Art, oil painting, Painters, Painting, Workshop

Thoughts on Art College and Atelier style study

. warning, long winded and somewhat rambling opinion follows


8″ x 8″ oil on canvas panel

disclaimer: I am not pretending that this painting is done in the style of Classical Realism

In my travels among blogs, I’ve read several complaints about the value of college art programs and I want to express my thought about it.

Even though I also feel that I didn’t receive a very thorough training in college, I think that I got what I should have expected. My opinion is that, at least in the U.S., students who enroll in college art programs usually have little or no training in drawing or painting prior to entering the program. Usually, as in my case, they’re kids who like to draw and were always told they were talented and, (especially in my case), have no interest in academic study. A four year Bachelors program has barely enough time to introduce it’s students to the rudiments of several different media or approaches to making art. By the time a student is in his/her senior year, they may have decided which media they think they might want to focus on but haven’t had time to really develop a mastery of it.

Graduate school, as I understand it (I didn’t attend grad school), is focused on developing imagery, not on technique. Technique is supposed to already be mastered.

Further, the instructors who staff these institutions are working artists who are passionate about their particular art. In the seventies, most of my instructors were working abstractly and, in fact, conceptual art was in vogue, in which there was not necessarily an artifact produced as a result of the art making. The idea was the art. Realism was not highly thought of at the time. And as far as developing technical skills, in four years of introductions to multiple media, it was more like dabbling than immersion.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. I was very excited about those ideas at the time and I enjoyed spending time with real working artists getting a sense of what it meant to be one. Having an exposure to printmaking, sculpture, photography, ceramics, etc was a good thing.

I find myself trying to fill in the gaps because now I’m interested in those technical skills I didn’t develop earlier but I don’t blame the schools I attended for not teaching me. I think undergraduate school is just not the place to develop those skills.

I’ve spent some time, recently, reading about atelier style study and wonder if it might be an appropriate step in a young (or older) artist’s development to spend some time in an atelier style environment. It seems to me that, even if one isn’t interested in ultimately painting in this precise and methodical way, there is a lot of benefit in learning to draw and paint precisely. It seems helpful to know the rules to break them intelligently.

There are a few blogs by artists who have studied this style of painting. The paintings are often really wonderful and one of the blogs in particular was really interesting to read. Sadie Jernigan Valeri, in her blog, gives an account of her pursuit of this study over about three years as she attends workshops by some of the masters of the style like Ted Seth Jacobs and Julia Aristides, and attends atelier schools, like the Gage Academy in Seattle and Studio Escalier in France. She’s also a very good writer. I read her entire blog, over a couple of days and, although I don’t know if I have the patience for this study now, (I know I don’t have the time, since many of the workshops are weeks or months long) I do wish I had done it.

Other blogs concerned with atelier style study and Classical Realism include:

Tobias Hall

Timothy Stotz and Michelle Tully of Studio Escalier

Jeremy Lipking


Sarah Merideth

Oil Candy

Neil Nelson

John Reger

Tali Gai

Tony Ryder Studio Blog

Harmony VanLue Tanguay

Seree Bayne

Kate Lehman

Jacob Collins

Janus Collaborative School of Art

Michael Grimaldi

David Larned

Edward Minhoff

Dan Thompson

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Art College and Atelier style study”

  1. Wow! This is quit a resource. I bought and read Aristide’s book on classic drawing, and was very happy with it. I grew up drawing and dabbled in painting and a few mediums in public school. I started a “Master’s Art Class” in HS with some other art students who excelled in various mediums – I had forgotten about that until one of them reminded me about it. That was a very seventies thing to do.

    Thank God I never studied art in college. I’m not against it, but WTF. I got a semi-classical training pretty much on my own as a young person interested in art. The atelier method attracts me, too. But, as a family man, who can sink three years into an all-out commitment like that? Especially since I can draw the figure somewhat.

    If I were to take that plunge, why move to Seattle when Florence awaits? Quite a dream, huh? A local artist is trying to put together a new art school based on short-term commitment (modern, huh?). I may have the chance to teach there, but I would take that as a very high calling.


  2. Hi Casey, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Frankly I’m glad I got a University degree. Even though it’s in Fine Art, it enabled me to get a decent job and provide for my family in a way painting most likely would not have.

    I agree, I’d take Florence over Seattle any day. I hope that works out for you.


  3. Love your dramatic painting here Bill!
    Life didn’t allow me way back to study art, for the theory gain I could get from it of it…the art history etc, and I don’t have the discipline to do it on my own and, but I still wish I could’ve, although I would also love atelier work. I think you can maybe then step out a more rounded artist?
    Thanks for this wonderful list of links. I first browsed them and wow, ther is this head of a man from Neil Nelson, which is fantastic!


  4. I agree with you heartily.. how artists really must know just what rules it is that they are violating…before they violate them. As someone who appreciates all manner of art (realism, abstract) I feel sad for artists who think that school would somehow taint them. Many artists are kidding themselves…with that “school would ruin me” thing. In my perfect school would become as important as it used to be and all the “grunge” artists would be required to go. It would be like sending a marginally talented musician to juilliard…there would be a lot of washout and the men would be separated from the boys. Thanks for your thoughts on this and the blog roll. BTW, the fact that you have spent a large amount of time considering art* shines through in all your paintings.

    *(you went to school!it shows! in a positive way! It didn’t “ruin” you!)


  5. Hi Bill!
    You might want to add Jerry Lebo to your list-he has a remarkable blog ( that really gets into the meat of things.

    Next month I am heading to Cape Cod for a 9 day vacation! I am staying with some friends of mine from my art class here in Alexandria VA. They have promised me to show me what they know about plein aire painting -which they both excel at- I am pretty excited!



  6. Hi Bill –

    Thanks so much for linking to my blog and for all your kind comments. I agree with you that a degree is incredibly useful in many ways, and I don’t regret going to an accredited art school. I just think more people should consider the cost – a major art school costs a lot, and I do think art schools are doing a dis-service to their students to put them in 10 years of debt and yet have so little emphasis on how to make even a marginal living.

    Now, 15 years after I graduated from art school I have just learned about the atelier system. And having had a small introduction to that system over the last couple of years, my perception is I would have learned a lot more drawing and painting skills, without putting myself and my parents into 80K of debt. I had a great education at my art school and wonderful teachers, but for purely learning to draw and paint, nothing can compete with the systematic discipline of the atelier system.

    For someone in high school now who simply wants to learn to paint and draw to the best of their ability, I would recommend atelier study versus art school.


  7. Hi Ronell. I agree that it couldn’t hurt to polish the old drawing skills more. I wish I had the means to study more formally.

    Hi Celeste. I don’t think that studying art could ‘ruin’ anyone for painting. There’s always something else to learn.

    Cindy, thanks for visiting. I haven’t seen any art on your blog lately. This post I wrote was specifically about atelier style study. Jerry has some interesting information on his blog but I don’t think he falls into this topic.

    Good luck with the plein air, I’ve found it to be tougher than it seemed it would be.


  8. Sadie, Thanks for stopping by. You’re most welcome for the link. I really enjoyed reading about your efforts to attain the skills you’ve wanted.

    I don’t think we really disagree much. Personally, I think it’s pretty hard to justify an investment in an arts education from a financial bases, no matter how you go about it. I agree that one would get a more thorough grounding in the skills needed to draw and paint in the atelier system, if you know that’s what you want when you start. Art colleges are more tuned to allowing students to experiment in many different disciplines to help them decide what they want to focus on. I’m also not sure the majority of students who pursue an arts education have the discipline to complete an atelier study.

    I absolutely agree with your last statement though.


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