Art class life drawing
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What is an Art Atelier?

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An atelier is both the workshop of an artist, and where a professional artist trains apprentices in the fine arts.

Ateliers were the most popular way of learning fine arts in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sculptors, painters, and later photographers all ran successful ateliers that trained students and produced incredible works of art.

In Western Europe and North America you can trace the atelier lineage of many renowned artists.

Modern ateliers still exist and they follow many of the same teaching principles with a focus on fine art.

A master artist runs the atelier and trains students in the technical skill of three-dimensional representation. By the end of their training a student will be able to produce realistic work with impressive accuracy.

The tradition of atelier is not limited to the fine arts. Haute couture fashion designers often have ateliers of their own too. In these sanctuaries they gradually teach a small number of apprentices, fit models, and design new creations.

Studying At An Atelier

In modern times a student’s training will take between 3 and 6 years to complete.

Historically this period could be longer if the student started when they were very young.

Painting Atelier Bazille
Artwork source

Fine art ateliers teach realism and techniques used in classical paintings. Artists like Paul De La Roche(1856) and Jean Leon Gerome(1904) were both trained in ateliers and went on to train others in ateliers of their own.

Their painting styles are distinctly realistic with a focus on the human form.

The study is always full-time and intensive. Days last an average of seven hours and mostly consist of creating. The day will be divided into the study of live models and still life objects. Depending on the level of the student, the master will give technique, anatomy, and history lessons as they see fit.

A first-year student will rarely touch a paintbrush. Instead they will practice figure drawing using only charcoal. The use of a single medium allows the student to focus on the form and representation of the subject without distraction.

By the second year, the skill of painting will slowly be introduced. Limited to a grayscale palette, students learn the mechanics of painting and how to paint the three-dimensional form without color.

Life drawing room in Atelier
Image source via AJITerceira

As students progress further they are taught to paint with color. At each stage of the process a student must satisfy the instructor to progress. If the master artist believes as student has not learned the technique, they will continue to practice until they succeed.

In days of old, students had to graduate or receive their master’s blessing before they were allowed to sign their work. Modern day restrictions are a bit more relaxed.

The Sight-Size Method

One of the signature teachings of an atelier is the sight-size method.

It is the technique that allows realist painters to correctly depict proportion without making mistakes as often. It is a teaching method that has been passed down from master to student for generations.

The size-site method is one of the first lessons a student will learn and it’s especially crucial at ateliers.

A canvas or sketch pad is placed in an upright position a distance away from the model. The artist needs to stand so they can see both the model and the canvas.

Then theu measure the proportions of the model and directly transfer them to the paper. The drawing should match the size of the object from that vantage point.

Using this method it’s possible to capture the exact proportions directly from life. An excellent teaching method for anyone studying realist.

The Drawing Lesson by Jan Steen
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Differences Between Modern Ateliers and College

The training received at a university or college is significantly different to an atelier.

The biggest difference is an atelier’s focus on classical training and drawing from life.

At a college or university you’ll be taught a large amount of theory and art history. Contemporary art like installation pieces and performance art is acceptable and often encouraged.

College students are not always required to draw from life, and a vast number of techniques and styles are covered in a short time.

At an atelier students are required to focus on creating realistic artwork that correctly represents life. They are only allowed to draw from life and are restricted in the mediums and techniques they can use.

If you choose to study at an atelier you will receive strict, classical training that focuses on technique and not the concept.

Women atelier class by Louis Lang
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Many atelier students went to college first and were surprised to find the artistic level of an atelier much higher than the standards at private schools.

In modern times experienced artists and college graduates looking to improve their realist art skills will go to an atelier whenever possible. They almost always pay for their own tuition because ateliers are far cheaper than any university.

This is one of the best ways for modern artists to really embrace the teachings of old masters.

If you’d like to get a classical training at an atelier you can go to several schools around the world.

Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy provides three years of training under Cecil himself. The Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis has an impressive 7 generations lineage.

If you look around you’ll find dozens of ateliers across Europe, Canada, the UK and the US(among other places too!)

You can search for an atelier school by country on the Art Renewal website.

If you aim to create realistic works of art then training at an atelier is the right choice.

Through classical training methods and intense study from life you can learn to create realistic works of art you never thought possible.


Author: Claire Heginbotham

Claire is a traveling creative living in Osaka, Japan. She spends her days writing things, learning things and eating ungodly amounts of sushi. Read about her adventures here or secretly stalk her on Instagram and Twitter.