By Stephen Gjertson and James Childs

James Childs, Lily Whitall, Private collection.

James Childs was devoted to his art, an art inspired by select masters of the past. This single-minded dedication began in boyhood and influenced him throughout his career. At age twelve he studied during the summer at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He earned a BFA at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1970, after spending his junior year abroad at Atelier 63 in Haarlem, the Netherlands. He admired the art of ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance and was dissatisfied with all of his modern art education. In 1971 he became one of the first students of artist Richard F. Lack at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis. It was there that I met him, and we studied with Lack through the spring of 1975. We maintained our friendship during his lifetime. Childs spent the summers of 1971-1973 studying in Boston and Williamstown, MA with Richard Lack’s teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell. He considered Gammell to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Gammell’s book, Twilight of Painting, was invaluable to our understanding of early twentieth century art and the collapse of the Western artistic tradition and sound teaching.

James Childs, notebook page.

During his time with Gammell Childs filled his notebooks with the information and critiques of the master. He wrote the following synopsis of the Gammell/Lack tradition and their general teaching principles.

The Distinguishing Characteristics of R. H. Ives Gammell’s Atelier Training

By James Childs

The students of R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard Lack are the direct inheritors of an atelier training tradition that can be traced directly, in an unbroken line, to the Florentine Renaissance. Francois I brought Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, and Francesco Primaticcio to work at Fontainebleau, and later Leonardo da Vinci to live and work at the Château du Cloux.

Andrea del Sarto, Study for the Head of Julius Caesar, Metropolitan Museum of Art, partial and promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. David M. Tobey, 2008.

Through these artists the advances in art of the Italian Renaissance came to France. To disseminate this knowledge, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was established in 1648 under Louis XIV. The painter Charles LeBrun taught the first class. The École was originally a school of drawing. Painting was learned in the private ateliers of respected artists. This body joined the Académie Royale de Architecture to form the École des Beaux-Arts in 1793. The École was made an independent entity by Napoleon III in 1863.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Dancing Bashi-Bazouk.

With the reforms of 1863, three painting ateliers were set up within the École. If the rapin (beginner) could pass the examination he could gain a place in one of these ateliers. Jean-Léon Gérôme headed one of the ateliers. Both Dennis Miller Bunker and William McGregor Paxton were his students. Paxton was the teacher of R. H. Ives Gammell. Richard F. Lack was Gammell’s student. No other training system can claim this distinguished heritage.

 

 

 

William McGregor Paxton, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife.

The teaching of R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard Lack combined the academic and impressionist traditions, once thought incompatible but which, as Gammell points out in his seminal book on art training, Twilight of Painting, can achieve similar ends if pushed to its full realization. William Paxton did this because of his impressionist training from Dennis Bunker and his academic training from Gérôme. Boston impressionism comes directly from Monet through Theodore Robinson and Lila Cabot Perry, who were close associates of Monet at Giverny. Gammell also studied with William Sargeant Kendall, Frank Benson, and Edmund Tarbell, some of the finest painters of the Boston School, usually considered the best American impressionists.

James Childs, Nike, cast drawing.

Our system of drawing instruction follows the methods of Gérôme and his associate, Charles Bargue. It is not additive, but reductive, refining the largest general statements through stages to the particular details. Students are taught to work from the large masses to the outside line, not the reverse, as most drawing does. We do not finish in a piecemeal fashion, minutely rendering various parts. This often results in an abundance of unrelated detail and unintended distortions. Instead, we consistently stress rendering the parts in relation to the whole in an effort to capture the “big look” of nature. We divide light and shadow from the beginning in our drawing, the way a painter works. This encourages a logical transition from drawing to painting. Further, students work “sight size,” to measure and render correct proportions. This helps the beginner to see correct relationships of drawing and values, and is the best teaching method because teacher and student can both measure to agree on sizes. There are no distortions if the viewer is distant three times the height of the object. When drawing seated, I usually sit with the mid point of the figure at eye level so that I look up and down equally.

 

James Childs, Female Figure Study, 1974.

The main plumb line is dropped from either side of the neck to the feet – whichever side lines up with the most landmarks. Placing the head over the feet insures that the figure obeys gravity and stands well just as a carpenter drops a plumb to check his studs to insure that they are straight and the wall will stand properly. Gérôme was noted for the stability of his figures and the feeling that his feet were well planted. He called Puvis “Pulvis” (Latin for “dust”) because his figures were notoriously out of plumb. Sargent taught at the Royal Academy that the placement of the head in relation to the shoulders is paramount. An important element of our training is the size of an atelier. In Twilight of Painting, Gammell states that the ideal size of an atelier is no more than half a dozen pupils. This is the size that can be adequately taught by one master artist.

Other Traditions Preserved by Ives Gammell

R. H. Ives Gammell, center and right mural panels, stairway, Newark Public Library.

Gammell also endeavored to preserve and teach the art of mural painting, as practiced by it last true practitioners: Maxfield Parrish and Edwin Howland Blashfield. This was the tradition that most fascinated Gammell as an artist and he painted murals in both public and private buildings. He tailored his teaching to the talent and interest of the individual student. He therefore taught the Boston impressionist tradition to most of his students. Nevertheless, imaginative or historical painting was always considered the highest form of art because it required expertise in all genres and disciplines. Joshua Reynolds ranks history painting at the top of his hierarchy of genres. I was Gammell’s only student to exclusively study imaginative painting. Richard Lack also painted imaginative works. His significant contribution to the imaginative picture was his research into the bistre method of Rubens and the grisaille method of Veronese. Lack taught these methods to some of his students. Paul DeLorenzo, Kirk Richards, Jeffrey Larson, and Michael Chelich assisted Lack in under-painting major imaginative works. The American illustrators practiced picture making along lines similar to the imaginative tradition (Howard Pyle and the Brandywine painters, for instance. Also Joseph Christian Lyendecker, who was trained in Paris, and Norman Rockwell, who was greatly influenced by Lyendecker.)

Richard F. Lack, The Interior Journey.

[Childs wrote the following observations about Gammell’s defense of the western artistic tradition, and recollections of their personal interaction during his three summers of study with Gammell at Williamstown. He titled it after the heroic defense of the Tiber Bridge against the invading Etruscans by the Roman hero, Horatius. SG]

Horatius at the Bridge: R. H. Ives Gammell Defends the Western Tradition of Art

By James Childs

“I feel like a swan who gave birth to a duck.” According to Gammell this was one of the remarks that his master, William McGregor Paxton, tossed his way. He also told him, “Gammell, you draw like a sponge.” I begin with these unkind assessments of perhaps the one true genius of twentieth century Art, because Gammell agreed with them. He often quoted the latter in approbation of my being “neat fingered,” which he emphatically stated he was not. Gammell’s genius was in his grasp of the psyche, or “zeitgeist,” of his time. He created a synthesis of the styles that appeared during his long life.

R. H. Ives Gammell, Panel VI, The Hound of Heaven series. Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, WA.

Like Raphael, Gammell assimilated and incorporated into his own work the best of the art around him. His incomparable design skills allowed him to blend elements from Art Nouveau, Art Deco, abstraction, and influences from the “golden age” of American illustration, into an American Academic vocabulary. In an era that trumpeted “originality,” Gammell produced something that was truly original, not merely the infantile rule-breaking, or downright charlatanism, that was boldly proclaimed as the only reasonable and revelatory way to achieve originality.

R. H. Ives Gammell, Arthur Pier, Boston Athenæum, gift of the Trustees of the R. H. Ives Gammell Studios Trust, 1985.

Ives Gammell was tenacious. His bulldog grimace is notable in photographs. Nothing would stop his drive for self-expression or his efforts to defend and preserve the unique blend of French academic training and Boston impressionist theory to which he was heir. He found himself at mid century in a position, all but unimaginable fifty years before, of being the last active practitioner of every genre of these traditions, and its last teacher. He alone, like the Roman hero Horatius, must defend civilization against the barbarian horde – must defend this patrimony. Gammell was very generous. He furnished students with a car and money for food. I had a yellow Apollo (with Gammell’s symbolist bent, the meaning and color would have been intentional.) He also paid my transportation to Boston and model fees in Williamstown. He treated his students to concerts, operatic performances, trips to museums and, sometimes, he even helped finance trips abroad. Throughout his life, Gammell outspokenly denounced “the emperor’s new clothes” of Modernist art. This earned him a very cold shoulder among the artistic cognoscenti or, as Gammell called them, “the taste-makers.” He pointed out their destruction of art education in his important book, Twilight of Painting. His positions earned him such greetings as, “Good morning, Mr. Thompson,” from Perry T. Rathbone, director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (Leslie P. Thompson, an instructor at the Museum School and secondary Boston light, had been dead for many years. He was said to have left his classes with the admonishment, “Beware the edge of the shadow.”)

James Childs, Lady in the Dark.

Richard Lack once summed-up these arbiters of taste as, “The arrogance of ignorance inflated by education,” because, as Joshua Reynolds said, “One cannot judge an Art one cannot practice.” Apelles said, “Every man to his own trade.” Rather than the expertise that comes from executive mastery, their opinions are based on personal predilection, they “know what they like,” or on what they think can make a profit. While driving Gammell from Boston to Williamstown, I asked him that if he could choose one work of art to live with, what artist would it be by? He made me guess, and I said Botticelli. He professed amazement that I guessed right.

The Guest Artist

At Williamstown Gammell always referred to me as “the guest artist.” There were two student studios, I had one and the three other summer students shared the other. Gammell taught by precept and the maxims of the Masters, rather than simply giving his opinion. His breadth of knowledge was exhaustive. He did not readily share his views on the Arts other than painting unless asked, but when pressed would say, “It’s not my field, but . . .” He confessed to liking “old fashioned poets like Browning,” and said that he was raised by his brother on Emerson. Gammell had a wry sense of humor. To encourage an alteration in one’s work that would lead to the next step, he would say, “Ah, Venus said, ‘One thing leads to another.’” When you made that adjustment, you were “making the world safe for democracy!” Another Woodrow Wilson paraphrase, invoked when there was a glaring error, was to remark on its maintaining a “splendid isolation” from other pictorial elements, rather than harmonizing with them. In the summer of 1973, while at Williamstown, I came down with hepatitis. The whole studio had to be vaccinated. Gammell wanted me to leave, but I had come to learn and told him so. As I convalesced I copied his synopsis of Richer’s anatomy and an Abbey Shakespeare illustration, “If Music be the Food of Love, Play On,” from Twelfth Night. As I got better, the Doctor said I could sit up and work half days. I arranged to copy the Bouguereau Venus drawing at the Sterling-Clark Museum and started the Bouguereau seated nude oil painting. Gammell wanted me to paint landscapes, but the Doctor advised against hours standing in the sun. Typically, Gammell had been admonishing me all summer to obey my doctors, but didn’t like this.

The Last Impassioned Critique Before my Departure from Williamstown in 1973

Mr. Gammell decided that I had the capacity to train for mural decoration. Gammell was determined to find out two things about each student: what genre they were suited for and what was their “character flaw.” This gave him a certain amount of control over each student. Mr. Gammell arranged for a boy down Hopper Road to pose for me for some figure studies for a building in Williamstown designed by the architect of “Sunset Acres” (as Gammell sometimes called his summer studios. I called it “Gammellot.”). Gammell liked to call my phantom mural commission the “Kirby/Childs Bank.” I worked on three decidedly mediocre drawings. Gammell critiqued these in the mornings. Mr. G. was 80 that summer. His line had some of the character of a seismograph. I would erase the edges of the zigs and zags to determine the approximate line in the middle. After a few days of this the paper was seriously abraded. Many more corrections would cause holes. I transferred the drawing to another sheet, thinking any further corrections could be made on this page and more easily applied to the original. Gammell came into my studio for the critique. After the usual jostling to get him up on the “equalizer” and seated on pillows from the day bed to make his view point the approximate height of mine, he took a long look, and adjusted one of three pairs of glasses and the plumb line. After the first two corrections, he said, “This is not the same paper as yesterday!” I began to explain, but he was already blowing up into one of his sudden “summer storms.” He began shouting things like, “You’re so precious,” and finally shouting that his line was in the tradition of Paxton’s “nervous,” or “alive line.” I, now irritated, replied, “Mr. Gammell, that line is not just nervous, it’s had a complete breakdown.” He was off those pillows and out the door with amazing alacrity. As he flung open the door, the other students who had been huddled behind it, listening, nearly fell into him. It was the final nail in the coffin that contained our Williamstown summers. I later got a note from Gammell saying his heart could not support our usual afternoon meeting. That had been my last critique.

Les Pompiers: An Artistic Fraternity

By Stephen Gjertson

Les Pompiers at the Minneapolis Airport, 1974. L-R: Stephen Gjertson, Thomas Mairs, James Childs.

In our third year as students, Jim, Thomas Mairs, and I formed a society that we named Les Pompiers, after the nineteenth century academic painters whom we admired, and with whose artistic ideals we sympathized. We discussed our artistic goals in great detail, and Jim wrote an artistic manifesto that enumerated our reasons for forming the group and explained the definition and etymology of our name. He described our relationship to past art and our position in relation to the contemporary art world. He stated our artistic goals and pictorial aims, and chose as our motto a quotation by Aeschylus, “When the height is won, then there is ease.” We selected an appropriate symbol (Greek helmet) and colors for a banner that I designed (green, purple, and saffron), and on which Jim, an excellent calligrapher, would letter Les Pompiers. This document clearly reflected our sincere and carefully articulated artistic ideals, with quotations by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. It was the first time that James Childs had elucidated his artistic ideals.

James Childs and Stephen Gjertson at the Opéra Garnier, Paris, 2005.

Our sentiments were academic in the best sense, and reflected a desire to create a modern art of the highest caliber, with respect for nature and the best masters of the past and present. Our guiding texts were the discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In our opinion, he most lucidly enumerated the principles and goals to which we aspired, the only exception being his dislike of Veronese, an artist we greatly admired. We also liked Leighton’s first three lectures to the Royal Academy. In the fall of 1974, we traveled to London and France to study the work of Leighton and the French nineteenth century academic artists, particularly Jules-Élie Delaunay, Gérôme, Ingres, and Flandrin. After returning, we presented a slide lecture to the other students at Atelier Lack. Many years later, Jim met me in both Paris, to see the restored Opéra Garnier (now the Palais Garnier), and Montpellier, to see the large exhibition of work by Alexandre Cabanel at the Musée Fabre.

A Final Meeting with Ives Gammell

By James Childs

James Childs, Star of the North.

In 1976 Gammell allowed me to visit him after our parting in Williamstown three years earlier. I wanted his advice and brought work for his critique. One piece I brought in was a 7-foot pencil composition, Star of the North. It was in an early stage of development. I told Gammell I was thinking of Polygnotus, who composed in horizontal layers, as in his famous Trojan War in the Painted Stoa on the Acropolis. Without skipping a beat he wittily and devastatingly replied, “You mean ‘pictor ignotus’ [pictorial know nothing].” Though I came in the front entrance to his studio off the main staircase, Gammell showed me to the utility stairs out the back. As he was closing the door, I remember his piercing, cold black eyes. I asked, “Will I do something?” He said, “You will.” [On May 29, 1976 Ives Gammell wrote in his journal, “A strenuous, fatiguing day. A long talk this morning with Jim Childs who brought drawings and paintings; strange amalgams of sensitivity to line, feeling for beauty, and intensely individual creative gift: all interesting with bad proportions, hideous overmodelling and grotesque solecisms of composition and taste. As was my duty, I pointed all these things out with equal necessary frankness. . . . We stayed on amiable ground but I pulled no punches. I also stated several times that he had more talent than any painter not my senior whom I had ever met – which he has.”  SG]

Credo Introduction

By Stephen Gjertson

James Childs, Magnolia in Flower.

During his lifetime, most members of the official artistic hierarchy considered the work of James Childs, and other traditional realists, to be passé and of little or no contemporary artistic value, mere illustration. Therefore, these artists were put on the defensive to prove the significance of their artistic convictions. Childs wrote the following cogent credo to summarize the principles guiding his artistic career and state his view of the prevailing Modernist orthodoxy.

Credo

By James Childs

James Childs, Carolyne Roehm, private collection.

Here is a pocket defense of the Artistic values that underpin my vocation. They have little to do with “Modern” art objectives beyond certain formal elements that are foundational to my work and which Modernists claim informs theirs. I object to the word “modern” being co-opted. I am a modern artist. The more appropriately named “Modernism” should be seen as a separate form of expression from Western Art made according to the principles of the Western Tradition. Lord Leighton maintains in his Presidential lectures to the Royal Academy that Art is motivated by the needs of aesthetic expression, any other ideas are by association and are not intrinsic or primary movers.

James Childs, Heroes, mural.

 

 

 

 

Plato says in Ion, “Then if anyone has not a certain art he will not be able to know what is said or done well in that art.” Reynolds said, “It is certain that the lowest style will be the most popular, as it falls within the compass of ignorance itself.” Rodin countered the much-vaunted “naiveté” of the Modernists with, “It is not thinking with the primitive ingenuity of childhood that is most difficult, but to think with tradition, with all the accumulated wealth of its thought.” The great past masters intended to speak in the timeless language of Art, not the temporal illusion of “originality.” Plutarch relates that the Greek painter, Zeuxis, being blamed for the slowness with which he worked, replied, “I confess that I take a long time to paint; for I paint works to last a long time.” Hence the proverb, pingo in aeternitatem, “I paint for eternity,” or ego pingo aeternitatem, “I paint eternity.”

James Childs, Night on the River.

The Art I believe in needs no exegesis. It is a real tragedy that young artists are cut off from contact with their great predecessors. Ingres says, “Let me hear no more of that absurd maxim, ‘We need the new, we must follow our century, everything changes, everything is changed.’ All that is sophistry. Does nature change, have the passions of the human heart changed from the time of Homer? One must follow one’s century – but if my century is wrong? Because my neighbors acts are evil are my own obliged to be so too? Because virtue, as well as beauty, is misunderstood by you am I obliged to misunderstand it also, am I obliged to imitate you?” Aristotle says, “Art is an ideal imitation of nature founded on its own principles of structure and has no conscious didactic intent.” Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime expiates on the proper relation of Art to nature and contains the kind of penetrating analysis you will never find in The New York Times.

James Childs, Aztec.

Joshua Reynolds wrote in the eighteenth century and his Discourses are clear and easily understood today – not to mention still true today – as uncomfortable as that makes figurative and non-figurative practitioners alike because of his ranking of genres. Every single one in the pantheon of Modernists is without portfolio – possessing none of the acquirements of the average graduate of the nineteenth century Paris École. It is boasted as axiomatic that the Modernist heroes mastered all traditional elements and evolved beyond them. I was assured of this continually during all my art school years (beginning with summer studies at the Walker Art Center about age 12, thru graduation from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1970). Buckminster Fuller gave the commencement address. His encomium, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” This was perhaps the best teaching I got there. Four years of exhortations to “express yourself” without providing instruction in the tools that enable self-expression, does not an education make. I had access to the most celebrated figures of contemporary Art. Guest artists and workshops with George Segal, Andy Warhol, and Christo were sans useful information. When I finally met Richard Lack, I had to begin again from less than zero – unlearning visual and technical habits self-invented in the absence of teaching in order to retrain my eye in the methods of seeing and recording compiled by centuries of acknowledged masters.

James Childs, River God.

The Art I believe in is based on achieved results, exhibiting contemporary mastery of all traditional aspects of craft and genres of expression, not the celebration of ever-smaller “original concepts.” What is original that I contribute is the highly trained, aesthetically evolved, ME – a point of view informed by intense study and comparison in Art and nature resulting in a personal form of self expression. Although it takes a connoisseur to fully appreciate the accomplishment, humanism and the worship of beauty provide access to every viewer. There is no ambiguity – only levels of appreciation predicate on aesthetic education and evolution of the viewer. Commitment to the discovery of the wellspring of beauty in all nature and allegiance to humanistic values are loadstars for me. As Emerson pointed out, “beauty is its own excuse for being.” Having both the approbation and endorsement of R. H. Ives Gammell, the “last of those who know,” encouraged me, especially after the art school experience where I was flunked, sent to summer school, and forced to see a therapist because of my allegiance to Classical Art. The therapist diagnosed me with being “an artist,” and told the school officials to leave me alone and that I posed no threat to the other “Junior Year Abroad” students bound for Holland. I wanted to join them. The exchange was with Atelier 63 housed in an old building of empty rooms on a back canal in Haarlem, Holland, occasionally visited by members of the Cobra group like Karel Appel, and the Dutch abstract expressionist, Ger Lataster. On their inaugural visit they looked at a huge canvas I was trying to paint, Apotheosis of the Kennedys (JFK in the pose of the Ludovisi Mars disposed in a huge peace symbol). They looked at me, looked at each other, and shrugging, said, “Michelangelo!” I saw one of them at the end of the term, but received a grade of B+ all year. I went to Rome twice to see Michelangelo. I was having Technicolor dreams about the Sistine Chapel. [Years later, Childs visited the Sistine Chapel during the cleaning and restoration of the ceiling. He was allowed to climb the scaffold and see them from Michelangelo’s point-of-view. The careful, meticulous cleaning returned the frescoes to their original color and value. He clearly saw how Michelangelo’s color harmonies had influenced the color of the artists who followed him, and transformed the primary colors of the Renaissance into the secondary colors of Mannerism. SG]. MCAD’s fears that I would contaminate the other students with classical aspirations were unfounded. I had almost nothing to do with my peers that term. Ironically, however, 11 of the 15 other students returned as figurative painters – nothing to do with me but, in my opinion, from being exposed to the figurative art of the great European collections.

Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The figurative Art I believe in is not the collection and copying of photographs, on which most “realists” base their effort. Outside of their mere rendering skills, these painters are no more Artists than their Modernist counterparts. The figurative Art I believe in is characterized by what the Classical Greeks called mimesis: imitation, invention, and imagination. This combination allowed Titian to make a suite of masterpieces for the studiolo of the Duke of Urbino and the Church of the Frari, and Lord Leighton to paint his greatest statement, Flaming June, in the last year of his life. I realize that if I am going to write a book for artists I need to be able to explain my ideas, as well as demonstrate how to implement them, or I may as well be asking for the leap of faith expected of those entering the temples of Modernism.

James Childs, Hooded Head.

[Throughout his career James Childs was a passionate teacher of drawing and painting in the French Beaux-Arts and Boston impressionist traditions. He was also an excellent calligrapher, and taught calligraphy classes in Minneapolis, as well teaching it to his atelier students. He taught with Thomas Mairs at the Childs – Mairs Studio in Saint Paul from 1975 to 1982. Childs taught at the National Academy of Design​ in New York from 1987-1996. In 1994 he established The Drawing Academy of the Atlantic, a private atelier that he operated until 2015. For over twenty years before his death, Childs was writing a book on drawing. Below are portions from the introduction. SG].

INTRODUCTION

By James Childs

The Drawing Academy of the Atlantic.

“Drawing is the probity of art.” Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Upon graduation from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design despite, and perhaps because of, having workshops with Andy Warhol, George Segal, and Christo, I told my parents that I could only have a career in illustration, because I had not been taught the fundamentals that would enable me to be the artist I could be. To earn income while in school I learned to do illustration, and was well established in it. From early school days I had been copying drawings by Michelangelo, Ingres, and Degas, as well as paintings by Manet. By a happy coincidence I learned that Richard Lack had opened a genuine atelier in Minneapolis that combined the dual traditions of the nineteenth century French academy with Boston impressionism. Through Lack, I met R. H. Ives Gammell. Gammell was a pupil of William McGregor Paxton, who studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts with Jean-Léon Gérôme. I realized I had found the link I always hoped to find.

James Childs, Tender is the Night.

I never liked Art History, at least the way it was presented in art school, but as I realized I now had the opportunity to join my Master brothers of Art in friendly contest, I became interested in these earlier artists on an intimate level. I’d been in love with Michelangelo and Greek Art from early childhood. One common thread of those Masters whose thoughts on their Art have come down to us, is that the greatest of these testified to the fundamental, all influencing position and power of drawing. Most left recorded advice on the importance of drawing. I realized that I was receiving priceless exhortations from genius and needed to devote all my attention to mastering drawing. I drew every day from the live model, including weekends, to learn to see and render nature and copied master drawings to study the use of drawing for self-expression and to study their individual “calligraphy.” I wanted my draftsmanship to have truth, expression, and style. To render realistically could never be enough. The great masters had an immediately recognizable style or hand which distinguished them from all others and was translated their aesthetic, in essence, when they painted.

James Childs, Trey in a Hat.

This book will focus on the importance of both learning to render nature truthfully and the use of drawing for self-expression. I want to make the distinction between these forms of “drawing.” Style is the result of the mastery of these two branches of drawing. Nature is our guide in rendering. The study of the great Masters is our guide to forming a personal style. Taste is the result of comparing the variety of the same genus in nature as they have been synthesized and selected by the masters. This book presents drawing methods employed in training the aspiring artist to render nature and the method ultimately arrived at by the École des Beaux-Arts as the simplest and most economical way to abstract and build to the highest finish while retaining the large relations of gesture, form, light and shadow, and unity of style. It will also present a portfolio with short commentary, of great expressive draftsmanship by the best Academic artists who, contrary to the opinion of their critics, attained levels of self expression in their drawing equal to the best draftsmen of any age, and created the last great renaissance in Art. Faithful study of these masters will unlock the secrets of personal expression when coupled with the impartial rendering of nature to which our student days must be devoted. Style and the gusto grande of the greatest masters of the past can come into the twenty-first century only from this synthesis. Of course, as Gammell stated, any age has only a handful of great artists. Many are called but few are chosen.

James Childs, Panagis Alexatos.

Most working in the graphic media today are not very interested in drawing and those who say they are mean “rendering.” They simply try to transcribe every detail of what is before them. We know who they are! The artist who catalogs every detail indiscriminately causes the viewer, as Reynolds said, to part from their work with “wonder in their mouth and indifference in their heart.” Such mindless rendering is innocent of the hallmarks of fine art: design, form, and the patterning of values that comes from understanding the division of light and shadow. Indiscriminate copying is not the purpose of artistic drawing. Interpretation and self-expression are. Rendering is what students do. Drawing is what artists do. I do not seriously consider pastiches of what I call “old masterisms” or the tricked-up photo. Real drawing is a personal response by a serious artist of Nature and the Masters in consultation with their deepest response to life. The purpose and glory of drawing is not facsimile rendering, but expression. History is the final tribunal and is sure to sort the grain from the chaff. No amount of hype can move that court.

 

Additional articles on James Childs

The New York Times, “For $150,000, a Neo-Classical You,” by John Leland.

The Guardian, “An American trained in early Victorian style has been appointed painter in residence at the studio of his hero, Lord Leighton,” by Maev Kennedy.

Art Renewal Center, James Childs.