Much of the 20th century was spent beating skill out of the art schools. In my college experience the illustration students had separate classes from the fine art students. We both took life drawing but the goals stated were completely different. The illustration students were trying to learn accuracy and refining observation while the fine art students were all about expressing an idea, drawing inspiration from the model in front of them. It was even referred to as 'conceptual figure drawing.'
I was talking just a month ago to one of my professors and he said that he was in a class of one of the other teachers. This was on the board:
Art should not exhibit:
I find that rather shocking and disheartening. The art I love has a lot of at least one of those things, and often a good dose of both!
There has been a resurgence of academic training with great schools like Grand Central Academy and The Florence Academy of Art. Artists can once again find the rigorous training and similar structure to that which produced so many great artists in the past. However, the ability to render accurately will not produce a Rubens or Waterhouse alone.
Walking through galleries I see many incredible paintings with a similar theme "figure with fabric". I admire them, and they have a valuable place in any artists work, but I hope that we soon see a bigger emphasis on expressing a bigger idea or narrative.
*side note: James Gurney accurately states that "narrative" is not a very good term because a narrative needs a sequence of events. He suggests that Detective Storytelling is a more descriptive term. I like it.
That thought is alive and well in the illustration world. It is what we are asked to do with most commissions. It is expected that illustrators have skill but also be able to express concepts. It is why I am proud to call myself an illustrator. If you read about the Prix de Rome contests held in the French Academy, you will see that the winner was expected to express both a clear and impactful idea but also paint with exceptional skill. It was a brutal process, putting students through a series of exercises intended to extract the very most out of each entrant.
I was talking about this last week with Peter Mohrbacher and Samuel Flegal on their webcast One Fantastic Week. Pete and Sam had some good thoughts. You can watch the video here: One Fantastic Week, episode 25. If you want to skip to the part where we talk about this subject, jump to the 48 minute mark.