Each year, the LARA Prize for a Young Artist is awarded for work that balances technical understanding with a subject that is authentic and relevant to the twenty-first century. As the recipient of this year’s LARA Prize, I had the privilege of attending a course of my choice at LARA in London. I’d heard about Luca Indraccolo’s reputation as a painter, and when LARA’s website advertised his five-day Portrait Painting Masterclass, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sign-up. I booked a week off work and began counting down the days until the course began. I learnt so much during the week and kept a record of my experience to give you a small insight into what took place.
Day 1 – Drawing
When I arrived at LARA, I was warmly greeted and shown to the spacious figure room. The room was set up to give each student the best possible vantage point, with strong lighting and a generous student-model ratio of four to one.
As more students arrived, Luca was quick to make us feel comfortable by reassuring us that we were embarking on a learning exercise, not a mission to create the perfect portrait. He began by setting out some key principles, using the drawings hanging on the walls as teaching aids. He explained that, because light always travels in a straight line, it behaves predictably when it hits a form. We studied the planes of the face and its anatomical structure and used this information to create our initial drawings.
This step by step of a figure drawing by tutor Luca Indraccolo hangs in the figure room of the LARA London studio
Day 2 – Creating a Colour Study
On the second day we moved onto colour studies. The day began with practical instructions for setting up our palettes in the most useful way. As the week progressed, it became clear that cultivating good habits and staying organised would save us time and help us to structure our thinking when we were working on our final portraits. Our tutor introduced us to the Munsell colour chart. Originally used for soil classification, Munsell’s chart is a way of visualising three aspects of colour; value, hue and chroma. This was vital theory to have in our minds as we set about mixing colours and applying them to the canvas.
Day 3 – Understanding Value
Wednesday was the hardest day. We’d come a long way since Monday but there was still plenty of work to be done. Overnight, the faster drying pigments had ‘sunk in’, causing them to appear lighter and the lighter pigments had become more transparent. We were introduced to the importance of re-establishing the darkest darks and lightest lights in our portraits, known as ‘keying’ a painting.
Luca used the camera on his phone to demonstrate how our pupils contract when we focus on bright areas, resulting in a loss of detail in the shadows, and dilate when we look into shadow making the light areas appear brighter. Throughout the week, the tutors were great at identifying our individual tendencies, telling us why they might exist and how we could counter them to create more naturalistic paintings.
Day 4 – Tackling Edges
On the fourth day I encountered another challenge: edges. Noticing when a colour changes temperature but not value can be tricky, but is an effective way to make an edge appear soft in a painting. I focused in on the nose in my portrait and tried to detect any subtle shifts in temperature which could help the form appear more rounded. I also realised that there is a significant amount of designing which contributes to making a successful painting. Trying to ‘copy’ nature is futile! Paintings are always a trick – an illusion suggesting space and depth on a two dimensional surface. With new knowledge about the structure of the face and the location of blood vessels, I was able to make better judgements than I could have made by simply relying on my eye.
Day 5 – Capturing a Likeness
On the final day, we worked on refining our portraits. We used mirrors and a plumb line to keep our eyes fresh and improve the accuracy of our drawings. We were repeatedly encouraged to look attentively at the models and extract as much information as possible from what we observed in front of us. In the afternoon, we were given tips for continuing our practice at home, including creating replicas of Old Master Drawings – in Luca’s words, ‘don’t just copy it, do a forgery!’
A Great Experience
As someone with no formal training as a painter, practising on my own is often frustrating and progress can be slow. It’s easy to see how the systematic methods taught at LARA can accelerate learning and produce great results. It was also clear from the five days I spent at LARA that the teaching stands apart. Luca was reluctant to spoon feed us, instead insisting that we try to seek resolutions for ourselves. This meant that independent thought was not precluded and the lessons we learnt stayed with us. More than that, the overall atmosphere was supportive and underpinned by the acknowledgement that each student was at a different point in their journeys. It was inspiring to see what students with two or three years experience at LARA could achieve.
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to sample atelier training, which is so rare in the UK, and I hope to return to LARA in the future because there is plenty more left to learn.