Monday, June 8, 2009

Studying with R. H. Ives Gammell

The Fenway studios, Ipswich street Boston

Tonights post is a continuation of my own history. The posts that preceded it can be found here
here, and here. I have told you how in 1973 I came to study with the formidable R.H.Ives Gammell.
Now some 35 years later it is hard to remember as much as I would like to about this period of my life, but I will try and conjure a picture up of the atelier in the Fenway studios as best I can.

I am neither an expert on Gammell, nor am I anything like his best known student. Ultimately, I guess, I was one of the number who passed through his hands. I spent a time there, learned what I could, and then moved on and was influenced deeply by the Rockport school of painting. So I am not a typical Gammell trained painter although I guess I could still be called Boston school. There are some far more doctrinaire students of Gammell who would question whether I am the one to write this history. They have a point if they do ask. I would reply that I am writing MY history and that I was there.

As soon as I arrived, I became a part of the routine in the studios. We would assemble in Gammells large studio every weekday morning at 9:00 and he would discuss with us newspaper editorials he had read and disagreed with, he would quiz us on various painters from art history or recollect his days studying with the greats of the Boston school. We were David Lowrey, Tom Dunlay and myself and were joined later, by the returning David Curtis. Gammell would arrange when he would arrive in the students studios to critique their paintings and then we would be dismissed to 408, another large studio Gammmell rented down the hall. There we would spend the morning drawing figures. We had the same pose for three hours a day five days a week, often for up to two weeks. Sometimes less, but I recall no gesture drawing or quick poses.

The first day I was there, or maybe the second, Ives came to see what each of us was doing. He sat and individually corrected in an incisive and usually deadly accurate line the work of each of the others, often noting the anatomical points to which he was driving his lines. Then he came to me. I was drawing in pencil on a sheet perhaps 9 x12 and I was doing pretty well. I had been drawing the figure daily at the university for a year or more, studied briefly in the night classes of Richard Lack in Minnesota and copied a lot of Ingres drawings, so I was not a beginner by any means. I had practically memorized Vanderpoels anatomy, still my favorite book on the subject. As Ives had not asked to see any portfolio from me, this was the first piece of my work he had actually seen. He sat in my place and I stood beside him. He looked at the drawing for awhile and said,"this is better than it has any right to be". He made corrections on it and went on his way, but I did feel as if I had earned my place in front of the model.

The studio was huge and high ceilinged with an entrance a floor abov,e onto a balcony from the hallway, and three big north light windows providing cool and beautiful light throughout the day. The model was at one end of the studio by the staircase, with her position marked in masking tape on the floor at here feet. I don't remember a model stand, although they were around for portraiture. We had two modesl, one was Betty, and the other was, I think, Linda or Nancy. Both were dance students and very fine models. We would hire them and use them half days for many weeks. They were well paid and they were devoted and reliable. I still remember how excellent they were to this day. Most of the time we drew in charcoal about 18 inches high and we worked on the same drawing for about two weeks. I remember being very impressed with the pencil drawings done by David Lowery.

After spending the morning drawing the figure we would all go to our own studios to work on our individual projects. For Lowrey and Dunlay that meant still lives and portraits, for me it meant first what Ives called books and bottles and then later cast drawings. Books and bottles was an excersise in accuracy for the beginner, and it was just what it sounds like. A little pile of two or three books and a little ceramic mustard bottle or small ball were placed on a felt or velvet cloth on a stand at about chest level. We worked in a system called sight size. Much has been said about sight size and there has been some warfare over its value. But I think it was an excellent training method. Ives called it teaching us to see. I will do a post later showing you how to set up a sight sized still life in your studio, but tonight I will give just a brief description.

About ten feet or so back from the books and bottles was a position from which we always observed the setup. It was marked on the floor with a piece of tape where our toes would go. The drawing paper was on an easel directly next to the subject. We could look from the subject to the drawing paper next to it and make close comparisons to determine the accuracy of our drawings. The point was to draw as accurately as we could. We would stand on our line and make an observation, then walk forward to the easel and using our vine charcoal filed to a sharp point that Ives called a "dental instrument" make a mark on our paper. Then we would walk back to our observation point and make another observation, walk to the easel and make another little piece of the drawing. It was very addicting and the hours would slide by quickly as you worked.

The idea was that you only looked at the drawing from the observation point. We used plumb lines to determine what fell above or below another element. We would often push a drawing for several weeks. There were stories of legendary drawings that were worked on for months, although I never did one. We were expected to work for months in charcoal before we were allowed to work in paint.

Every few days Ives would come to the studio where I was working at a prearranged time to look at what I was doing. I was renting a working space from a former Gammell student named Sam Rose. Sam and Gammell had a falling out years before so when Ives arrived Sam would go hide in the back room of the studio and both he and Ives would pretend not to know the other was there. Ives had a wooden box he would stand on to critique our work. He called it his equalizer. He was a little guy, and all of us who were his students were over six feet. I was six foot four.

He would mount his box and you would stand next to him so he could hold your wrist to steady himself up there. Then he would squawk like a big parrot something like "its wrong! wrong, wrong. wrong! I don't know how in the world you could have gotten it so terribly, terribly wrong!" He would gingerly step down from the box, remember he was over eighty years sold at this point and trot energetically up to my drawing and correct a line or show me how I had missed the shape of something. His line was always righter than what had been there. If you have a problem with a teacher making corrections on your drawings Ives would be a nightmare for you. That was how he taught and he was merciless. I don't remember anyone ever telling him he couldn't, and if they had, they would have been ousted from the atelier. Ives was very severe, but I had been in a boarding military academy a few years before, so I had dealt with guys like him before, and worse.

One time he told me that what I needed was not a teacher, what I needed was an oculist. He could be brutal. But he charged us nothing and spared no effort to train us to paint. I owe him a lot and despite his prickly and neurotic behavior I remember him fondly as a remarkable character. That time was the low ebb for traditional painting and what he was doing was a radical act. Her was training revolutionaries. Things are much different today and it is difficult to imagine how exotic our training was at that time. There are many ateliers spread across the country today and virtually all are modeled on Ives Gammells teaching methods. Within that mileau he has a legendary status. After Ives left I would carry the box back to 408 and Sam would emerge from the back room and return to his easel. Sam painted in an unbelievably tight style and enameled surface with technical methods gleaned from his study of Maxfield Parish. We became fast friends and although Sam had some deep psychological problems we had a lot of fun together and I always enjoyed his sense of humor. He died a year or so ago.

After working for the day on muy drawings I would return to the studio upstairs where I lived. Part of the tine I had it to myself and part of the time I shared it with David Curtis. The Fenway studios were very primitive.. We had DC current, 120 volt DC current. As an early electrified building in Boston it was wired for Edison's system of direct current rather than the alternating current championed by Nicole Tesla. What that meant was that no electrical device newer than about 1917 would work. We had a device called a converter in the closet upstairs that was an alternating current generator than ran on DC. It was noisy and undependable. Much of the time we did without it. We had a hot plate with a cloth covered cord to cook on, and a sink.

The bathroom was down the hall about half a block, and there were no showers. You took a washcloth to the big enamel sink in the bathroom and washed yourself with that. We were always visiting people we knew who had showers. We would do this in rotation, first one friend and then another so as not to wear out our welcome by showering too often in one place. My friend Sam had a jury rigged shower up on base about six inches off the floor. Water was diverted to it from the sink and than collected in a coffee can where the drain would ordinarily be. From there it was returned to the sink with an aquarium pump. If you gauged the flow properly you could get a decent shower out of the thing, but if you got greedy and ran the water faster than the pump could remove it, you had a flood.

There was little heat at night in the studios as theoretically no one lived there, although in practice almost every studio was occupied. We had an ancient sort of pre World War I space heater. It looked like a flying saucer, the thing kids use to sled on, made out of shiny copper. In its center behind a grill like on an old style electric fan was a porcelain post from which bare copper wires were stretched to the perimeter of the saucer. These glowed red hot when it was plugged in and the thing hummed with an evil and malevolent menace. But by hanging a wool blanket over the entrance to the little room under the balcony in which we slept, it could be kept warm enough to be comfortable. In the morning David would grind French roast beans with a hand grinder and make delicious coffee on the hot plate which we drank with canned condensed milk as we had no refrigeration. There were no refrigerators in the days when the building was wired for DC.

We never had money for movies or other entertainment although I did have a fondness for the more inexpensive available whiskeys. All of our time was spent in study and ceaseless work or the contemplation of the days work propped up on a chair while eating canned ravioli cooked on that venerable DC hotplate. Grim.


willek said...

I have got to read my Gammell book on the Boston Painters again in light of these revelations. Was there talk amongst yourselves on the value of the greulling sight size training or on the value of the long poses compared to doing the genture/ quickies that are in such vogue today. You must have had some idea what was going on at the Museum School and other places at the time. WillEK

Unknown said...

Fabulous post, Stapleton. I hope you include all this in the book you are surely going to publish one day.
We all have it way too easy, and as a result, much of our art is sloppy and undisciplined.
I bet though, that you remember those days fondly.
Just wondering, I would bet that there were not so many female artists at the time. Were ladies ever invited to the atalier? It seems that nowadays it is the opposite - but then, most of these gals are hobby artists.

Ramon said...

Thank you for the great post Stape. Having recently finished reading Gammell's book on the Boston Painters, and (re)reading The Twilight of Painting, it's great to read about his teaching first-hand.

Gammell seemed pretty committed to developing imaginative/narrative paintings in his own ouvre...did he ever have you guys do inventive composition exercises or memory drawing?

Thanks again,


Todd Bonita said...

This is the good stuff I'm talking about, great post. I wish I could have been there but I was too young. I took some workshops at the Ingbretson studio in Manchester with some of his students but could only dream of what the full experience must have been like. Your tales take me there..good stuff. I'm hoping with fingers crossed that you will devote a post or two to your experience of going from student to professional and discuss some of those experiences. it's such a vague area for those who want to be professionals full-time..stories of crossing that road I think would be helpful.
Thanks again Stape.

Ramon said...

By the way, do you what Gammell thought about people like Dean Cornwell? I know he didn't hate Pyle, and he had an inclination for narratives, so I was just curious :)

Unknown said...

Man, I am surprised with old dc power, ancient appliances, and a lot of solvents, that the building didn't burn down.

Two questions, do you find sight size valuable enough for amateurs to learn? I have done it a little, but it is hard for me to see how it applies to painting outdoors. It seems to me like relative measuring is usually good enough.

Second, do you still have examples of your figure drawings? I would love to see them since you usually post landscapes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek, Deb, ramon, Todd, Jeremy:

You have each posed a question whose answer I would like to share with the blog readership . So I will answer you in all in tonights post.