Art School and Being Mentored 

In the Spring of 1981, in pursuit of my dream of studying painting, I visited all of the art schools in the Philadelphia area. Finding none of them appealing, I despaired until I got to the last one on my list—the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A tour guide showed me around. In the soaring space that houses the Academy’s collection of sculpture casts, heavenly light from frosted glass windows illuminated such classics as Michelangelo’s David and The Winged Victory of Samothrace. The noisy sounds of the city fell silent, and I knew I was in the right place for me to study painting. I enrolled as a student the following Fall.

In those years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, all first year students took two semesters of Cast Drawing. On day one of my Cast Drawing class, Oliver Grimley (1920-2013) instructed: “Sit close enough to touch the cast. Train your eye; learn about design. Use a light, consistent line. There are no lines in Nature. The line you use in drawing is an invention. Think of the volume of the cast, not the edge. Create the grand illusion of volume and space. Tones are coming from the light source. Use the point of the charcoal pencil. Look at the whole area rather than the point of the pencil. Start from the white of the paper, then go from the breath of God to the darks. Work as if the cast drawing is coming out of the fog. Make beautiful lines, beautiful tones. Design, compose, plan it on the paper.” (My notes from Oliver Grimley’s Cast Drawing Class, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1981.)

This approach to drawing sounded fantastically inspiring and poetic to me. I felt absolutely energetically charged and ready to adhere to Mr. Grimley’s instructions to the letter. “This is IT,” I thought to myself, “I am now going to draw like an artist.” The only problem: I was an utter failure at following this approach to drawing. All around me other students were drawing precise lines that captured the complex ins and outs of the sculptures, and then they drew perfect parallel lines from the direction of the light source that delicately depicted the lights and shadows. Meanwhile, I struggled to get past the first step of simply drawing an accurate outline of the sculpture with the point of a pencil. I was deflated. My inner voice chastised me: “Since I can’t perform this simple assignment I’m a failure before I’ve even begun, and I don’t belong in this art school.” I slunk out of the building when the class ended.

Although I struggled in that first semester Cast Drawing class, I persisted and made it to the second semester…and a new Cast Drawing instructor. I had already met Arthur DeCosta (1921-2004) because he taught one of my first semester painting classes. I already knew that I loved his teaching methods and I recognized his brilliance as a teacher. He eventually became my mentor at the Academy. I am thankful to have landed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when Mr. DeCosta was at the height of his teaching career there. He is now a legend.

In Mr. DeCosta’s drawing class we did not use the point of a pencil to make drawings. Instead, he presented a more “painterly” approach to drawing. In one technique, for example, the first step was rubbing charcoal onto the entire sheet of drawing paper to create a half tone, and then erasing the light areas and reinforcing the dark areas. I now know that this is a common technique, but it was new to me then. I discovered that this method of tonal drawing was, and still is, my natural way to draw, and I was relieved to have found out that I could draw after all—hallelujah!

[The following was originally published in the exhibition catalogue Forget Not Beauty: The Legacy of Arthur DeCosta. Wayne, Pennsylvania: Wayne Art Center, 2022.]

It wasn’t until I taught painting at a small rural art center that I fully realized the brilliance of Mr. DeCosta’s teaching methods. I taught the first two lessons from his Color Study classes: The Primary Prismatic Palette and the Earth Palette. It was truly remarkable how just those two lessons gave my students—no matter their age or experience—a firm beginning in painting, a vocabulary of painting terms, and an introduction to a myriad of technical concepts and skills.

At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, we had all been admitted on the basis of application portfolios, but the students who signed up for the classes I taught ranged from people who had never held a paintbrush to accomplished artists. Some had majored in art but were frustrated because they had never learned how to paint. Teaching brought up memories of my own experiences when I arrived at the Academy in 1981. I myself had no experience painting in oils, so it was with some relief that on our very first day in Mr. DeCosta’s class, he simply demonstrated how to mix a range of values using just one color plus white, and how to make an underpainting using those mixtures. For me, that demonstration was as much an opportunity to observe how to use a palette knife, which can be awkward for a novice, as it was to observe how to lay out paint on a palette and commence painting.

It is worth noting that Mr. DeCosta’s class for first year students was not called “Beginning Painting” or “Introduction to Painting”; instead it was called “Color Study.” The focus was on various ways to use color in actually making paintings. This was different from most art schools and college art departments, where Color Study usually means Color Theory, such as the work of Johannes Itten, Faber Birren, and Josef Albers. Knowledge of Color Theory is certainly valuable, but not particularly helpful to a beginner who is simply trying to figure out how to set up a palette and start painting.

Our first lesson was the Primary Prismatic Palette, loosely based on post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s colors and methods. Mr. DeCosta started with a monochromatic tonal underpainting, focusing on seeing and painting values from dark to light, without the added confusion of different colors. He explained that he used blue for the underpainting because it is the most receding of the primary colors and quickly acts as a neutral. In this first lesson, Mr. DeCosta instructed us to make X-shaped brushstrokes, while at the same time forbidding the use of any lines. He called this the Pointillist Touch. Brushing on the paint with X-shaped strokes (or any gestural dab that is not a line) steers even the most inexperienced painter towards being painterly, rather than the usual tendency which is to draw lines and then fill them in, as in a coloring book, or to brush the paint in strokes parallel to the visual edges of objects, which is counterproductive in illusionistic painting.

For anyone (like me) whose image-making often started with lines, not being able to begin by drawing lines of any kind was disorienting. I felt lost when I nervously brushed on the first X’s, but as I progressed, concentrating on simply matching the values I observed in the model with the blues on my palette, there was a magical moment when form and space emerged and solidified before my eyes. My students at the art center also experienced this revelatory moment in their paintings, and some of the paintings done by those students were the very first that they had ever made in their lives. In the next class, after the blue underpainting had dried, Mr. DeCosta completed the painting with a full palette mixed from primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. He arranged his mixtures—a gradation of red, reddish orange, yellowish orange, yellow, yellowish green, bluish green, blue, bluish violet, reddish violet—neatly across the top of his palette. Then he mixed each of those colors with white to make tints in two values. As he worked on the painting, nuances were achieved by mixing various amounts of complementaries to neutralize colors, and by juxtapositioning various colors. Mr. DeCosta, always wearing a lab coat, merrily whistled an Impressionist melody composed by Debussy while he demonstrated the Impressionist palette.

Beginning every class with a demonstration made Mr. DeCosta a controversial figure at the Academy. His teaching methods were distrusted and even dismissed by some of the other instructors. While many students appreciated his classes and some even emulated him, at the same time a fair number of students were not enthusiastic about Mr. DeCosta’s curriculum or about sitting through his demonstrations and practicing his exercises. However, many art students flounder needlessly when instructors won’t talk about techniques or do painting demonstrations, believing those things will squash creativity. Some don’t want to share their own methods, perhaps because they don’t want to reveal their secrets. At the other end of the spectrum, there are instructors who only demonstrate exactly how they themselves create their own artwork saying, “This is how I draw and paint—do this.” An extreme version of that method of teaching is found in modern day Ateliers where students must follow rigidly prescribed techniques with the expectation that they will continue to draw and paint exactly the same way once their Atelier studies are complete. That extreme might be what some instructors at the Academy imagined was going on in DeCosta’s classes.

What exactly was going on in Mr. DeCosta’s classes? Mr. DeCosta efficiently dispensed the knowledge we needed to make the most of the medium of oil paint. His objective was to teach painting based on art history, including how he himself painted, but not with the goal of having students end up painting just like him when they went on to do their own work. In his classes we practiced painting transparently, translucently, opaquely, and with impasto. We tried out limited palettes and full palettes. We used white grounds, mid-toned grounds, and dark grounds. By the end of the term, we had experienced a full range of possibilities.

In the passage below, from poet Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, I substitute in brackets the word “painting” for the word “writing” and “painters” for “poets.”

…in the world of [painting] it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins. Too bad. I think if imitation were encouraged much would be learned well that is now learned partially and haphazardly. Before we can be [painters], we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing. 

[Oliver, Mary, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994), 14.]

Mr. DeCosta would say, “All layered techniques of painting were taught by rote. Stash this concept of layered color away intellectually.” Sometimes he would conclude a very long demonstration by acknowledging that “The mind can only absorb as much as the seat can endure.” 

On the first day of Mr. DeCosta's Cast Drawing class, he presented a slide lecture that was a history of drawing over thousands of years. It dawned on me during that lecture that my task was to discover my own, individual approach to seeing and image-making. In his painting classes, Mr. DeCosta demonstrated techniques of various artists from different periods and schools, methodically building our knowledge and skills in a logically ordered sequence so that we would eventually be able to assemble our own toolkit for making individualized choices in our own studio practice. Like countless other students, the skills I learned in Arthur DeCosta’s classes still help me figure things out every day in my studio.

After graduating from the Academy, I moved away from the Philadelphia area, but I kept in touch with Mr. DeCosta. At one point I was really struggling, so I sent him slides and we had a telephone conversation about my landscape paintings. As always, what he told me was exactly what I needed to know at exactly the right time.

Looking at my work, he observed that an atmospheric quality was missing from my paintings, and he had remembered that quality as a strong point in my earlier paintings. (I, however, had been oblivious of this in my own work.) He pointed out that the landscape is naturally an atmospheric subject, but that I was not painting it atmospherically. That statement zeroed in on exactly what had been troubling me, but that I myself had been unable to articulate.

One of the luckiest strokes in my life was to have been a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when Arthur DeCosta was an instructor there. I truly cannot imagine how I ever would have learned how to paint without his classes and his critiques. Mr. DeCosta's criticism was always on target, occasionally curmudgeonly, but always kind. He had an uncanny ability to make suggestions about materials, such as a particular drawing paper, that were perfectly right for me. I appreciated that he recognized and nurtured my natural tendencies as an artist.