Juliette Aristides. Classical Drawing Atelier. A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice. Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. 2006.
I had noticed this book several times on Amazon, while searching for works which addressed certain key technical issues which I felt were sorely missing in my own work. Drawing the figure is principle among them. Having had only the most rudimentary training in classical drawing, the idea of approaching it through a well-illustrated book written from the traditional perspective seemed very attractive. The reader reviews for the book ranged from quite enthusiastic to lukewarm. Coming across the work in a library gave an opportunity for a closer look, to assess whether it would be a useful manual or source of on-going training and study.
This book is nicely produced and feels good in the hand. There is a great deal of text, many more or less compelling illustrations, and singularly little actual “training” detail. I have found the same with many other art books. It is often the case that a high proportion of the illustrative material is the work of the author, or of close associates, while outstanding famous examples which one would want to study closely are seldom included. Books with many drawings and colour plates are incredibly expensive to produce and it is understandable that publishers are reluctant to invest in these costs without being sure of recouping them. Since classical drawing and painting techniques more-or-less disappeared in the mid to late twentieth century it is only in a few circles that such works would appeal. However, when looking in more detail at the publishing history and availability of this work, it seems to be one which has been published in several variants and editions, sometimes with a slightly different title, and is now available on Kindle at less than $20. So there is a significant market for it.
The book describes itself as arising specifically from the Atelier context. Many today use this just as another fancy term for a studio. However Atelier refers to a distinct mode of art training, one which was more or less universal up until the twentieth century. Atelier training is rare today. There are some ateliers in the US, one of which is associated with Aristides, and many more in Europe. Atelier training involves not just a technical approach towards realist/representational art, but arises from a philosophy and aesthetic practice, even though this is not often articulated. There are hints of it in Aristides’ book, but no more than that. Her engagement with the deeper aspects of the “break” between classical and modern art is limited to an historical overview approach.
There are some reasons why this book could benefit would-be representational artists. Figuration has been undergoing a significant revival; and while many contemporary artists are perfectly happy to treat their figures with casual gestures, much recent work is moving towards a higher level of anatomical and visual complexity which might suggest that a knowledge of drawing is imperative for the complex large-scale figurative compositions which they are producing. Of course painting is not drawing, and the example of Lucian Freud suggests that the figure can be constructed in paint with no more than a few charcoal lines on the canvas for a drawing. The relation between drawing and figurative painting is an interesting subject for another time.
Aristides’ book begins by offering an historical perspective on artists’ training in recent times, where the idea of an established artistic heritage has been broken. Contemporary artists frequently repudiate any links to the art of the past, while education and formal training are considered “antithetical to genius” (p. xi). Aristides argues for the mastery of craft, and a focus on technical achievement, as precursor to individual self-expression. It is clear that for atelier-trained artists the knowledge and stylistic expression of art in the classical style, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is the bedrock of their art practice. That knowledge in turn was based on other ancient civilizations including Egyptian, Near Eastern and Aegean cultures. Ancient Greece became the standard-bearer for the highest levels of artistic expression, rediscovered in the Italian renaissance, where the humanistic perspective and the idea that man is the measure of all things flourished. Leonardo and Michelangelo remain the measure of great art of earlier times, although the idea of emulating or imitating their artistic practice might seem an anachronistic absurdity. Aristides rejects such a view, and focuses on elements of draftsmanship, for example the use of line in the expression of form. There are a number of useful diagrams and discussions, which lead to an understanding of the way lines are positioned in the earliest stage of a drawing, from which the key elements of composition and the visual hierarchy of various parts arise. The use of block-in in first stage drawing is clearly explained, which leads on to the examination of measuring to determine distances and relationships. The differences between sight measurement and relational measuring are explained.
The book goes on to examine other elements of drawing, including figure drawing from life, portrait drawing, and related matters. All of these discussions warrant close examination and a careful student would take the time to undertake sketches and copies of many of these, so as to get a sense of how the written text and illustrative examples “work” when being duplicated in real time.
Part Four promises to “put theory into practice” and unfortunately this is the weakest element of the work. A very brief discussion of materials precedes some elementary notes on drawing spheres, for instance. The reader who has bothered to come this far is already likely to be very familiar both with materials and the drawing of spheres. A lesson on “Master Copy Drawing” again offers the barest account of how to go about copying from Master drawings, with only the slightest amount of detail at a most elementary level. Other “lessons” include “reductive figure drawing” in charcoal, and a simple approach to portrait drawing.
The book ends very abruptly, and there is no conclusion or any effort to link the practical elements to a broader consideration of how a revived interest and skill in classical drawing techniques is or might be playing a significant role in the emergence of new figurative/narrative drawing and/or painting. The very slight and elementary information contained in the “lessons” is so far from the aims and expectations of the kind of art student who is likely to be reading it that one wonders about the motivation for the project as a whole.
On balance, this is not a work which needs to be in one’s library. It would be good to ponder, and copy, many of the illustrations, and to be able to apply principles of measurement and ratio as they are explained here, but the ardent art student would be just as well-served by the purchase of less expensive drawing manuals, even if they are nowhere near as informative or well-written regarding the background of classical drawing. Finally, the availability of the book on Kindle may make it more attractive to those who want an introduction to some of the matters raised above. But the limitations of art books in electronic form are notable, especially if you want to use illustrations as a source of study and copy material. This is one of the best arguments for the value of the traditional artist’s library, although other kinds of art books especially biographies and memoirs may be preferable in e-form. This goes especially for the blockbuster biographies which are so thick as to be hard to open and so heavy that you can’t read them in bed. More on these later.