H. Ives Gammell in Boston, who at that stage was an octogenarian. Gammell, who trained as a young man in the early years of the 20th century, almost singlehandedly kept the academic tradition going after all the art schools in Europe and the US had ceased to teach it. The best teachers of today that I know of (on both sides of the Atlantic) received their training from him.

If you want to investigate the available ateliers yourself, a starting point is the Art Renewal Centre website, where you can run down the list of approved ateliers. Do be discerning. Have a look at the work by students and teachers in their galleries - this will indicate the style that they will teach you. It is important that you respect what is going to be passed on to you. From my point of view, while many of these ateliers will train you to draw, there is a danger in some tend to push a particular version of 19th century academic art that is detached from Christian worldview. If you are not careful this could affect your style detrimentally. The result will be either the extreme of a cold, sterile detachment (a form of neo-classicism) or a the end of a saccharine sentimentality.

If, on the other hand, you are armed with a full knowledge of the Christian context of this tradition (such as the courses at TMC or the Maryvale Institute would give you) you should be able to make good use of the skills you learn. You can contrast some aspects of 19th century atelier art with the baroque style of the 17thcentury by reading these two articles, written earlier, here and here respectively.

Another problem which would be a concern for some is that one cannot assume that a taste in traditional art necessarily means that a traditional attitude to faith and morality pervades in the atelier you attend. Many have a hostile attitude to the Catholic faith and morality, and students will have to be ready to face this just as they would in more conventional art schools. Quite apart that an immoral atmosphere is undesirable in itself, the worldview of the artist affects the style in which he paints, whether done consciously or not. When studying n an atelier, we take precise direction via the critiques of the Master who runs it. For the period that you are his student, your work reflects his taste and style. Having the humility to be told what to do in such minute detail is a necessary aspect of the training. However, if this taste and style reflect values that are flat contrary to your own, then the learning process is not such a happy one. As a quick test, take a look again at the online galleries of work, especially paintings of the human person, at those same ateliers listed on the Art Renewal Centre. Ask yourself in each case if you think that the figure has been portrayed with the dignity that reflects the Catholic understanding of the human person.

The one place that I know of in which the training is of the highest quality and that Catholics can flourish without compromising their faith in any way is Ingbretson Studios in Manchester, New Hampshire. Paul Ingbretson is a modern Master of the Boston school and is one of those I mentioned who was given his training by Ives Gammell in the 1970s. He has been teaching ever since. His school has an international reputation (we were all well aware of it, for example, when we were studying in Florence).

For those who are about to go to college but don’t want to leave their art behind while they study a traditional liberal arts programme at a Catholic college, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is the one place where you can study both. By coincidence Ingbretson Studios is just 10 minutes drive from the TMC campus. This semester, undergraduates have been able to choose to study academic drawing for a full day a week. Those who have a strong enough interest will also have an opportunity to train full time for three solid months each summer if they wish to do so. This is part of the college art guild of St Luke in which students are able to learn also traditional iconography and sacred geometry.

The painting at the top is The Incredulity of St Thomas painted in 1620 by Gerrit van Honthorst, which is in Madrid's Prado.

The photographs above are of the first drawings by students on the Thomas More College summer programme, which is taught by Henry Wingate, a former student of Paul Ingbretson, and which is repeated this summer. These represent about 5 full days' work.

The photographs below are of Thomas More College students on their first day at the Ingbretson Studio this past week. Notice how when they draw they are not looking at the cast. They are drawing from memory. Standing a few feet back, the compare drawing and cast and decide what original mark or correction to make, then they walk forward and draw it. Having done this they then retreat, once again to compare drawing and cast to see if what they did was correct. And the process is repeated over and over again.



The photograph above is of a still life setup by a more senior student at the Ingbretson Studio, and below are a couple of finished student cast drawings.

Relief Carving - Painting in Shadow

The tradition of the Eastern Church is not to have statues in its churches. A statue occupies three-dimensions of space, unlike a painting, which only occupies two-dimensions (but can create the illusion of a third). Given that the iconographic form, which is the only artistic liturgical tradition that the Eastern Church will permit, seeks to eliminate as far as possible even the illusion of a third dimension, that is depth, it is hard to imagine how statues (in which the third dimension fully exists) could be created in accordance with the iconographic form. The development of statues for churches came in the West in tandem with the desire to create the illusion of space in two-dimensional representations, generally identified with the beginning of the gothic period in about the 12th century. This did not cause the tradition of relief carving to die out in the West. It has always flourished in both Eastern and Western churches

Relief carving in effect, is a monochrome painting in shadow. So although there is a physical deviation from a strict two-dimensional representation not as a statue does, by imitating the three-dimensional shape, but rather by creating the illusion of depth by altering the tone of the shadow. Where the shadow is to be black (or darkest) the cut is deep and the surface angle close to perpendicular to the broad plane of the image. Where a grey or mid-tone is required, the cut is less deep and the surface angle somewhere in between, depending on how dark or light the artist wishes to make it appear. Where the tone required is white (or lightest possible) the surface faces us directly and is parallel to the broad plane of the image.

The conventional classification of relief carving is a division into bas relief (bas in French is low) and alto (ie high) relief. In the first the cut is shallow and there is no undercutting so that representation is never more than half in the round. Alto relief is where there is undercutting and so there are some elements that are carved more than half in the round. Sunken relief, or intaglio, is where the negative space around the figures is flat and the figures are cut out from it below that surface. For more information on this see article here.

Some might point out that the reason we can perceive form in a conventional statue that is not painted, for example all marble is due to shadow too. This is true. But the difference here is that the shadow is revealing is the true shape of the statue, which in turn imitates the idea in the mind of the artist. Whereas, in relief carving it paints, so to speak, the illusion of depth.

As with all these things, the division between the different techniques is never absolute. Bernini, the great baroque sculptor used to deviate from a strict representation of appearances in his statues and exaggerate certain elements by cutting deep into the stone and creating sharper contrast. He would say that as he didn’t have colour to manipulate the gaze of the viewer, shadow was the main tool that he had.

Below and above, Byzantine 10th century, St Demetrios


6th century Armenian, Virgin and Child

The Magi, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century

From the baptistry doors in Florence, early-mid 15th century, gilded bronze by Ghiberti.

Station of the Cross: the English artist, Eric Gill, 20th century, Westminster Cathedral




Glazes and Scumbles - Creating or Destroying Depth in a Painting

In good sacred art, even the appearance of the negative space around the figure is controlled by the artist The iconographic tradition portrays the heavenly realm, which is outside time and crucially (in this context) space. In order to convey a sense of the heavenly order in an earthly image, all sense of depth beyond the plane of the painting is deliberately eliminated. There is no superfluous background in an icon and the negative space around a figure is meant to appear flat. The naturalistic tradition, in contrast, seeks to do precisely the opposite. It is portraying Historical man, that is man after the Fall but not yet redeemed. This is the world of time and space that we live in. When painting in this tradition, the artist deliberately sets out, therefore, to create the illusion of space. There are a number of ways that an artist can do this. One way is to draw a scene with conventional perspective (and the icon painter can do the converse by using inverse perspective). However, in order to use either form of perspective, there must be a background scene painted in the area around the main figures onto which the artist would apply it. If there is not background scene the artists must use other means to control our sense of how the negative space appears: as either a three-dimensional space or a flat surround in the plane of the painting.

One is the choice of medium or media used in the painting. One option is to gild, which always looks flat. (You can see this 12th century Greek icon Moses at the burning bush, above.) If the background is painted rather than gilded, then egg tempera, fresco and mosaic always tend to look flat too, whereas oil paint, especially when used for painting shadow, always creates a strong sense of space beyond the plane of the painting.

Just to illustrate, compare the two paintings first and second below: and icon of Our Lady and Our Lord painted by Gregory Kroug in the 20th century; and Bellini’s Sacred Conversation painted in 1490. Neither has scenery painted around the figure, yet first has a white background that is designed to eliminate, as far as possible any sense of space beyond the plane of the painting. Bellini on the other hand, has painted a dark background that plunges into the depths, and gives a sense of almost infinite space – there is a gaping chasm beyond the figures.

The next painting (below, left) painted just 4 years before Bellini's by Carlo Crivelli in 1486 demonstrates why the standard choice of medium became oil rather than egg tempera. In this painting of the Annunciation, Crivelli uses single point perspective in order to create a sense that the pathway on the left is receding into the deep distance. The draughtsmanship is fine, but for me the painting just doesn't work. I have seen the original many times in the National Gallery in London and every time I see it what strikes me is that although the size those tiny figures in the background and all the perspective lines pointing to them tell me that they are in the distance, they just don't look distant. They look small. The reason, I feel, is the medium that Crivelli is using is egg tempera.

Even beyond the choice of medium, there are ways of manipulating the paint also that it can enhance or reduce the natural look of the paint in this respect. These are ‘glazes’ and ‘scumbles’. I do not know for certain, but as far as one can tell from the reproductions, my guess is that this is what Kroug and Bellini were using. Certainly, if I was trying to create the same effect, this is what I would do.

Glazes and scumbles are created when a translucent layer of paint is painted over another. When the tone of the upper layer is darker than that of the lower, it is called a glaze; when the tone of the upper layer is lighter than the lower layer it is called a scumble. If I were seeking to create the Bellini effect I would use a glaze in the background; and if seeking to create the Kroug effect, I would use a scumble.

When light hits the surface of the painting, some light and some is transmitted through to the next layer of paint deeper into the painting, and some is absorbed and re-emitted back outwards. This re-emitted light bears the character of the layer that absorbed it. It is why, for example, when you shine blue light on paint, that it appears blue. Consider now the light that was not absorbed, but which passed through the layer of paint. It is then incident upon the layer of paint underneath. At this interface the same thing happens again: some is transmitted and some absorbed and re-emitted. This goes on right until some of the light penetrates all the way through to the ground. If the ground of the painting is white and so very reflective, good part of the incident light comes back out of the painting.

When we look at a painting, what the eye sees is the aggregate of different rays of light emerging from differing points within the paint layer and bearing the mark of the layer that last absorbed and re-emitted it. When I paint with tempera, which can be diluted into thin washes of paint, the final effect is the cumulated effect of as many as 15 layers of paint of varying tones and colours. If you shine a light directly onto the painting then the optical effect is that the painting is itself a source of light. It is especially beautiful if the light is a flickering candle.

If you use a glaze with tempera, the usual medium for icons, it creates richer, jewel like surface. I you apply one in oil, the effect is even more dramatic. It causes the surface to appear to sink into the deep distance. The shadows of baroque art, such as we see in a Rembrandts, seem to sink into the infinite. This is effect, is created by a glazes and it is perfect for the numinous, mysterious feel that baroque artists sought. The painting right is Rembrandt's St Bartholomew.

A scumble, on the other hand creates the opposite effect. The upper layer appears to float on the surface. Generally, it is less often useful to an artist and so you don’t hear the term used very often by artists. However, it is extremely useful to any icon painters wishing to create this Kroug effect. You simply ensure that the final layer of paint is the lightest in tone. If the layers underneath are a combination of glazes and scumbles it still looks interesting and varied, but it thrust forward, rather than sinking back into the painting. What I find so lovely about Kroug’s works is the huge variety of washes of tone and colour that he applies underneath the upper layer, be it glaze or scumble.

So many modern attempts at icon painting that you see don’t do this. The colours are flat, dull and lifeless because they are created by the painting of a number of thick layers of the same paint. Like do-it-yourself decorator painting a wall.

(The painting below is The Virgin at Prayer by the Italian artist Sassoferrato. This baroque artist is using oil to create sinking depths in the negative space around the Virgin. What a wonderful painting! This is in the National Gallery too, and every time I visit, I make a point of going to look at it.)