Gurney Journey | category: Art Schools


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Ward Kimball's Advice to an Aspiring Animator

Ward Kimball, one of Walt Disney's senior animators, answered a request from a high school student who wanted to become an animator. His told the young man that he should graduate high school, then get a well rounded art education:

"To be ready for that jungle out there," he wrote, "you gotta be a jack-of-all-trades. By this I mean, you gotta know all the insides and outs of film making. And with animation in mind this means BASIC DRAWING, LIFE DRAWING, DESIGN, LETTERING, ARCHITECTURE, COLOR THORY, MATERIALS AND THEIR USE, PAINTING, MODELING, ART HISTORY, WORLD HISTORY, ANATOMY, HUMANITIES, FILM EDITING, SOUND CUTTING, RECORDING, STORY SKETCH."

Ward Kimball's Advice to an Aspiring Animator

"Animation is just not making things move, it is THINKING, THINKING, THINKING."

Ward Kimball (1914-2002) on Wikipedia

Dennis Nolan, 1945-2022

Professor of illustration and children's book illustrator Dennis Nolan died yesterday in the company of his family after a long illness.

Dennis Nolan, 1945-2022

He posed for a watercolor portrait demo during one of my visits to Hartford Art School in Connecticut. Dennis taught illustration for many years at Hartford.

“You can forget everything else I taught you,” he would tell his students. “But I want you to remember just two things: how to place the horizon line, and how to draw an ear.” 

It’s rare to find a well-drawn ear these days, he said, even among professional artists. “Most people forget to show the leg of the helix descending into the conchal fossa,” he said. “And not many artists know about Darwin’s tuber.” 

Dennis Nolan taught his own mental model of art history, which questioned the standard view that the mainstream evolved from academic art through impressionism to modern and contemporary art.

That model leaves out comics, illustration, and animation It’s as if narrative art vanished from the face of the earth. But it didn’t disappear in the 20th Century. Like jazz and rock and roll, it flourished.

Dennis’s diagram puts the storytelling forms squarely in the center of the mainstream history of art, where they directly inherit the legacy of the ages. The modern movement still plays a significant, if culturally marginal, role as agent provocateur.

Dennis offered his students a solid grounding in fundamentals: animal and human anatomy, composition, color, and perspective, very much in keeping with the way art has been taught for centuries. 

Dennis Nolan, 1945-2022

He curated an important exhibition called "Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition" at the Norman Rockwell Museum which traced teacher/student lineages going all the way back to the Renaissance.

If Dennis Nolan touched your life in some way, please share a story in the comments.

Inside the Famous Artists School

The Famous Artists School, which was formed more than 70 years ago, was an early pioneer of remote learning. 

Some tantalizing glimpses of the correspondence course were featured in a half-hour TV program called "Operation Success." The Norman Rockwell Museum has posted the show on YouTube.

The school hired a team of professional instructors who in turn had studied with the master illustrators. It was the job of these F.A.S. instructors to read and respond to the student work and to keep their files up to date. 

The voiceover says that this instructor is creating a painted criticism, based on student efforts mailed to the school from thousands of miles away.

The instructor redraws the student's composition and paints a "better" version. The amount of care and labor that went into this process is impressive, and the company became very successful. 

But alas, it eventually fell victim to corruption and mismanagement, as David Apatoff recounts in his book on Al Dorne. 


• Here are my previous blog posts about the Famous Artists School and its instructors. 

• It's still possible to find vintage sets of the Famous Artists Course

• The Norman Rockwell Museum produced a single book about the history of the Famous Artists School. 

• The other great source of instruction about mid-20th century illustration is Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis.

Joe Bowler Visits Art School

When Joe Bowler (1928-2016) was just starting out as an illustrator he got a job as an apprentice for the legendary Cooper Studios in New York. 

Joe Bowler Visits Art School
Illustration by Joe Bowler

But he wanted to do more than just cut mats and wash out brushes for the master illustrators. He hoped to prove himself as a full-fledged artist. 

So he hung out in the bullpen to watch how master illustrators like Coby Whitmore produced their paintings. 

Joe Bowler Visits Art School

It was a revelation for Bowler to watch the way Coby Whitmore painted. Bowler said that Coby "would paint an illustration from beginning to end in about forty-five minutes, talking the whole time and I'd be watching every stroke, every mixture of paint just watching him work. Every color he put down on his palette, the way he applied the paint. That was my education really."

Joe Bowler Visits Art School
Illustration by Coby Whitmore

Still in his early twenties, Bowler was getting a practical education from the best painters in the business. 

But he  thought he should enroll in art school to get a better grounding. So he went to the Art Students League, where one of the main instructors was Frank Reilly.

Joe Bowler Visits Art School
(Frank Reilly conducting a class)

Bowler recalls: "I was going to night school at the Art Students League -- the Frank Reilly class in drawing I thought, well I guess I'll go sign up for his painting class too."

"In the middle of the first day of class, he started to tell everybody about the way to mix colors. He had this incredibly graduated value scale he was running down... and I finally put up my hand and said, 'That's not the way they do it.'"

Joe Bowler Visits Art School

"Reilly said, 'Oh, really?' and I said, 'Yeah, I'm working at the Cooper Studio.' And he said, 'Oh really? Well I guess you'd better just go and work there some more.' He literally kicked me outta the place."

Joe Bowler Visits Art School
Illustration by Joe Bowler

"Fifteen, twenty years later - the phone rings and it's Frank Reilly! He says. "Oh Joe, how are you? I'm just finishing up my book and putting the names of some of my more famous students in there...and I see your name is there, but I don't really remember too much about you."

Bowler said, "He asked me if he could use my name in his book and I said sure."
The new Illustration Magazine #70 has a feature on Joe Bowler written by Leif Peng, the basis for this anecdote.

Schoonover Recalls Howard Pyle's Nature Excursions

Schoonover Recalls Howard Pyle's Nature Excursions
Howard Pyle and Frank Schoonover
Illustrator Franklin Schoonover said that it was Howard Pyle's custom to take his students on frequent excursions through the low hill country of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

 "Upon these gentle voyages through field and woodland, there was the subtle pointing out of a purple, of broken color in a whitewashed wall, of all the delicate gradations of tone and value, the knowledge of which is not always accredited to the varied equipment of an illustrator. I recall most vividly an October day, clear and cool, with a touch of winter in the hazy air. 

Schoonover Recalls Howard Pyle's Nature Excursions
Frank Schoonover at the easel
"With easel and canvas within the shadow of a barn Mr. Pyle had been working from the models — a team of white horses and a plough-boy, posing in the autumn sunlight. As the light of afternoon faded and the chill of a frosty air crept up from the valley, the artist laid aside the brushes and called some of his pupils to go with him in search of adventure. 

Schoonover Recalls Howard Pyle's Nature Excursions

"We were glad to relax and to enter into a short interval of, perhaps, well- earned rest. We followed the windings of a small stream that brought us finally to a broad opening and the summit of a hill. On the crest of this gentle knoll stood an oak — a wonderful, radiant picture, silhouetted against the sky. Mr. Pyle stopped and drank it in as one athirst. 

Schoonover Recalls Howard Pyle's Nature Excursions "'Look,' he said, 'just look at it!; 'It's like the exquisite creation of a worker in metal, a great yellow thing with plate after plate of burnished gold towering up against the arch of heaven.' 'Yes, that is it,' he continued, with a tenderness and reverence so characteristic of him. 'After all, it is not a mere inanimate tree with its leaf turned yellow, it's fashioned as a human being with a trunk, arms and fingers, all clothed in shining garments, standing there to reflect the glory of the Divine Maker.'" 

"How, simple and how true it was. I doubt if a single one present that October day has forgotten the translation of what might otherwise have appealed as commonplace, into a world of divine purpose, leagues beyond the shell that surrounded our own feeble efforts."

Exploring nature together with reverence and common purpose was a central part of Pyle's teaching.
From "Howard Pyle" by Schoonover

Is College Necessary for a Freelance Career?

Is College Necessary for a Freelance Career?
A visit to an art school. I'm wearing a T-shirt from San Jose State's
Shrunkenheadman Club
Jacob asks:"Do you think a college education is necessary to become a successful freelance artist?"

If you want to be freelance artist, no one is going to ask you for a diploma. So the answer is no, you don't have to go to to college or art school if you want to make it as a freelancer. You might then ask: What do you need to learn, and how can you learn it?

Anyone who wants to make a living from their art needs two things: impressive samples and good business skills. One way or another, someone has to pay you for what you create, and that means you have to create artwork that art buyers will want to pay you money for, and you have to create a business, with all that entails.

What school can help you develop those skills? To decide that, you should visualize where you want to be in a few years, and choose a school accordingly. Look at the curriculum they're offering (both required and elective), the portfolios of both the teachers and the students. Have lunch in the cafeteria and sit in on a class or two. Consider the cost and the opportunity cost. Then when you get to your school of choice, be sure to get the most out of it by really applying yourself.

Can you develop the skills you need on your own? Obviously there are a lot of online resources that weren't available 20 or 30 years ago. But that course depends even more on you and on your significant other. If you decide to teach yourself or to follow an unconventional study plan, you have to discipline yourself to practice and improve. Regardless of which path you choose, it will help to make friends with other artists and build your network through conventions or associations. Building a network of peers is one of the key benefits of going to an art school.

A final thought: When you said "college education," I first assumed you meant a broad education in science, history, and literature. That's certainly not necessary for a freelance career, but it helps make you a fuller person. A good liberal arts education can broaden your awareness of the world and help you to think and to write more clearly. A degree in science is especially helpful if you want to pursue scientific illustration. A broader education isn't directly necessary to the success of a freelance career, but it expands a person's mind in ways that's often difficult to do on your own.

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model

Despite his busy career as a portrait painter, Valentin Serov taught art for twelve years. He emphasized the importance of studying real life with relentless fidelity.

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model
VALENTIN SEROV. Female Model with Loose Hair. 1899.
Watercolour, ink, whitewash on paper mounted on cardboard.
52.4 × 35.5 cm. Tretyakov
He brought models into the studio, but he wanted students to think of them as real people, with a life and a soul behind their appearance.

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model

Semyon Nikiforov. Standing Female Model. 1902.
Study. Oil on canvas. 157 × 68.5
According to Svetlana Yesenina, "Serov replaced the professional models used at the school with ordinary people - caretakers, cabmen, street traders and the like - whom he would find on the streets and bring to the school."

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model
Semyon Nikiforov. A Boy by a Column.
Valentin Serov’s Studio. 1903.
Oil on panel. 37.5 × 22 cm
"Nikolai Ulyanov reminisced how he and Serov once found in the Khitrovka marketplace a young lad who turned out to be a peasant from Ryazan, and invited him to sit for the student artists."

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model
Semyon Nikiforov. A Nude Female Model. 1903.
Oil on canvas. 149.5 × 74.3 cm. Ryazan Art Museum
"At his classes models were no longer simply models: Serov taught his students to see in them their unique individuality and to convey it through the 'stories' told in the pictures (as Serov himself did in his portraits)."

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model
Mikhail Shemyakin. A Female Model.
(At Valentin Serov’s Studio). 1903.
"In order to help his students locate these narrative 'pegs,' he cultivated in his workshop a special easy-going atmosphere, trying to make the models feel at home, open up and carry themselves as naturally as possible."

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model
Serov painting the aristocrat Felix Yusupov, 1903
In his portraits, Serov was always looking for an interpretation in his portraits, and you can see from this photo of him at work how he departed from optical facts to make his interpretation.

Serov: Seeing the Person in the Model

Quotes are from Svetlana Yesenina, in the Tretyakov Museum Bulletin
Wikipedia on Valentin Serov
GurneyJourney: Previous posts on Serov
Valentin Serov: Paintings, Graphic Works, Stage Designs
Valentin Serov (Best of)

Shortcomings of American Art Education

In the following essay, a famous artist discusses the shortcomings of art education in America, and proposes some remedies. At the end of the post, I'll let you know who wrote the essay.  

Shortcomings of American Art Education
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Portrait Class, 1901
"It seems to me that no one could seriously dispute the fact that a great school of art in America is needed, or that such a school would have the very greatest influence in the development both of the spirit and the practice of art. As art is now taught in this country, it is too fragmentary. The pupils are not thoroughly grounded. Any one who wants to study art here can do so. The examinations are too easy. In the foreign schools the examinations are very difficult. The student must know a good deal to pass them. There should be an American school with equally high requirements. 

If a young man [or young woman] wants to enter Harvard or Yale, his preparation must be thorough. That is the way it should be with the school of art, for the school of art should really be like a university. The student, before being admitted to the university, should have passed beyond the elemental stage of study which properly belongs to the grammar-school grade. As it is now in America there is no place where parents who think their son is a genius can send that son to find out that he isn’t a genius. There are very few people who can’t be taught to draw more or less well, but the mere ability to draw does not make an artist. 

"There seems to be a desire on the part of a very large number of persons either to become professional artists, sculptors, and painters or to acquire some of the principles of decoration. But there is also widespread ignorance that a thorough grounding in certain facts is absolutely essential to the serious student before he is prepared to avail himself of the experience of others. 

Those who wish to study art here are admitted to classes far too leniently. In the schools abroad the entrance examinations are very severe, and by a succession of examinations, the less talented are eliminated. This refers, of course, to the great schools — not to the irresponsible studios, where a model or two is hired and a few painters with a present reputation are engaged to call in occasionally to give advice; to such schools anybody, with no experience whatever, can, by paying a small fee, be admitted. 

It has been immensely to the advantage of America that there is nothing for architects abroad which corresponds with the irresponsible painting ateliers referred to. The student of architecture going to Paris, for instance — although my remarks do not apply to Paris alone — can only study his profession by going into the “Beaux Arts.” The entrance examination is very severe, of course, and should be so, but the effect upon the American student is everywhere apparent here, and has given the architects of the United States the great position they occupy to-day. 

If the money is provided — and one of the things which surprises me on coming back to America is the amount of money there seems to be — there would seem to be no reason why a great American school of art should not be established and be put in working order within a reasonably short time. A building should be furnished, among other things, with copies of the best examples of art in foreign countries in sculpture, painting, and architecture. There would be little difficulty in acquiring these, although it would take time. 

The American Art Federation would be the institution which would most naturally father the work of establishing an American school. And the question of a location for the school would have to be answered by circumstances. It should be in a center, some place where it would be to the advantage of both pupils and instructors to live. The location might be a problem. One would name New York as the obvious place for the school, as the National Academy is there, and the various art societies to which most American artists contribute hold their exhibitions there. 

The art ability of Americans is not to be belittled. The best American artists can hold their own anywhere. American art as a whole, however, has the tendency to be preoccupied with problems of a technical nature, such as how to put on paint, and things of that sort. The painting of individual pictures is not art in its highest form. Pictures are only fragments. The great things are works which carry an idea through to completion. 

I do not think that the great problems of adapting one subject or composition to its environment is sufficiently studied, if it is studied at all. The three great branches of art — painting, sculpture, and architecture — should be independent. Without a knowledge of the other two, each is incomplete. The restraining influence the study of each one has upon the others is of the greatest importance and of the greatest service. 

A school should have, first of all, the great artists of the country as overseers. That is the method pursued in Munich, where the great artists are given studios in the school, and the students are allowed, several days in the week, to consult them about ideas. In addition to the influence of American artists of first rank, the American school might also make arrangements to receive the benefit and advice of prominent foreign artists who are visiting this country from time to time. As to the instructors, there should be many of them, and there is no reason why they should not be drawn from the ranks of American artists. 

The curriculum of the school should embrace sculpture, painting, and architecture, and every student should be made to learn something about all three branches of art. There are many Americans who are quite competent to act as instructors, under the supervision of artists of first rank. And the great thing is that the school should have one inspiring head. The advantage of having great artists on the staff, to whom students can have access, lies in the fact that one can learn much more by working with a man than by simply being told what to do, or what not to do. The establishment of the school would mean, primarily, the sifting out of the incapable. It would push forward those who had real talent, and would discourage those without talent. 

An art atmosphere is hardly to be spoken of as something which is created; it is rather something which happens. It is a matter of tradition. A whole country grows up to art, and the atmosphere comes gradually into being, one can hardly explain when or how. And a people who have once developed an art atmosphere may degenerate. Take Italy, for example. The Italy of the past was a paradise of art. Rome is an eternal city because of the handiwork which immortal artists have left there, if for no other reason. But take the Italy of to-day—where is its art atmosphere? The average modern Italian likes the worst pictures and loves noise. It would seem as if all the art air had been breathed over there. An art atmosphere is not generated entirely by pictures. The kind of houses men build, and what they put into them; the decorations of public buildings; the beautifying of public parks; the care of the streets, all these things play important parts. In this day, it is not so much the love of pictures as care for vital things which needs to be encouraged. 

The generating of an art atmosphere requires a great deal of money, as well as a great deal of good taste on the part of a great many people. Public building decorations of the highest order are so expensive as frequently to make them impossible. The artist who does the work, too, must inevitably make sacrifices. But the man who takes up the profession of art must have higher aims than financial considerations. The painting of an important and thoroughly careful work is much more expensive than most people realize.

Edwin Austin Abbey King Lear, Act I, Scene I The Metropolitan Museum of Art.jpg
King Lear, Act I, Scene I (1897-98) By Edwin Austin Abbey -
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, Link
The essay was written by the American illustrator and painter Edwin Austin Abbey, and it appeared in Brush and Pencil magazine. Abbey was an illustrator and painter, trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was a good friend of John Singer Sargent, and alongside Sargent, he painted murals for the Boston Public Library. He lived and worked for most of his career in Great Britain, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. The essay was published in the March, 1902 edition of Brush and Pencil magazine.

Questions for discussion:
1. Abbey argues for maintaining high standards and weeding out those of lesser abilities. Is that position tenable in our time, and in today's art world?
2. Should an art school have a shared set of standards or values, and what should those standards be?
3. Why does our contemporary artistic culture allow for these standards in music conservatories, such as Julliard, Bard, or Eastman, but not in art schools?
4. He says "American art as a whole has the tendency to be preoccupied with problems of a technical nature, such as how to put on paint, and things of that sort." Is it still true that Americans are preoccupied with tools and technique? 
5. Abbey argues that the curriculum should embrace painting, sculpture, and architecture. For those of you who have studied sculpture or architecture, what has that study given you as a painter?

Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1

Sergey Chubirko runs an art studio and atelier called “Chiaro-Scuro” in Florence, Italy, where he still teaches the traditional Russian academic method of drawing and composition. A veteran of the Ilya Repin Academy in Saint-Petersburg he studied drawing under Prof. Mogilevtsev and has spent about 14 years as a classical art instructor in both Europe and China. 

He generously agreed to an interview.

Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1
Atmosphere at the Chiaro-Scuro art studio and atelier
Gurney: How would you describe the main types of drawings that you produce, and what purposes do they serve? For example, do you produce preliminary sketches, studies from the model, compositional layouts, copies from masters and candid drawings from life? 
Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1
Foreshortened figure drawing by Robert Calo
Chubirko: "There are different types of drawing made in various mediums. They are produced to meet different artistic needs and to serve different purposes.

1. Academic drawing from life – these are long drawings whose purpose is to conduct a profound study of form. Here it is especially important to attentively define the shadow line, which is typically the primary tool to describe form.

2. Compositional drawing or, so called tonal cartoon, is made as a preliminary sketch for an exact compositional painting. Its main function is to cover big surfaces with the right tonality considering tonal gradation.

3. Quick sketch from life. The main objectives set for a quick sketch from life are the following: to express one’s first impression from a model, to quickly capture proportions and movement, to develop in the maximum possible way at least one detail for the sake of which this sketch is actually produced.

4. Anatomy drawing is aimed at profound studying of the structure of the human body, its bones and muscles. Such drawing is oftentimes linear and quite schematic with only a minimal modeling of the form via the shadow line. Each of the above mentioned types of drawing can be performed with the help of line and/or tone. Depending on the medium chosen and the individual manner of performance, drawing can be loose (painting like) or more graphic."

Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1
Foreshortened figure drawing by Sergey Chubirko
Gurney: What tools do you use?

Chubirko: "At our atelier “Chiaro-Scuro” in Florence, Italy, we normally produce different types of drawing in various mediums and manners. For example, graphite pencil is very good for studying of the form at the initial stages of art education as it is more controllable and less smudgy. It also enables the artist to approach the correct tonality by gradually adding tone. While graphite is wonderful for small and middle-sized formats, soft mediums, such as sepia, sanguine, charcoal etc. are ideal for big formats because tone can be applied much faster. I only recommend soft mediums for more experienced draftsmen, those who already know how to model the form and develop the detail."

Gurney: How is your thought process different for each of these types of drawing? Do you regard some of your drawings as a means to an end or are they all an end in themselves? 

Chubirko: "The degree of completion depends on the purpose of the drawing. All drawings are important by themselves and are completed to the necessary degree. There is absolutely a different thought process for each category of drawing. For example, a drawing from imagination, which has an objective to visualise the idea of the artist, is different from, let’s say, a study from life, which is very much about depiction of nature as it is."
--- Part 2 tomorrow.
Chubirko's "Chiaro-Scuro" studio
Thanks, Shadrina Irina, for translating

Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1
Fundamentals of Composition (English Edition
Fundamentals of Drawing (English Edition)
Fundamentals of Painting (English Edition)

Related books:
Anatomy of Human Figure: The Guide for Artists (Tan cover, below left, Russian Language)

Academic Drawings and Sketches (Blue cover, below right, Russian Language)
Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1
Interview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1

Previous blog posts: 
• Russian Books on Academic Drawing and Painting

Ward Kimball's Advice to an Aspiring AnimatorDennis Nolan, 1945-2022Inside the Famous Artists SchoolJoe Bowler Visits Art SchoolTeaching Art, Pre- and Post-PandemicSchoonover Recalls Howard Pyle's Nature ExcursionsIs College Necessary for a Freelance Career?Serov: Seeing the Person in the ModelInterview with a Russian Academic Master, Part 1

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