In William R. Davis’s landscape painting, “Late Day Colors,” the last light of the late sun illuminates the sky and sends a shimmer of light onto a lake: It’s the sun’s final hurrah before disappearing behind a distant forest. In another painting, “Bouquet,” by Daniel Caro, a glorious bunch of sunflowers and yellow roses cheerfully announces itself in a white ceramic vase. Then there’s a sensitively rendered self-portrait by Kristen Valle Yann in a white headscarf; she gazes off the edge of the painting, deep in thought. All three paintings are different from each other, yet they have two things in common: Each is painted directly from life rather than from a photograph, and all are featured in the same exhibition, “The 10th Annual Holiday Small Works Exhibition” at the Collins Galleries, Orleans, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Most of the more than 100 paintings included in the exhibition were painted directly from life, as per the academic style of painting passed down from the European art academies. The gallery supports artists who work in this manner.
Now Collins Galleries is celebrating its 10th year in business, and I was keen to know why owner Alison Collins felt it was so important for her gallery to focus primarily on artists who paint directly from life.
The answer lies in the past—Collins’s personal history, and Western art heritage as a whole.
Discovering Traditional Art
Collins developed her love of art first through her parents, who had very traditional and classical tastes, she said by telephone. She drew immense inspiration from her father, a self-taught furniture maker and weaver, who recently passed away.
Then as a teenager, she began working at a local art gallery where the owner, Julian Baird, had very refined tastes, favoring classical and traditional pieces. She worked in that gallery on and off for the next 27 years, honing her art gallery expertise.
As Collins grew up, modern art was becoming mainstream. At the beginning of her art gallery career, in the mid to late 80s, college students studying art were receiving a rather poor education in draftsmanship and painting because modernism had made its way onto the campuses and into the classrooms, she said. The modernist art movement of the early 19th- and early 20th-century, turned its back on the traditional training that for centuries had been defined by the European art academies, and instead put great emphasis on artistic innovation and experimentation.
Art students who wanted a more traditional art education had to learn another way. Some aspiring artists learned in private studios set up by students of artist R.H. Ives Gammell (1893–1981). In America, Gammell was one of the most influential teachers of the Western art tradition. He believed in keeping the tradition alive and felt that modern art undermined European craftsmanship. Gammell was particularly influenced by artist William Paxton, whom he studied under for a time. Paxton had been a student of the great French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.
The Legacy of Traditional Art Training
Artists are always influenced by those who came before them. That’s what Collins finds so wonderful about the academic style of art: Artists learn from their predecessors, and that skill and knowledge is passed down and built upon.
Collins always asks artists who fostered their interest in art and inspired them to paint, perhaps because she’s been so influenced by those around her. She’s found that there’s usually some influence from home: a grandmother who painted, a mother who drew, or a teacher who inspired the artist along the way. Remarkably, some of the artists never went to a museum before they studied painting, but they could draw, and that’s where it all begins, she said.
In traditional or classical art training, before an artist would even think about picking up a paintbrush, they would have to take courses in drawing, she said. For instance, in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the Royal Academy of Art Schools in London, students at the beginning of their training had to copy plaster casts of ancient statues and architecture and create those drawings for up to a year.
Collins said that artists seek to improve their natural abilities in the studio by first learning how to draw better in order to reproduce what they see in a realistic and meaningful way. They then study and learn about the elements of drawing, including perspective, line, value, form, and more.
Over time and practice, artists perfect their skills and eventually begin to explore their own artistry. Collins likened the experience to other professions. “If you are a scientist, you don’t learn everything from the book, there are some things you have to experience … and eventually find solutions through … exploration and discovery,” she said.
“When you start to observe something and learn more about it, you might also begin to experience a change inside yourself.”
She experienced that firsthand when watching her father make furniture. By attentively watching him work, she began to understand how to use the tools, and not only that, when she watched him creatively overcome challenges, she was able to see how to solve problems herself.
Painting From Life Versus Photographs
A landscape painter out in the elements experiences a different process than someone sitting in a studio copying a photograph. As an experiment, Collins photographed the light pouring into her kitchen window onto the couch. She intensely studied the picture comparing it to what she was seeing in person. The photo flattened and somewhat distorted the scene. There’s a dynamism when painting directly from life that’s lost in photographs.
“When an artist is outside, painting from nature, they often have to work quickly in order to try to capture what is before them, especially under changing atmospheric conditions such as rain, wind, and snow, or a sunrise or sunset. Learning how to predict what happens in nature [comes with] experience—by having a relationship with it—and for a landscape painter, intuition can make all the difference in how the moment is captured,” she said.
Collins represents local landscape painter Joseph McGurl who has studied the land and weather to such an extent. A quote on McGurl’s website from French mathematician Henri Poincaré conveys McGurl’s and perhaps other artists’ enthusiasm for nature: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.”
In addition, when an artist paints directly from life, there’s automatically a recognizable standard to judge their paintings’ merits by. Nature is that true measure of art and when you look at a series of representational paintings together on the wall, as in Collins’s gallery, there’s a standard and a bar to compare like with like.
Modern art, on the other hand, has no bar—you can’t compare like with like to see what’s good and what’s not, as each piece is an abstraction of the interior world or bits and pieces of reality. Modern art deviates from nature. Collins said that modern art is “all about breaking with tradition—that’s what modernism is. But in the genre of art that I am working in, there’s a bar—there’s good, and you can see it. … This is because these artists are using life as a model, whether it be a figure or an object, or out on location painting the landscape.”
The Collins Galleries exhibition “The 10th Annual Holiday Small Works Exhibition” runs until Dec. 10. To find out more, visit CollinsGalleries.com