Press Clippings

'Monkey Painting', oil on panel, 24 x 18 inches, 2005
Conor Walton's Monkey Painting came fourth in the BP Portrait Awards



Back to Life

Frances Childs, The London Telegraph, 3 September 2005

Portraits are enjoying a surge in popularity, but one studio has been teaching traditional methods of painting and drawing for years, finds Frances Childs

An unmade bed, a screwed-up piece of paper, a room with flickering lights - such is conceptual art, and for the past couple of decades it has been revered in many of our major art schools.

As galleries vied with each other to exhibit pickled animal carcasses and works created from elephant dung, it looked as if the skills of drawing and painting - and the public's interest in them - might be lost altogether.

"Ten years ago it was almost impossible to make a living as a portraitist," says the painter Nicholas Beer. "But things are changing now."

Beer trained in the early 1990s at the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, which has kept the traditionalist flame burning. Among the work selected for this year's BP Portrait Awards Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London was that of Hugo Wilson, 23, and Conor Walton, 35, both of whom trained at the Cecil Studios. Walton's Monkey Painting won fourth prize in this highly prestigious showcasing of young artistic talent.

"I went to the Cecil Studios because very few English art schools could teach me how to draw and paint," says Wilson. "Most of them are still teaching conceptual art."

The Studios were set up more than 20 years ago to train a small number of students in the classical techniques of drawing and oil painting. Overseen by Charles Cecil, an American artist, about 30 pupils work in San Raffaello Arcangelo, a converted church in the heart of Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance.

It is from the Renaissance tradition of a master overseeing a small number of pupils that Cecil draws his philosophy of art, continuing a tradition stretching back to Leonardo da Vinci, who learnt his craft alongside Sandro Botticelli in Verrocchio's Florentine studio.

Like the teachers of old, Cecil instructs his pupils in the rudimentaries before they are encouraged to experiment with their own styles and techniques. They study the methods of the Old Masters and are even taught to grind their own pigments as Renaissance apprentices would have done.

Florence is still the most important study centre for traditional painting
" We teach the sight-size method," says Cecil. "You put the canvas alongside the sitter or still life, then stand back and look. This way, you paint what you see - in the West now it is more common to draw from photographs or abstract images."

Wilson, who graduated from the Cecil Studios last year, recently completed portraits of the chef Marco Pierre White and handbag designer Lulu Guinness. He believes that by sitting with the subject the artist is able to capture a personality, something that is not possible working from photographs. "Being with someone for days on end, you get to know them and you can capture their essence in a painting," he says.

Studying under Cecil was a revelation, says Beer. "I learnt more in the first two hours of his drawing class than I had in the previous 15 years. Most British art schools then didn't even have a life model."

Apart from an emphasis on traditional techniques, what distinguishes the Cecil Studios is a belief in the master-pupil relationship, sometimes called the atelier method. "One master intensively teaches a few students and there is a coherent philosophy, instead of each teacher having his or her own way of working," says Cecil.

The method also enables students such as Beer, who show a particular aptitude, to become assistants, for which they are paid a small salary.

Fees at the Cecil Studios are €3,000 (approximately £2,150) a term, expensive for anyone considering a two- or three-year course. However, there is also a one-month course in July that costs €2,000 (£1,430). Prospective students for all courses are asked to complete an application form and send in photographs of previous work. There is no upper age limit, but Cecil will not accept pupils under 16.

Beer, who has his own studio in Salisbury, believes there has been a gradual shift away from conceptual art over the past five years in favour of a more traditional approach to painting. "Look at the successful exhibitions," he says, "Van Dyck, Caravaggio, El Greco - lots of people want to look at traditional art and, increasingly, they want to buy it as well."

As an introduction to the methods taught in Florence, Beer runs two-week courses several time a year. For £350 a week, students will be instructed in the atelier method of painting accurately from nature.

"In the same way as a music student would expect to learn the language of music, so we in the atelier tradition expect art students to learn how to draw and paint before anything else," he says.

— Frances Childs, The London Telegraph, 3 September 2005

• The BP Portrait Awards Exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery in London until September 25. Charles Cecil Studios in Florence: 0039 055 285 102; Nicholas Beer: 0779 313 9563; email

Original article: