Why we must keep
the traditions alive
by I g o r B a b a i l o v
Igor Babailov speaks out on the need - and the opportunities -
to return to traditional academic training for visual artists.
Traditional academic education has become a touchy subject in the contemporary debate over what an art education should be. In the second half of the 20th century, the majority of art schools rejected the traditional approach in their programs, creating not only confusion and chaos in students' minds, but a diminished appreciation of fine art in viewers' eyes.
Going back through centuries of art history, generations of artists agreed that traditional studies were a "must" for every art student, encompassing all "views" and "visions", Art, just like a house, needs a strong foundation to prevent it from falling apart in the future, and an academic education provides that foundation.
But in the last few decades, human anatomy and drawing - the fundamental necessities for developing true artistic skill - have been completely erased from the pages of students' books. These subjects have been replaced by canvases covered in dribbles and splatters of paint, or by simple geometric colored shapes, and then they are told to believe that these are somehow as great as the old masters. What could possibly be more destructive to a sound art education?
In the past 10 years of my teaching career, with students from around the world, I have met many "victims" of such modern-day programs whose talents were imprisoned in the bush of "free expression.." I see them seeking the guiding light of strong traditional instruction wherever it's available.
Outposts of tradition
Fortunately, academic training has not been completely
stamped out. I received a sound traditional education when
I was a student at the Surikov Academy of Fine Arts in
Moscow, one of the very few old art institutions left in the
world that has not been infected by the epidemic of
The Florence Academy of Art in Italy is another school of
this nature, where I had the opportunity to instruct a figure
painting class last summer. My good friend and a wonderful
artist Allan R. Banks from Florida introduced me to this
school. I was very happy to discover that the discipline of
step-by-step academic curriculum is the main requirement
for students of the Florence Academy.
The Florence Academy of Art is a branch of the International Academy of Realist Art, and like the Surikov Academy, it is dedicated to the intensive study and teaching of the Old Masters' methods and techniques. It was founded in 1991 by Daniel Graves, who studied with Richard Lack in Minnesota and later came under the influence of Piertro Annigoni. Graves envisions the Academy as an institution with the potential to turn out a select group of highly skilled Realist painters. Here, internationally varied students can receive training from professional painters of different nationalities and educational backgrounds.
The core of academic training
Teaching at the Florence Academy was a great experience for me as well. Naturally, I was compairing it to the Surikov Academy, and the similarities in the educational approach were apparent. Both schools emphasize studying the human form, working from life and copying the Old Masters. Drawing and anatomy - the two most important subjects that every artist should know as well as the "two-times table" - are highlighted in both programs. In these courses, most of the hours are devoted to understanding and solving the problems of form and proportions, tonal (value) relationships and chiaroscuro. The students are also required to study composition, human anatomy, perspective and the technology of art materials - all of the ABC's for mastering an artist's skill.
In drawing class, students learn the Old Masters' sight-size method of drawing: You stand in the same place in relation to the subject and to your absolutely upright easel, and draw the subject in the same size you see it. Working from a single vantage point marked on the floor, you take visual measurements by sighting along a plumb line. After this study, you step forward to work on the drawing from memory.
The benefits to be gained from this exercise are enormous. It trains your visual memory, intensifies your ability to see proportions and foreshortenings, and coordinates your eye. As I always tell my students, the importance of good drawing skills cannot be overemphasized. In the words of Nicolas Poussin, "Drawing is the skeleton of what you do and color is its flash."
Painting with the Masters
Perhaps one of the most essential exercises in learning to paint is the
copying of master works in the museums, a practice that's still
maintained by both of these traditional academies. As a student at
the Surikov Academy, I was fortunate to have access to such museums
as the Pushkin Museum, the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. The
students at the Florence Academy have similar opportunities, as the
school is located in the center of the city, a short walk from the Duomo,
the Accademia and the famous Uffizi Gallery. Academy students are
given special permission to draw from originals at the Uffizi Gallery's
Old Masters Drawing Room.
Of course, copying involves more than expressing your feeling of the
subject and reproducing it in your own words. To create a copy, you
literally follow step by step after the master artist's procedure, getting
to know his method, understanding his philosophy of the "stroke-
treatment" and so on. Such practice allows you to understand how the
great artists from the past translated three-dimensional form into two
The copying experience cannot be conveyed in just a few words. When
your easel is only a couple of inches away from an original painting or
drawing by, let's say, Rubens, it's as if you're having a dialogue with that master. This feeling is indescribable. And to have such an experience while immersed in history, surrounded by Renaissance sculptures, architecture and museum treasures - the whole atmosphere of Florence - is an incredible inspiration, generating a hunger for learning the secrets of the Old Masters.
The academic experience
The curriculum of the Florence Academy of Art is based on the tradition begun in Italy and developed in the academies of northern Europe, particularly in the major Realist ateliers of 19th-century Paris, best exemplified by that of Jean-Léon Gérôme. Similarly, the system of training in the Surikov Academy is based on the best traditions of Russian as well as European Realist schools, including French Academic tradition.
Today's students in both the Surikov and Florence academies find themselves in the privileged situation of having models available almost all day, every day.
As they work, they receive criticism that is continuous, precise, non-compromising and gauged to the individual progress. I believe that only by seeing the mistakes can you really learn.
The Florence Academy of Art is continuing another tradition, in which artists are trained to master more than a single genre or medium, working in sculpture along with painting. Skill in drawing lies at the core of both these disciplines. In addition to the Drawing and Painting Program, the Florence Academy now offers two new programs of study - Sculpture and Intensive Drawing.
There is hope
As the spiral of modern art history continues to wind down, we can see the increasing demand for tradition in the visual arts. Although much damage to academic education has been done, there are more and more artists, organizations and schools around the world trying to bring the traditions back, to restore the values left to us by the Old Masters.
Ultimately, the aim of such schools of Realist art should be to train artists who are able to draw to a very high standard; have a deep understanding and knowledge of anatomy, perspective and composition as foundations for great painting; have positive attitudes toward life and nature, and see it and express it in their works with uncompromising truth; and have a great knowledge of the Old Masters' methods and techniques, and apply them to their own works in order to preserve these methods for future generations of artists.
Now, more than ever before, we Realist artists should join together in a worldwide effort to achieve these educational goals [for example, as found in the work of the American Society of Classical Realism (ASCR), The Art Renewal Center (ARC), the American Society of Portrait Artists (ASOPA) and other sound organizations, dedicated to a renewal in the visual arts]. Regardless of the geographical location and differences in "mother tongues", we have the same idols and the same principles. Our language of communication is our Art. Sharing it with each other and teaching it -- that is the key to the success and never-ending beauty and harmony of Realism.
International Artist Magazine is a Fine Art Magazine, published in Australia. This magazine has wide distribution and is read by serious and professional artists around the world.
Mr. Babailov's article on Why we must keep the traditions alive is a direct result of his teaching at the Florence Academy of Fine Art, Italy. It is candid description of his personal views on Classical Realism and his experiences as a professional artist and teacher.
The article has generated very positive response from its readers, worldwide.
Why we must keep the traditions alive is featured on pages 18-20 of the February/March issue, 2000 of the International Artist Magazine.