Why Tradition can Never Be Divorced from True Art


Color Study warm/cool

What are rules? Annoying constraints on free expression? Rigid, stubborn adherence to how things were done, “in the good old days” instead of organic developments? I’ve seen discussions of tradition err in this way: why worship the ashes? Why persist in the Old when we live in the New?

I think that this is a mischaracterization of what tradition actually is. Sure, dumb things have been done in the name of tradition, and sometimes those things are silly or inexplicable. A fraternity might tell its members to wear the same t-shirt and do shots at the same bar when midterms hit, because “it’s tradition, man.”  That’s not tradition, that’s a stubborn adherence to a fleeting fad that has the appearance of a social norm. Tradition is wisdom. Fads are like matches struck once: bright for a fleeting moment, and then gone in smoke. Wisdom is a kindled fire that burns steadily and brightly, and it only needs to be tended by a few.

I’ve been studying at an atelier (pronounced atel-yay) for four years now, learning traditional techniques and methods practiced by 19th century French artists. It is a rigorous studio school where basic concepts are drilled and drilled again. A student does not have any excuse for an error in a drawing because she and the teacher are able to see the same thing from the same position. The drawing (or cast, or figure) is set up in the same position and with the same lighting with the object of training the student’s eye. The results speak for themselves: the tradition works to make the student a master of painting and drawing technique.


My first color study with a warm/cool palette

And why does tradition endure? The simple reason is that traditions become traditions because they are tried and true. Someone before us tried something, recorded what worked, and passed that on to the next generation so that we wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes. But, we’re human. We like making our own mistakes, because we’re kind of stupid and prone to self-worship.

I’m religious and artistic, so this observation tends to tie things together for me. Bad art and bad religion have quite a bit in common: both assume there’s no need for any rules at all, and as a result they accomplish nothing. Balance is key: rules give structure, structure forms good habits, good habits are virtues that may then be put to higher use. The worst manifestations of bad religion or art result in the absurd self-fetish of the worshiper or artist. The privilege of doing things “your way” needs to be earned, not snatched jealously like a toddler using markers for the first time.

Take Jackson Pollock: most consider him an innovator, someone who wouldn’t let traditions stand in his way.  Well, he used industrial zinc based oil paint in his work. This is a problem because paints made with zinc white dry slowly (which can be desirable), but the colors shatter when dry.  His exhibits, today, are roped off because his works are flaking. Traditional artists understand (and understood) that taking the time to understand pigment and its relationship to different, natural oils makes all the difference. The sensation caused by Pollock’s “paintings” will die and literally crumble away, and when that dust settles still we will still have the enduring works of Rembrandt. I am forced to conclude that, a.) Pollock didn’t care about his paintings lasting at all, or b.) had no idea what he was doing.  If the former is true then that is lamentable, if the latter then he was just an imbecile.

There is, of course, room for expression of oneself in art. It wouldn’t be art without that necessary, creative spark. But this requires discipline.  Just as rigid fundamentalists can squelch creativity, lack of any discipline whatsoever blunts the senses and dulls the intuition. Your hands are the ambassadors of your heart, so form your heart well in the pursuit of virtue. If you’re a musician, learn your scales. Practice six hours a day, and then earn the right to compose your own masterpiece when you are well formed and can work out the problems and avoid common pitfalls. If you are an artist, learn value, form, measurement, anatomy. Be ok with being bad at it for a while.  Learn the difference between good and bad materials. Rigidity is not the goal of learning the rules, true freedom is, and true freedom is not license but responsible action.

I have often thought that the artists of my parent’s generation treat art as if it’s merely a self-actualization program or a yoga class. Loosen up! Be free! Since there are no standards, there’s nothing to compare to, nothing to aspire to. The most you might get in a figure class as a critique is something like, “make that look more like a knee” without any direction on how to do so. Technique is abhorred. This view is mired in all sorts of exasperating absurdity. Spray-paint a wall and take Instagram photos of it, and you’re deep. Try to imitate Rubens, and you’re just stuffy.


Progress of Study; start and finish of my 3rd Bargue

Without technique there is no great art. That much is true. There are those who refuse to learn anything and end up producing nonsense, and there are those that cannot bring anything real to life with the technique they’ve learned because they don’t have well-formed hearts.  Art, to be great, has to bring the heart and the hands together as one. Tragically, most “artists” are imbalanced because they obsess over one or the other exclusively, divorcing the truest and most beautiful marriage.

Will I ever get there? I don’t know. I’m focusing on technique now; gobbling it up like a starving child because I could never find anyone willing to help me until now.  It’s hard. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve broken pencils, ruined brushes, ripped paper off of my board and started completely over. I’ve noticed a bad measurement halfway through a drawing and had to backtrack. I’ve completely screwed up the value of a color study and had to throw in the towel.

And yet, I cannot argue with the results. I have also produced the best work of my life in these past four years. One drawing took me an entire year. It’s framed in my living room. Taking the time to learn something difficult is emotional and fraught with self-doubt, like gold being purified by fire. But I am content to become gold. Why wouldn’t anyone else?

New Bargue

My latest study

** All artwork in this post are my original works, all completed at the atelier. Check out the gallery for more updates.

Resources and More Information

Academy of Realist Art Boston

William Nathans Fine Art

Art Renewal Center

Classical Atelier at Home

Cast Drawing Tutorial

Michael Harding Paints

The New Old Masters: Jacob Collins Profile

Learning to See: Practical Drawing and Painting Info for Realist Artists

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