Idaho Arts Quarterly » East Idaho

Art Instruction--Boot Camp Style

Artist Richard Bingham teaches the old ways in Blackfoot

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Good art instruction is hard to come by. The fine art departments of most art schools long ago became playgrounds for trite nihilists. Stories of modern art education--such as the one about the two San Francisco Art Institute students who "explored" Hegel's master-slave dialectic by dressing up in bondage and performing oral sex in front of their classmates--make for titillating gossip, but don't exactly describe the environment of Lorenzo de' Medici's Garden of San Marco, where a young Michelangelo learned his craft. Even today's illustration departments--long a haven for representational artists--are often mired by instructors who muddle through idiosyncratic demonstrations, rather than clearly present the fundamental principles of their craft.

It hasn't always been so.

As one would expect, the history of art instruction mirrors the history of art. The first European art academies were set up in Italy during the Renaissance to give students systematic instruction in the art of drawing, painting and sculpture. In the 17th and 18th centuries, artists in other European powers copied the example set by the Italians and set up, among others, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in France and the Royal Academy in England. American artists of mid-19th century, especially those of the Hudson River school, sailed off to Germany and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy to hone their chops.

In the latter half of the 19th century, however, it was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts that was the art school par excellence. The Ecole--and the system of art instruction that grew up around it--made Paris a magnet for artists, who flooded into the Latin Quarter to take such classes as cast drawing, anatomy, perspective, drawing and painting from life, ornamental design, literature, archaeology and history--and to learn from such masters as Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Adolphe-William Bougereau, and Carolus-Duran.

It is here that the fable of the Impressionists' Great Struggle and Eventual Triumph Over the Oppressive Academy begins--as most of us learned in our art history 101 classes. Under pressure from anti-Enlightenment philosophy, the academy system collapsed during the beginning of the 20th century. Today, 100 years after Matisse failed the school's entrance exam, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts' only oil painting instructor paints like a Fauve. Artistic intolerance in the 21st century has a decidedly different flavor; it is now the modernists who dominate the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Royal Academy and the MFA program at Yale.

Fortunately, much of what was taught in the academic system was passed on and even refined by American artists--primarily by the type of illustrators who created the elegant ads of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Two of the best instructors of this era, Andrew Loomis and Frank Reilly, were schooled at the Arts Students' League by academically trained artists. Loomis produced a brilliant series of art instruction books that were best-sellers in their day, but are now, unfortunately, out of print. Reilly applied the color theory of Alfred Munsell to create his "set palette," a tool with which an artist can expertly manipulate color and value.

Although today we are living through an artistic mini-dark age, this deep wealth of knowledge remains alive--albeit scattered and tucked away. Occasionally, it even makes its way out of the more obscure corners of the art capitals on the East coast. And very occasionally, some of it ends up in Blackfoot, Idaho.

This fall, Idaho artist Richard Bingham will give a systematic presentation of solid painting principles at his new and spacious Wood Farm Studio in Blackfoot. The son of local artist J. Paul Bingham (who began to teach his son how to paint at age 12), the younger Bingham attended workshops given by accomplished artists Robert Brackman, Hayward Veal and Frederic Taubes. After graduating from Idaho State University, Bingham established Idaho Graphic, a commercial art and graphic studio, in 1972. Over the past few years, he has taught a number of painting classes and workshops.

Modeled on an art instruction workshop given by artist Roberts Howard, the tongue-in-cheek named Art Boot Camp is designed to impart complex painting skills and knowledge in a minimum amount of time. Over the course of four days, workshop attendees will work through "practicals"--painting exercises that put the principles of tonal value control and painting technique into practice on the easel. Bingham will also discuss the nature and uses of artist materials, such as painting supports, paints, mediums and brushes.

Boise Weekly: What are the advantages of the art "boot camp" approach over typical painting demonstrations?

Richard Bingham: The Boot Camp course is a hands-on, formatted instruction which provides specific skills one step at a time. Subsequent "practicals" build on previous successes to provide the student with the most efficient use of his time "self-teaching," which is what hands-on instruction is all about, of course. While there is nothing wrong with instruction through demonstration, too often it's like watching a stage magician. You see what he did, but you really have no idea exactly how the illusion was pulled off.

Besides your immediate instructors, who else have you found to be a great source of artistic knowledge?

I have been fortunate to have had access to a large art history library. The nucleus was the books and articles my father collected, which I have added to largely through the recommendations of friends and Internet acquaintances. The greatest source of artistic knowledge is the actual works of masters, and I can't over-state the importance of viewing as much of their work in museums as possible. Unfortunately, the massive collections of great work are mostly back East, but I take every opportunity to visit galleries and museums everywhere.

 Can you sum up the basic material covered at Art Boot Camp?

The fundamental approach taught in Boot Camp is how to turn form by controlling value through systematic analysis. I hope "graduates" exit as painters who are fearless in their approach to any visual problem.

 Can students take these principles and perfect them on their own?

Absolutely! It's my opinion that a course which doesn't provide students with a "tool kit" of of experience and knowledge for solving problems on their own would be of questionable value. Often in my own studio, I'll lean on the "boot camp method" to think through a problem when I feel stuck.

 What level of experience is the Art Boot Camp aimed at?

Painters with intermediate to advanced experience will get the most out of the course, simply because its problem-solving approach will make the most sense to those who have already "hit the wall."  Many professionals take the course, and oddly enough, they seem to be the most enthusiastic about the benefits.

You teach a number of techniques for mastering tonal values. What are they?

Estimation of values, control of values through mixing a set palette which corresponds to the value scales provided, and a painting practical demonstrating working in a compressed value range--these are the techniques employed to provide the student with the knowledge and experience to tackle tonal values.

Students will paint a grisaille (gray) underpainting--and glaze over it with full-bodied paints. Can you give a gen-eral idea of the process? What is the end result?

This is a "bonus" demonstration/instruction designed to show the student a possible tack for approaching their own work, i.e., relying on the "safety" and simplicity of a monochrome value under painting then worked into developed color. The demonstration ... [gives] the proper technique for over-glaze painting. The common misconception is to use excesses of medium and transparent colors to effect a sort of "grape jelly over peanut butter" approach, which is not what glazing is really about.

Besides teaching painting techniques, you cover the technical side of an artist's materials. What type of supports and grounds will you teach about?

This aspect of the instruction will be handled mostly by providing physical examples of the materials reviewed, and providing handout literature. Preparation of fabrics (i.e., linen, cotton, hemp and polyester) over a wooden chassis will be discussed, as well as [the technique of priming the surface of the fabric with] a lead white ground. Panels will be discussed, including "real" gesso (i.e., gypsum, whiting and hide glue), ABS sheet and canvas panels.

You will discuss the nature of oil paint. Can you give a quick overview?

Again, the overview will be rapid, and a handout sheet will provide reference to the "meat" of the discussion.  Basically, it will be focused on the selection of quality paint, what constitutes "good" paint, and what is lacking in student grade or "bad" paints.

What mediums, oils, resins and solvents will you discuss?

Working out the problems in the painting "practicals" will give hands-on experience with linseed oil, turpentine, black oil and Maroger's medium; painting into a couch will be the preferred method. And again, a further discussion of the more commonly available oils, resins and solvents in current use will be provided in handout literature, and of course in-class discussion an the opportunity to field specific questions. 

Why are many of these mediums not taught in art schools?

The reality is that it is uncommon to find an art school which is providing a systematic approach to instruction in the materials and methods of the physical mechanics of painting. The reason is that for well over 70 years now, refutation of the academic aesthetic of the 19th century by modernists also eliminated the focus on this aspect of art instruction. The culmination was the '60s "do your own thing, man" approach. Painting instructors in art schools today have not had the advantage of ordered, systematic instruction in this field. They don't know it, so how can they teach it?

You will teach about brushes, their quality and how to care for them. Can you tell a bit more?

Instructing the Boot Camp sessions, as well as giving other instruction locally and elsewhere, I've become very aware that many people simply do not know how to choose a brush for the purpose at hand, or estimate its quality. Unfortunately, we are in a time when the quality of brushes regardless of their price is at an all-time low. Consequently, it behooves interested painters not only to make informed choices when buying brushes, but to take the very best care of them we can.

Why does this material need to be taught?

Which part? Mastering tonal value, or instructing on materials and methods? You're pulling my chain, right? The reason for teaching this stuff in the most efficient manner possible is to steepen the learning curve for folks who want to learn how to paint. Personal advancement in painting is possible only when certain aspects of execution are under control. Only when the painter has mastered translating a personal visual image to two-dimensional form through consistently capable control of the materials at hand can the expression of anything resembling "fine art" even begin to happen. We're for art, right?

The fall session of Art Boot Camp is Oct. 6-9, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with an hour break for lunch. The course is $500, which includes morning coffee, lunch, mediums, four canvases and clean-up materials. For more information, e-mail bingham1@cableone.net, call (208) 785-1810, or write Idaho Graphics, 1352 S. Meridian, Blackfoot, Idaho 83221.