Q&A With Barnes Atelier Director Travis Seymour

Our Director of studies, Travis Seymour recently did a Q&A session which we thought we’d share with you here to introduce you to the new blog section of our website and let you know a bit about the history of the Atelier. 

Before we talk about the Barnes Atelier, tell us a little about yourself and your co-director Nancy Fletcher’s artistic backgrounds and interests?

Nancy grew up in the rural countryside of Lincolnshire and I come from the east coast of America in North Carolina. What may seem like two very different locations, each presented us with a very similar outlook with regard to our impression of the beauty of nature. Nancy, with the big open skies on her father's farm, and me with the wide open sea at my doorstep, created the perfect backdrop for influencing two young creatives.

We both were drawing from a very young age, and I went on to study painting and art hisory at university, while Nancy got a degree in fine art photography. Soon we would both find ourselves in Florence, discovering our true passion for classical drawing and painting - a combination of natural & conceptual beauty combined with traditional draughtmaship skills.

We have been fortunate enough to travel, paint, teach, enjoy different cultures, and discover together so much beauty in the world, that it's safe to say that what continues to influence us as artists(and people) isn't anything in particular, but more that (seemingly)innate feeling of wonder and excitement we both felt as children looking up at starry skies.

Now, nearly twenty years since discovering the world of academic art and classical drawing and painting, we find ourselves with an atelier of our own, where we have the pleasure of sharing the knowledge we so eagerly acquired over the years to like-minded artists and students with big skies of their own.

The Barnes Atelier officially opened its doors in September 2016. What was your thinking behind opening a new full-time Atelier and what is it you are hoping to achieve as you go forward? 

When we bought our old ‘bakehouse’ in 2012 in the centre of the village of Barnes(where we also live), we knew instantly that it was going to not only be our personal studio, but would one day also be the location of our atelier. We had recently started our young family so timing wasn't quite right to go all-in with a school. I was teaching the odd workshop now and then, but we both missed the artistic camaraderie we had experienced so deeply from our study days, and it wasn't long before we started up the atelier programme. Finally in 2016 we opened the doors to our first group of full-time students(most of which are still studying) and haven’t looked back.

With atelier numbers growing steadily world-wide, what is it that you believe sets the Barnes Atelier apart from other places of study and what types of students are choosing to study with you?

You’re right, there are loads of options now with regard of where one might wish to study atelier-based fine art. When we began our art study search - pre-social media(gulp..) there were far less options available. Now there’s an atelier within driving distance to just about everyone — which is great! It shows that realism is alive and well and that’s a good thing for the artists producing it. At the end of the day, people are always going to want to visit the well-known places like Florence, Paris, London, New York, Barcelona, etc. — and we’re very lucky to be based in one of those locations. As far as other reasons students choose to study with us, all I can say is that we’re good at teaching what we do, not what we don’t do. We actively work ourselves and demonstrate to the best of our abilities those methods of working to which we teach. There are plenty of study options out there to suit each individual artist, and I always tell any prospective student, ‘...do your research, see what’s on offer and where, and what works best for you. If you think we’re it, come back and see us.’

We have different types of students studying with us coming from varying walks of life — yet all possessing one common interest in learning how to draw and paint realistically and professionally. In the three years since being open as a full-time school we’ve seen students show their work in selected exhibitions such as the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, The Royal West Academy, The Art Renewal Centre Annual Salon, and The Royal Oil Institute — so we’re extremely proud of their successes thus far!

Can you give us an example of a typical day of studies at the Barnes Atelier and how this works towards preparing your students for life as a working artist? 

Life as a working artist…’ — The best way to prepare for life as a working artist is to be a ‘working’ artist. We treat our day like a regular 9-5 job Monday to Friday. However, as any self-employed individual will tell you — that’s just the minimum! There are nights, weekends, extra study and work to be done etc., and being able to succeed at it all comes down to hard graft - are you going to work for it. So we try to impress upon our students the necessities and benefits of developing good work habits from day one.

Each day consists of two halves: working from the life model and working on curriculum projects. Projects are selected and arranged in order of increasing difficulty to push students to higher and higher levels of drawing and painting proficiency. The projects are ongoing and only each completed when they have been finished to the highest standard. This daily practice of discipline helps tremendously for life as a working artist — and lots of other things too!

In the model room each day, students are working from life — an activity which in and of itself presents a unique set of difficulties to master. One must develop the ability to adapt to nature, while attempting to capture its likeness objectively. This ability to adapt requires a confidence that comes from a combination of trial and error, conceptual research, experience and dogged determinism. The ongoing curriculum projects help students gain the technical prowess which enables them to grow in confidence when working from life — and ultimately working in life.

We use a combination of the sight-size method, and comparative measurements to give students a broad range of measuring techniques. The sight-size method is a tried and trusted method of getting one’s eyes better trained to see inconsistencies between one’s work and nature. However, I have found that it doesn’t fully teach students how to draw or create from imagination, and thus limits their ability to adapt to nature when necessary. Additionally, sight-size requires a certain type of setup in order to provide benefit — namely that you have enough space to back up from the easel in order to see the entire subject and the artwork in full — something challenging at times if sketching in public or in close museum/gallery spaces etc.

That being said, we still apply its practice - and when used in combination with comparative measurements, it provides students a well-balanced approach to working - and as professionals they can be confident to change techniques when and if they deem necessary. For example, I will almost always approach the painting of a still life using sight-size, as I can get the drawing done really quickly that way. But I feel more free to sketch with comparative measurements when working from life as it leaves the door open to change. In the end I can use either and I feel at ease with the approach to any subject - and this is what we hope students will feel as well.

What do you have in store for the Atelier in the coming (2019) year? 

Even though this is only our third year of being in operation as a full-time atelier, we have seen it flourish and grow much quicker than we anticipated. The full-time students have accomplished some beautiful drawings and paintings and we want to shout about it. So this year we’ll be having our first Open Studio & ‘End of Year’ show in July. (Check out the student gallery if you haven’t seen some of them.)

We also participate in the annual ‘Barnes Fair’ which attracts over 10,000 visitors to our lovely village in the one day. It’s a great day out and we usually have our stall in full promotion, while doing some form of drawing or painting demonstrations.

We’ve also got a strong workshop series planned for this year — these are courses held in addition to the full-time Masters Academy Programme, which are shorter — more intensive courses for practicing artists and/or individuals with limited time for study. These include portrait drawing and painting, still-life panting, and our summer drawing intensive. In addition to these courses, we’ve invited some external artists to come and host workshops this year for the first time. This year will see us have artists Dale Zinkowski and Gregory Mortenson — both practicing artists and tutors from New York. (view workshops.)

With regard to our Summer Drawing Intensive, we’ll also be running our annual scholarship competition — an opportunity which offers a chance for one artist to win full-tuition costs for all four weeks of the summer. This year’s competition is open to all practicing artists. (more info…)

And finally, after much delay, we’ve begun and will continue to roll out in more detail, our Distance Learning Mentorship — a way of working with individuals on a one-to-one basis via email and video discussions, who otherwise are unable to make it to the studio here in London.

Presumably both you and Nancy (Fletcher) are also producing your own paintings, can you tell us a bit about what you are both currently working on? 

We both work primarily as portrait and still-life artists and have several works on the go at any one time of the year. I have two life-size portrait paintings on the easel at the moment(one privately commissioned, the other for consignment) and Nancy is working on an intricate commissioned portrait of the bishop Dr. Steven Croft.

Finally, what can we expect from the new blog section of the website? 

The new blog was set up to address some of the recurring technical questions we get asked from students and external emails. I hope to be able to provide some brief instructional tidbits and other ‘tips & tricks’ in regard to some of those drawing and painting queries. Additionally there will be some general posts on art and practice - whether they be technical, exhibition-based, or simple prose — all in an effort to try and share our joy of what we do for a living — art.

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