In September of 2021 I headed down to Santa Fe, NM to learn from a master artist and do almost nothing else. This made it easier (not easy) to slow down and focus. It had become my job to give my full attention to the lessons, in all of their nuance and detail, and to apply what I was learning, on the spot. All in a place that I knew and loved, Santa Fe. I was SO EXCITED.
I was introduced to The Ryder Studio by Abid, my fiancé who took time away from his career in medicine, in the mid-late aughts, to nurture a latent passion within himself. He studied there for 3 years. He did return to medicine, but now with the new ability to make his dreams in paint come true, on evenings and weekends. When we got together in 2016, he inspired me with what he had learned, all starting from a more basic understanding of art than I had at the time.
Seeing Abid’s work made it feel possible for me to pursue the dreams that I’d, all but completely, choked down, for almost 20 years. I’d heard it before, but it was at the ateliers, like The Ryder Studio, that the education that I didn’t get in art school could be found.
So, there I was at 48 years old, finally getting my chance to learn about the nuance of light and shadow on the figure and the specificities of graphite and oil paint. Note: I’ve actually been engaged in taking classes for the past couple of years now, but mostly online or as a one off… so, Fall 2021 in Santa Fe was really special.
Recall the first day at a new school, when you were a kid. You probably wore your favorite outfit, and walked in with the most confidence you could muster. There was a part of me that was open, curious, hungry for knowledge—so innocent—but there was this HUGE part of me that wanted to show them what I already knew and could do. I really don’t know to whom I had more to prove, the teacher, my fellow students or myself.
The first day, class started with a demo from Anthony “Tony” Ryder on poster studies. These are little paintings that are done fairly quickly, focusing on value (light/dark), hue (namable color) and chroma (the intensity of the color). There are no features or details in these 4” X 6”(ish) sized paintings, just the overall capturing of the aforementioned qualities of the light, as it applies to a rectangle of space, containing a live figure.
It’s always surprising how dark those mid-tones are, how nuanced and chromatic the lights are, and how luminous the shadows are, “but first” I say to myself “it has to look like the model”. This was the way I’d always done it, the way that “worked” for me, and what I brought with me to class.
The first few little paintings I did that week had my classmates ooohing and aaahing. I was proud. I thought that I was killing it. But I also knew I was doing it wrong.
I was quietly afraid that Tony would come by and see what I was up to, with my paintings of eye sockets and lips and bust me, but he didn’t. On Tuesday and Wednesday, two of the school’s other teachers came by to give me encouraging feedback and pointers, but they didn’t say a thing about my inability to follow the approach assigned.
I was still regularly getting comments from students that propped me up. Is that what I’d come here for?!
On the fourth day of class, more than halfway through a 6 hour poster study, Celeste Ryder was the instructor. She came by and said, “That’s a very nice ala prima paining. Why don’t you do a poster study?”. First of all, Ala Prima is French for a painting from life that is “all in one go”, and Celeste’s comment indicated that I was indeed busted. And there it was, the challenge I needed. She asked if I’d like for her to help me. Of course, I said “yes”, although trepidatiously. She stood behind me while I continued to paint and quietly talked over my shoulder, into my ear. She was asking the questions that I might want to ask myself as I attempt a poster. She asked “do you think that her shirt is darker or lighter than the background?”. And “Do you think that her hair is warmer or cooler than her shirt?”. And “Do you think that her…” you get the idea. It felt so basic. So elementary. Even boring.
Having thought of myself as lacking patience and living in a culture of immediate Everything, I’ve always tended toward gathering whatever little tid-bit I needed to get past a hurdle and then immediately returning to my task to apply it. The trouble with this approach is that if the foundation of what I’m doing doesn’t ever come into consideration, the cracks and instability of it won’t ever be addressed.
I came to the The Ryder Studio with a desire to figure out how to start a painting better. I was finding that my paintings were always too light in the mid-tones, too inky in the shadows and too simple in the highlights, until I reworked them, again and again. Never mind that the drawing was always in question, and might even be addressed in the 30th hour.
This was my chance to learn to get it right. Why was I resisting it so hard? Why did it frustrate me so, to be told to return to the foundation, the basics, when that is clearly what I needed, and was actually there to do?
My friggin’ huge-ass EGO.
It kinda hurt, to be honest. The process of cultivating the patience to learn meant letting go of what I had fought so long and hard to teach myself—something I was really proud of. These tendencies, the same ones that had currently been gaining me respect, with at least some of my more vocal classmates, had to go.
“Will it be any good? How far back is this going to set me?” I thought automatically, and almost unconsciously. I could feel the resistance. I followed along with Celeste’s queues, but once she had left, I found myself leaning on my old habits. I did one final “poster” this way, my old way, on Friday, and, it was—oh so—unsatisfying.
On Saturday, I came to the school to paint, even though it was our day off. I chipped in for the model, and painted beside Tony as he worked on a long pose drawing. I told him about my struggle. He knew it well. Gently, as is his style, he encouraged me with all of the reasons to do it right. I gave it a go. I really tried. I continually brought my awareness away from the likeness of features and toward the likeness of light. I thought that the two posters I did that day were closer, and when I showed Tony he agreed. In an exaggeratedly proud voice I said “See!! it doesn’t even look like her!!!” and Tony and I laughed together, as he said “that’s good!”. But we both knew, I still had a ways to go.
Monday morning, began a week of our final 10 poster studies, two a day. This gave us half as much time as we had for a single poster the week before. I feared that I’d already wasted too much time struggling with my ego and that I wouldn’t “get it” by the time this segment of my learning was over. “I’ve got to get this!” I said to my friend and classmate, getting choked up and asking for a hug.
Tony was the teacher that day and when he visited my easel, he just—strait up—didn’t let me paint a face. “Imagine that it’s more of an egg shape” he said. It wasn’t like he hadn’t demonstrated it that way! He encouraged me to literally draw a bullseye shape where the face would go, like the shape you see on a topographical map, and paint each band a unique shade, until it reads like the light on the model.
Sounds simple, but it actually made it harder for me. It’s not as if you can just start in the shadow and add white; that’s not how the spectrum of light works. The colors vacillate in temperature, as they move toward the light, sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler. To paint the hue, value and chroma of the global light, meant to see and understand it, not to simply paint what I could see. Because what I could see were the shadows and highlights caused by the features interrupting that global light.
I struggled like crazy. There were more tears. But by the end of the second week, I got it… sorta. At least I dropped a handful enough of the old tools, so that I could pick some new ones up.
The story doesn’t end here, because for the next 5 weeks, we’d be drawing. And let me tell you, I put up a similar fight in the process. And again, Celeste came along and made me stop what I was doing, to do something new. Challenging me with how long into the process of a figure block in, I could keep my lines strait. This discipline gave me a new power to get it closer to “right” before placing the intricate curves of a contour.
I had my doubts, but once I did what she told me, and stuck with it it seemed to cure my complaint about “the weird way my drawings always look”. I was elated. Another epiphany inspired by Celeste.
My six weeks at the Ryder Studio were rigorous and wonderful. And my time there was only a fraction of what my classmates would go on to do, in their 8 month long program, which I was just getting a taste of.
Before I close, I must say that the environment at the school is special, beyond compare. The culture was created, as it usually is, from the top down, as Tony himself is the most humble master draftsman and painter that may have ever existed. He continually recalls his teacher, Ted Seth Jacobs with the highest degree of respect and admiration, teaching directly from what he learned from him, at the Art Students League of New York and beyond in the 60s, 70s and 80s. He does this, even though the level that he’s achieved in his own work, prevails.
The lessons may be handed down, but Tony’s style of teaching is completely his own. He has a vastly deep mind in the realms of art, science and philosophy, enriching all of his lessons. And his deadpan comedic metaphors keep things light… or heavy, as he gives a creative nod to existential absurdity. Everyone who knows him, loves him. The other dedicated teachers at the school, follow his lead, by teaching with gentleness, kindness and support. Except maybe Celeste, who adds to that list an edge. Yes, the very edge that I needed, to break me! <3
Oh, and the community! As someone with self proclaimed performance anxiety, to go through this process in the presence of my peers, was bonding and deeply meaningful. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in the midst of that many people, all committed to such a culture of support.
As I close, the tears flow, this time for the tremendous gratitude I feel for the knowledge, patience, love and encouragement that I experienced at The Ryder Studio. I owe it to them that I now have a more solid foundation upon which to do, what I feel like I was put on this earth to do, make art.
“Your poster studies are killer” said one of my new friends and fellow students as I said goodbye, “especially your first few.” And I laughed, because I now know what really matters.
Here’s some more finished work done in the last 3 weeks at Ryder Studio, in order of creation.