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Andrea J. Smith: Expand From a Limited Palette and Focus

Andrea J. Smith: Expand From a Limited Palette and Focus

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In the new atelier she opened in Rome, Andrea J. Smith teaches students to use a limited palette of colors when painting exactly what they see from a measured distance away from the subject and the easel.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Andrea J. Smith made corrections on a
student’s sight-size drawing at the
Atelier Canova, in Rome.

Workshop magazine has reported on a number of teachers who emphasize an academic approach to drawing and painting. Students attending their workshops and classes are asked to make exact drawings of plaster casts of classical sculptures, spend hours drawing posed models, and use the sight-size method when drawing or painting. Although there are several common methods taught by instructors such as Jacob Collins, Ryan S. Brown, Michael Chelich, and others, there are also important distinctions between the materials and techniques they recommend.

Andrea J. Smith has presented her own version of this educational program at The Florence Academy of Art in Italy; The Harlem Studio of Art and the New York Academy of Art, in New York City; and the Atelier Canova, in Rome. In each of her workshops and regular class sessions, she offers a healthy balance between exacting skills and personal interpretation. Moreover, she has developed a specific way of teaching students to work with oil colors that goes well beyond what is typically offered in the United States and Europe.

To understand Smith’s independent view of classical art education, it is helpful to know about the peripatetic life she has pursued since leaving the small town of Mildura, Australia. After graduating from The University of Melbourne in 1982, she made a backpacking trip through Europe and held jobs as a barmaid, a nanny, and a furniture restorer before enrolling at The Florence Academy of Art and deciding to pursue a career as a painter. In 1999 she won the A.M.E. Bale Art Award, an Australian painting prize that enabled her to visit European museums in 2000, and in 2001 to travel to New York. This move proved to be a crucial shift in the direction of her development as she became part of a community of representational artists and was accepted for representation by Forum Gallery. In November of 2003, she founded The Harlem Studio of Art (with artist Judith Pond Kudlow). “The core curriculum was my version of the program at The Florence Academy of Art,” she explains, “but the atmosphere in the studio was more in line with an atelier rather than a traditional school in the sense that the students were working alongside professional practicing artists. I would often call the students into my studio to show them what I was working on, and that was beneficial to their learning as well as their morale. It broke down the dry formality of the preliminary exercises of Bargue copies and cast drawings, and it helped students understand why they needed to acquire skills as they saw how effective they could be in solving problems.”

After studying at The Florence Academy of Art, Smith became one of the principal drawing instructors at the academy. The drawing program in Florence involved a disciplined, sequential series of distinctive steps aimed at teaching students to draw exactly what they observed from a vantage point at a measured distance from the subject and the student’s easel. This sight-size method [see sidebar], as it is called, would first be applied to making copies of pages taken from the set of 197 loose-leaf lithographs produced by Jean-Léon Gérôme and Charles Bargue in the 19th century that was called the Cours de Dessin (drawing course). Later, students would be allowed to use a similar process to draw figures or still life objects.

2007, oil, 32 x 40. Private collection.

“Basically the students learned how to work sight-size by making copies of the Bargue plates,” Smith explains. “I call these copies ‘the flat,’ with the drawings first being done in graphite, then in charcoal. The next challenge was to apply this knowledge to draw a simple, three-dimensional object and then to make a series of cast drawings in charcoal. Finally, one drawing would be developed in charcoal and white chalk.

“In Rome, the drawing section of the course is completed and the students begin the painting course by returning to their black (charcoal) and white (chalk) drawing of the cast and making a grisaille painting,” Smith says in reference to the Atelier Canova. “The painting course continues with simple still life arrangements using a limited palette of colors, and then students move on to more challenging still life setups that consist of complex objects and saturated local colors. The method of instruction can appear to be quite rigid, but it is designed to teach very specific skills. It is extremely effective in equipping students with a wide range of resources that can be utilized in developing more complex and conceptual paintings.

“Unfortunately many people still do not understand the concept of sight-size,” Smith points out. “The most common misconception is that the paintings or drawings will turn out life-size. This is absolutely incorrect because artists can draw or paint subjects the size of a postage stamp or more than life-size. A lot depends on the direction the artists wish to pursue, and my course is just another way to help artists get where they want to go.

“The method equips the artist with a fast and economical way of drawing from nature,” Smith adds. “During the initial stages, attention is paid to the most basic proportions and the contour edge. Only the most simple of geometric shapes, the most important plane changes, and the shadow patterns are put down in the preliminary stages. And all are indicated with straight lines. This stage is very sculptural because it is similar to starting with a big chisel to carve the big shapes and finishing by developing surface texture and detail. The drawing is then refined by rounding out the block-in with the simplest range of value shapes. Students then continue the process by modeling the form from the darkest values to the lightest until the drawing becomes more solid and three-dimensional. The same principles and working method are applied whether one is working with graphite, charcoal, or oil.” Once Smith’s students have successfully copied Bargue plates, they move on to drawing plaster casts, and have the option to enroll in the Saturday model classes. Here the students work in graphite or charcoal on a single pose a model might hold for 12 to 24 hours.

Although some of Smith’s classes are regularly scheduled with up to six students per session, she also offers short-term workshops. These are conducted in the atelier (still life, figure, and portraiture), out in the parks and piazzas (Roman cityscapes), or farther afield. This past summer she taught landscape-painting workshops in the coastal region of Puglia, Italy, and in the southern part of the Tuscan region. This fall, she is offering an intensive workshop in still life painting in the mornings combined with a cityscapes-painting program in the evening, and she will teach an intensive workshop in portrait painting along with cityscapes in the second half of October.

2007, oil, 7 x 11. Private collection.

“Most of my students have full-time jobs, so I have to offer a variety of options to accommodate their schedules,” Smith explains. “Sometimes I’ll offer drawing classes at night in the winter months, other times a model class on weekends, and occasionally a few special painting workshops during holidays. The schedule depends on how far along the students are in the course. It can be very frustrating and counterproductive to introduce a new subject to a student who is not yet prepared.” Although there is a nice balance of nationalities and age groups at the Atelier Canova, most of the students are Italian, so Smith gives her critiques in either English or Italian.

Smith named her school the Atelier Canova because the building in which it is located was once a studio used by Antonio Canova (1757–1822), the Italian artist who was famous for his marble sculptures and nude figures. Fragments of ancient sculptures and a portrait bust of the artist decorate the exterior of the building, which is one block away from the Accademia Di Belle Arti. Her top-floor studio space provides wonderful north light and a small balcony where students can sit and enjoy their breaks.

Smith allows some students to progress more rapidly through the course of study than they would at other classically-oriented schools. “My experience living, working, and teaching in New York for seven years convinced me to be more flexible about the way I respond to each individual student’s skills and ambitions,” she explains. “I thank my fellow New York painters for that.”

Although Smith’s program may be less rigid than other curricula, she still expects students to devote a significant amount of time and attention to their studies. For example, in recent weekend still life workshops, that ran from May 2 through 17 and June 6 through 21, students spent a total of 36 hours drawing, working on color studies, and finally painting the finished pieces. Smith helped the students cut down on costs by providing the paints, and the students brought along their own still life objects, brushes, and other small supplies. “We began the course with an outline of the development of the still life genre and finished with a salute to some contemporary artists,” the artist describes. “All the students had completed at least three drawings from ‘the flat,’ so they were familiar with the sight-size method of drawing. This made their job much easier, as they could focus on the process of painting.”

Many of the best classically trained artists admit they are not as skilled at working with color as they are with drawing and value painting. Smith made up for that deficiency as a student by spending a great deal of time learning to evaluate various oil colors and how they might be combined to make a full range of harmonious colors. “I developed my own way of working with a limited palette of colors, and now that is one of the distinctive aspects of my workshops and classes,” Smith says. “I spend a lot of time helping people understand how to use a few tube colors in order to prepare a full range of secondary and tertiary colors that are appropriate for whatever subject they select. I encourage them to premix small amounts of the colors as needed before they begin each painting session. This is the process I follow when I paint, and it is the same one I use for still lifes, figures, landscape, and portraits.”

2007, oil, 14 x 14. Private collection.

Participants in Smith’s classes are introduced to color theory through a quick sketch to help them understand how to use a limited palette of colors. The instructor also works alongside them and stays one step ahead by giving a formal demonstration each morning. “Some of the most basic techniques are explained during these demonstrations, such as the differences between opaque and transparent colors,” Smith explains.

The specific limited palette Smith recommends includes lead white, yellow ochre, English red or Indian red, cobalt blue, alizarin crimson, and ivory black. “These colors can be intermixed to create warm and cool versions of the needed colors,” she explains. “For example, students can make a beautiful green by combining yellow ochre with either ivory black or cobalt blue. An extended palette of colors that might be used for a complicated still life or landscape painting would have the addition of cadmium yellow, Indian yellow, vermilion, cerulean, or viridian.” The brands of paint Smith uses include Michael Harding, Old Holland, and Robert Doak. The medium she recommends is produced by Robert Doak in Brooklyn and is a combination of turpentine, sun-thickened walnut oil, and balsam.

About the Artist

Andrea J. Smith graduated from The University of Melbourne, in Australia, and studied at The Florence Academy of Art, where she later taught drawing. She then taught at the New York Academy of Art, The Harlem Studio of Art that she co-founded with Judith Pond Kudlow, and at the Atelier Canova, in Rome, which she founded in 2008. Smith is represented by Forum Gallery, in New York City. For more information, visit her website at

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