Art Skill Scarcity: What Happened?

Learning how to draw realistically was a necessary skill taught in much formal education up until the dawn of the 20th century.


Being able to accurately draw ideas for a bridge was as necessary of a skill for engineers as calculating its structural integrity. It is rare indeed today to find a civil engineer in a drawing classroom, but historically it was necessary to teach engineers a visual language to accurately express their ideas .

At the turn of the last century, drawing training for artists, engineers, and the generally educated population drastically changed.

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At the turn of the last century, a Modernist theory took root that training an artist would ruin an artist’s potential creativity.

As a result of this, many of the early Modernists who had classical training themselves, such as Mondrian and Picasso, chose to purposefully not train the next generation of artists in nuanced and complex visual literacy skills.

Multiply the application of this extreme theory over several generations and the result is that hundreds of years of inherited artistic knowledge and discoveries, tirelessly handed down from artist to artist for centuries, became almost entirely lost by the 1980s. 

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As general education moved away from drawing training as a core school subject, many misconceptions have taken root in popular imagination about how drawing and art happen.

Today I often hear that one inherently “has” or “doesn’t have” artistic talent, or that so-and-so can’t even draw a stick figure, or that an otherwise literate person must not be capable of becoming an artist because he or she doesn’t have the indefinable and elusive “it”.

This is nonsense.

It is also an extreme disservice to anyone who wishes to learn how to draw and paint. Anyone can have “it” when they have access to teachers with visual literacy skills. And luckily today, these skills are accessible in places called “ateliers” and can be learned from anyone that has what is known in our contemporary world as “atelier training.”


Learning to draw, paint, or sculpt realistically is about training your eye to see better. And the ability to see with nuance and sensitivity is a skill that can help all of humankind, not just artists.

Imagine a scientist who observes a barely perceptible color change in the petri dish that his eye was trained sensitively enough to see. Or the surgeon who can make a smaller incision in exactly the right place on the first try because she understands the subtle surface forms of the human figure.


Visual literacy is extremely important and is experiencing a renaissance due to the desire of people wishing to understand how they can glean more knowledge from a single glance. Now, more and more people are connecting with ateliers to pursue realistic drawing and painting skills, and even more importantly, improve how they literally see the world.

Want to start atelier training? Join our Ateliyay! Painting Bootcamp today!


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  1. Love it!!! I have seen students of mine make huge leaps in ability through practice and instruction of both constructive drawing and observational drawing both practices I learned from studying what ateliers are doing. These students are practically in disbelief when a drawing they made shows a huge leap in understanding after quite a few difficult experiences and despite their thinking they are not talented. Is there more historical documentation about then”break” in methodology occurring between 1890’s and 1920’s?

  2. This is great. I’m also interested in knowing more about historical documentation on the break in methodology as I think it would possibly make an interesting thesis for my history program.

    1. R.H. Ives Gammell wrote extensively on this topic, and all of his books are worth reading, especially the Twilight of Painting.

      I found this book an astonishing resource, as it uses extensive declassified documents from the CIA to show how there was a specific push for non-objective art as a part of the governments Cold War strategy: https://www.amazon.com/Cultural-Cold-War-World-Letters/dp/1565846648

      Overall, this topic is not very well studied, and some of the best original sources you can get would be to interview the old school teachers that run ateliers such as Daniel Graves at the Florence Academy of Art and Paul Ingbretson near Boston.

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