Technique is divisive. There are painters who worship it, and those who fear it. In the latter camp sit, of course, legions of art students only too willing to believe that anything resembling technical study represents a mortal threat to their inborn genius. Yet there are also very technically accomplished painters who regard technique with suspicion. In the opposite camp we find the Academiciens, and their present-day successors, the Classical Realists.
I was educated largely by artists who were suspicious of technique. You might occasionally pick up something technical in one of their classes, but it never really amounted to a consistent educational program since none of them were doing the same things. You wound up with a smattering of this and that, and if you wanted a coherent result, you needed to put it together yourself. There is in fact something to be said for this approach, in that is built around an ideal that links art-making to individual choice and effort. There is also something to be said against this approach: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is really hard to do, and it tends to work against establishing communities of interest, a thing of great value when you’re learning the ropes. Consequently a great deal of the resulting output tends to be amateurish and ill-conceived.
I can’t of course speak authoritatively about learning under the atelier system, as I never experienced it. I do think it’s great that it has made a big comeback over the past 15 years or so, and I suspect its resurgence is in no small part due to the limitations of the more scattershot approach described above. The upside of course is that because what it teaches is a coherent discipline, students of even average ability can come away with a set of real skills. The downside, judging from much of the resulting work, is that in addition to technique this method also appears to impart a somewhat hokey aesthetic. Although there are exceptions, the world of the Classical Realists seems on the whole not to extend beyond the 19th century, not just in the manner of its depiction, but also in the matter depicted. That’s kind of a serious limitation, and it may justify some of the suspicion regarding technique: that, taken to the extreme, it can lead to the production of derivative or mannered works, as though it were the technique that were producing the paintings, not the painter.
Giorgio de Chirico tends to be a bit of a touchstone for me in this regard. As everybody knows, between 1909 and 1919 de Chirico painted some of the most amazing and influential paintings of the 20th century. And then he had some sort of breakdown, and decided to dedicate the rest of his career to the revival of the painter’s traditional craft. There is no question that his subsequent work is, technically, somewhat better than what preceded it. And there is also little question that little he produced during the last sixty years of his career (1919-1978) was in absolute terms as good as the work from the first ten. It seems to me that during his first period, his technical ability and his expression were aligned: it was right that his figures, landscapes and buildings looked like cardboard cutouts within the classical wasteland he was depicting. “Improving” the technique caused his images to pull in different ways, ultimately resulting in lesser work.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter which camp you’re in, pro or con, since both camps produce work of widely varying quality, from excellent to awful, although they do tend to succeed and fail in different ways. Ideally I suppose one would diligently acquire technique as a member of the first group, and then having done so, move quietly into the opposite camp, thus hopefully gaining the benefit of a coherent education and a community, while ultimately avoiding the slide into mannerism.