NEW YORK—In New York City’s rich and shifting art world is a fixed point of classical learning—the Grand Central Academy of Art (GCA). Founded by Jacob Collins in 2006, GCA held its first ever open-studio night on Thursday, Feb. 22.
Students, instructors, and the public absorbed four rooms packed with examples of student sketches, paintings, and sculptures. The evening was as much an organic exchange of ideas as it was a flood of eye candy.
We spoke to students of various media and two instructors to piece together a collage of what it’s like to immerse oneself in the pursuit of creating fine art.
Looking around the four rooms of artwork from first-year to seasoned artists, all of excellent quality, it is clear that GCA students are trained to closely observe physical forms. Many sketches and paintings are displayed right next to the actual objects, and the life-likeness is so striking that the viewer does a double take.
Patrick Byrnes, a third-year student who studied for a year at the Florence Academy of Art before coming to GCA, emphasized the necessity of drawing and painting from life.
“Drawing from life is essential. It’s a quintessential part of the philosophy and history of this kind of art. It’s what gives it that humanistic element,” he said. “Some of the newer realists paint from photos, but without that connection to the subject.”
GCA doesn’t offer classes. The curriculum is taught via studio sessions. A female morning pose, then a male afternoon pose.
Full-time students have to apply, submit a portfolio, and get accepted. They tend to be younger and often straight out of high school. Part-time students tend to be older or working full-time, or have never studied art before.
The time required to achieve the fluency of the old masters is considerable. In his third year, Byrnes is currently working on a live pose in neutrals, using oil paint. Like all serious GCA students, it took him this long in his training to get to the stage.
In the GCA curriculum, the first year is based on pencil drawing, grisaille painting of antique casts, and cast copies in clay. Third- and fourth-year students focus on figure painting in oil or figure sculpting in clay. Workshops on perspective, anatomy, color theory, composition, and art history supplement studio studies.
Though he admits that there is an element of impatience, he is eager to improve his skills. “I hope I can start color next year,” Byrnes said.
Standing clustered around the entrance of one room was a small group of instructors and students with their drinks.
“Josh’s wife is beautiful,” sighs one. She wasn’t in the room, but she might as well have been. Mesmerizing them were the renderings by full-time faculty member Joshua LaRock who had on display a self-portrait and a portrait of his wife, both of which popped from the canvas with vibrancy and intense personality.
LaRock was in the music business before taking up art. “I never had any art training, but when Jacob taught, it just clicked,” he said.
He’s referring to Jacob Collins, GCA’s founder. Collins currently teaches one day a week, paying special attention to the training of the first-year students as they lay the foundations for the rest of their artistic careers.
“The way Jacob taught just made logical sense,” LaRock said. “In some art instruction, there’s all this dogma—such as, ‘don’t use black’—but he concentrates more on the phenomenon of light, how it falls on objects, and how to translate three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface. It’s about real principles.”
The sculpture room is a perfect example of just how real students get. Part of the core program is to sculpt features from Michelangelo’s David. First-year students have to model all four major features—the eyes, ears, nose, and lips. In subsequent years, they graduate onto figure sculpture and anatomy studies, in which students systematically create a plaster form that show muscles and bones.
Katie Whipple, a fourth-year instructor, said that sculpting played a pivotal role in her ability to paint figures.
“I found that when sculpting, my thought process is similar intellectually [to when I am painting], but instead of creating an illusion of three-dimensionality, I’m actually putting volume in a space and relating them to each other.”
After having sculpted the human body, she said: “I thought more about what I can’t see, and I realized how things are actually round. I remember being shocked how far back a certain point in the pelvis went.”
If the key to creating good realist art is learning to see, it makes sense that one should learn to sculpt before trying to paint.
“People who learn to paint before they learn to sculpt make things flat,” Whipple said. “They first sculpt the front and then the sides and then the back.”
A Classical Haven
GCA founder Jacob Collins’s journey in art began in earnest when he was 14 years old.
“My parents always had been passionate about old art, and I was taken to museums, so I had always been exposed to it,” he said. “I was naturally adept at drawing, and I respected the skill of drawing. I think it’s a human need.”
Revering his heroes Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Velázquez, Collins built up his skills over the decades as the art world fluctuated and arts education shifted increasingly into laissez-faire mode. When he founded the atelier in 2006, he foresaw the need to nurture aspiring classical artists against an increasingly tumultuous art market.
When asked what role his atelier plays in light of the current contemporary art market and the state of art education in this country, he replied: “I think about this a lot. To remain psychologically healthy, I need to think of contemporary art market as a thing unto itself, not related to art history or the rest of the art market.
“Otherwise it’s easy to give into feelings of envy or outrage. If I think of it separately, it’s easier to let go. And it’s important to let things go.”
His eyes sweep over the artwork on the walls as he considers the future of classical art. Though he’s sure that realist art will always be appreciated, contemporary art situation still bothers him.
“Probably because it occupies so much space in people’s minds and all the patronage that ought to be the birthright of these talented young artists got hijacked,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to deal with. It’s an opportunity lost.
“But then again, the unpromising future may be keeping this group of students pure. Rather than doing it for the money or the fame, maybe they do it because they just want to do something really well.”
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that everyone at GCA is incredibly motivated. In the next room, landscape artist and painting instructor Emilie Lee shows us a commissioned work in progress of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. A placid lake is framed by faraway mountains, a forest, and sweeping clouds.
“I start on location, dissecting each section of a scene,” she explains. A portfolio by her side contains pages and pages of studies of tree lines, shoreline, rippling water, and accurate studies of the contours of distant mountains, replete with notes scrawled to herself noting time of day, light, and wind conditions.
“I didn’t want to do trees from imagination because when you go from imagination, they tend to get generic,” said now.
The studies in pencil were followed by small studies in color, done in oil. All of the on-location sketches were completed during a one-week stay in June. When asked what the most challenging part of painting outdoors is, she replied, “The changing light is challenging, but the hardest thing to deal with is the black flies. They’re everywhere.”
After returning to the studio, she puts the elements together like a puzzle and works out the proportions. Then it’s a matter of problem-solving. To create a sense of drama, she conjured some clouds to fit with the weather conditions.
“It’s grounded in an understanding of reality but flexible to use imagination,” she said. “With a photo, all the questions are answered for me, and it’s hard to deviate. With this process, there’s still lots of gaps, and in those gaps, I’m forced to do a lot of problem solving.”
Deep studies for paintings also force her to really analyze her surroundings.
“For example, if I get stuck on clouds, next time I see clouds, even when I’m jogging in Prospect Park, I’ll be paying attention.”
The Beaux-Arts Atelier
As much of a microcosm as GCA is, it only provides part of a classical arts education. Housed together with GCA is the Beaux-Arts Atelier, a nonaccredited, one-year intensive program in the study of architectural design following the method of the École des Beaux-Arts.
Recently launched, it and GCA belong to the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA). Its director is Richard Cameron, who in 1992 co-founded the organization that would become the ICAA with the desire to uphold a tradition of architecture as art.
“There’s nowhere left, except probably in Russia where artists can study classical architecture,” he said. “Traditionally artists and architects were trained in a similar way because architecture is fundamentally a fine art, not a technical pursuit, though there are technical aspects.”
Architecture was taught as part of a fine arts education until the Bauhaus movement in the early 1900s, according to Cameron.
“By the time I was in school in the 80s, it was virtually forbidden to teach architecture this way,” he said.
But at the Beaux-Arts Atelier, classical instruction is being revived—no computers, no AutoCAD, just paper and pencil and a ton of clay. “It’s essentially a training of hand-eye coordination. Before you know how to do this, you can’t use a computer.”
The one-year program is centered on six areas of study: geometry and proportion, the orders (columns), drawing and drafting, modeling and sculpting, architecture, and an exploratory study of New York architecture.
Students are challenged to consider real-world problems. The atelier has taken on the question of Lower Manhattan following the public discussion of the 9/11 Memorial. Students were given the assignment of re-imagining the endpoint of Broadway at Bowling Green.
The premise is to take a pre-existing statue of Washington on his mount, reproduce it, give it a different pedestal, situate it appropriately, and create a plaza and design that not only fits with the buildings that exist at the location, but is able to tell the story of the Revolutionary troops’ battles in Lower Manhattan.
“Classical architecture is good for carrying stories—better than modern architecture because it has its iconography,” Cameron said.
The meshing of talent between the two ateliers has begun, to Cameron’s delight.
Student Abigail Tulis, 21, migrated from the GCA on the sixth floor to the Beaux-Arts Atelier on the third. She has been doing sculpture since she was 15. She already has a commission to do a piece for a private New York home.
“My goal is to become an architectural sculptor—someone who supplies the sculpture to a project that incorporates sculpture,” she said, flipping through her portfolio. It seems that she, and all the artists at ICAA, are well on their way.
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