Monday, May 18, 2009

Ateliers and landscape painting

The Seamstress, R.H.Ives Gammell

On the comments page Jesse asked "I'm curious as to whether he taught any kind of landscape? It seems like most of the ateliers are 90% figure and 10% still life, and the landscape gets to fend for itself" I will use that as a prompt for tonight's' post.

I should begin by explaining that I got a lot out of Gammells atelier and I think I picked brains there pretty well. There are ex Gammell students who are far more qualified to speak on Ives Gammell. I am not typical of his students. So I speak for no one but myself. I suggest that you go to the art renewal org ( I have a link in my sidebar) which is a great resource you should visit :

where you can read an excellent essay on Gammell by Peter Bougie. That will give you the doctrinaire history of the Gammell atelier.

I do intend to write a post or two on being in the atelier in the near future. This blog as you notice is beginning to establish a sort of rotation in what it is presenting. I have only written my history as far as Gammell, but I learned as much or more in Rockport after Gammell, so I am a hybrid. On top of all of that, I have gone down my own path. Sometimes knowledgeable people are surprised to find out I was a Gammell student as my work is not a lot like most of his other students. Only a few of his students have become full time landscape painters. I did learn a lot there and and I am grateful for the teaching I received.

Now onto the question. In previous a post ( sidebar- autobiography-An inauspicious beginning) I told about becoming a landscape painter. I never had any landscape instruction from Gammell
at all. I did have some from Robert Douglas Hunter, who was his much older student and taught on the fringes of the atelier. Ives did teach his students who went to Williamstown, Massachusetts for the summer, about painting landscape outdoors and he could still paint outside energetically in his eighties. Gammell felt it was a good experience for a studio painter to "wash his eyes out in Gods pure sunlight". He believed that there was a staleness that could grow in a painter who only worked in the studio and the occasional painting outside would freshen you up.

One reason the atelier schools don't teach that much about landscape is they are in urban locations. Usually landscape painters like to be more out in nature. In the olden days art students went in the summer to special landscape classes like those taught a Shinnecock, New York by Willaim Merrit Chase. They would return to their art schools and ateliers in the fall. That would seem to me to be a pretty good solution.

A common problem with the usual atelier trained artist outdoors is a tendency to try to slavishly copy nature.That literalness also leads them to paint a lot of viridian and cadmium yellow light greens, that while very common in nature, don't usually make for an attractive picture. I think the training is a great base to build on, but there is a lot of landscape painting that uses ideas and skills very different from those of the classical studio. The emphasis on learning to" see" brings with it a literalness that doesn't help much outside. The controlled lighting and drawn out working times of the studio are gone, out in the landscape the light is always changing.

I think that the ateliers rightly spend their time teaching the figure and still life. Those are the basic skills out of which art ability is built. They also provide teachable situations in which the teacher can guide the student to better observation. I have had students who I have tried to interest in the classical training and they always have wanted only to paint landscapes. The classical thing is too dry and academic for them. They want to make art, not study it. They would all be better off if they drew casts under a master, drew figures and learned anatomy. Painting a few portraits and some still life is great for learning the sort of visual accuracy that is handy to have when drawing outside.The atelier method is probably providing the best possible training for a landscape painter without teaching a lot about landscape painting itself.

If you take the atelier skills outside and try to paint landscape the same way as you do a still life, you will get mediocre work. The landscape painter does a lot of invention, taking things out of, and twisting the landscape to serve his purposes. It took me many years of effort to develop the particular set of skills it took to deal with all of that. It calls for a wilder, more shotgun like style of painting. When the tide goes out and all of the boats swing on their moorings and face the other way, you have to be able to wing it. If every time you look up the light is different, you have to be able to invent a light and stick with it. Those are sorts of things you will never encounter in the controlled world of the studio.


jeff said...

The problem is lack of control.
Students and painters who spend all their time in the studio have control over who long the want to paint something and the lighting. Except for fruit and flowers of course. I personally think each kind of painting informs both disciplines.

Learning to draw well enough to understand form, perspective and so on is very important. Drawing trees, lie one would draw anatomy is a good idea.

In my own work I tend to be very controlled with the still life work and when I'm outdoors it's get that first impression down as fast as one can. Landscape painting is also great for your memory, trying to keep the initial idea going even though it's changing a lot.

willek said...

Very interesting, Stape. Also, I think Gammell was different in going inland for the summer. It seems like most of the landscapers, like Chase and Aldro, were going to the coast to get away from all that green. WillEK

jeff said...

Your right about how some painters who have extensive atelier study under their belts paint pretty bad landscapes.

Have you heard of the The Hudson River Fellowship?

I admire a lot of the painters here, however I ma not sure if this is how landscape painting should be taught.

Jesse said...

My education(4 year bfa at AIB near Fenway, non-atelier)definitely didn't prepare me for landscape. I learned the nuts of color perspective and anatomy. But as you say, the constant change in painting from the landscape needs a different approach.

"The landscape painter does a lot of invention, taking things out of, and twisting the landscape to serve his purposes."

Rather than the approach I learned for figure/still life, copying elements slavishly. If I can get my self to move things around to fit a good composition, I think my work would take a big step forward.

Keep up the good work Stape!

Unknown said...

Well said. The balanced student would be able to use accurate drawing from classical training, but also design and invent.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I think that all the studio skills are essential. You can't know too much. Outside their are other skills called for and that is the ability to simplify, pixilate, bend, fold and mutilate. Feeling is very, very important outside.Landscape is a romantic art.

Someone once said; "sincerity, if you can fake that, you've got it made!

If you don't feel it, you will make a cold rendition of the landscape.As I have said before in this blog, I also work on them extensively in the studio, I am not a one shot painter. Sometimes I will put a week or two into finishing an outdoor painting and very little that I put on the canvas outside ends up showing in the final painting. I am adding art, not informatiion, incidentally.

Stapleton Kearns said...

For most of career prior to my meeting him Gammell summered in Provincetown. He built the Williamstown place about a year before I got there.I don't know if he got tired of the scene in Province town, as the art colony was fading. Maybe he just wanted a change, or he wanted to be off on his own. In Provincetown he shared a building with Hensche and the Cape school.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I did know about them. I thought about putting in an application. But I am not really a student, I guess. I would love to go over there and paint with them. I don't think I know any of them.They are going for a Hudson river school approach rather than the impressionist thing I favor, but there are great painters today working from that standpoint. Joe McGurl,and Sergio Roffo come to mind. Bill Davis and Don Demers also....Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...


I think outdoor painting is a really different mindse5t than the studio, that's for sure. Have you read John Carlson. He does a chapter on all of the different ways you could handle the same landscape depending on what you want to feature. It really explains how to get there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

And market too.

jeff said...

Anyone interested in landscape painting should buy the Carlson and Payne books. They have a wealth of information that I find I go back to time and time again. Payne's composition thumbnails are a must.

Some of Carlson's technical data is a but dated such as his use of kerosene for brush cleaner and the info on Cadmium Yellows ans Lead white.

john iorio said...

Yes, but I would add this: a landscape artist can be just as thoughtful about each stroke as an artist slaving away in a garrett. My personal style is to elimainate stroke and depict nature in terms of pure color shape. I obsess about each color placement just as much as some old 19th century master painting a nude .... I like your analysis, because it brings an air of intellect and responsibilty to landscape work. Too long plein -air art was looked on as inferior, or anecdotal. A maine lanscape can be every bit as deep as a David studio painting in terms of paint placement.