Drawing and painting the human figure is one of the most difficult skills to master, and it is a fundamental necessity in art school to learn to correctly represent the human figure in proportion, light, muscle tone, etc. It is an exercise that requires developed eye-hand coordination and an awareness of space, depth, and perception. It is not for everyone, but some artists are able to conquer this time-honored tradition and draw and paint the human figure with not only acute attention to proportion, color, and likeness of the subject, but also with emotion, creating a story about the time in which that portrait was created—a conversation between the model and the artist. One such artist is Philip Salamone.
I recently met with Phil at his studio, the Atwood Atelier, located inside Winnebago Street Studios in Madison. It is a space where Phil displays and creates his beautiful work, teaches classes, and regularly participates in Madison’s Gallery Night. The room is often full of people, coming together to paint, draw, create, and commiserate.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an art degree, Philip went on to attend the Grand Central Academy of Art in New York City. “Well, I graduated with an art degree, but I was really frustrated because I just wanted to learn how to draw and paint, and it didn’t seem like I really learned this during undergraduate,” Phil says pensively. “So I went to the Grand Central Academy where the focus was drawing and painting very realistically. The focus was on understanding light and anatomy and perspective—the craft of drawing and painting and the techniques that are pre-impressionistic, more classical. I feel like a lot of universities are more focused on the concept behind the work and the statement you’re trying to make. You can’t just paint a bowl of apples and talk about that at a critique and say, ‘I’m just trying to paint something skillfully and beautifully.’ They look at you like you’re 100 years old or something.
“And I guess that’s okay. I know my path is not for everyone, and not everyone wants to do an 80-hour drawing or even a five-hour drawing or painting, but I thought I could go to school and get a degree for doing that and found out it didn’t work that way. The schools offering the degrees weren’t really teaching craft, and if I wanted to acquire these skills I would need to find a master or an institution devoted to this type of understanding and sensibilities. I knew then, and I definitely know now, that it takes years to learn the language of this craft—to be proficient. The approach in college is that they want you to be creative and different, so they don’t teach a lot of rules because they can be confining and fetter the ‘artistic spirit.’ I think if you really want to be creative then you have to learn the fundamentals, so you can use those to really express yourself. I can express myself in English better than I can in Spanish. I don’t need to slow down and think about grammar and verb tenses because I have a command of the language.
“I’ve done enough bad drawings to know what not to do, so now I can focus on nuance and delicacy in the same way I can speak with sensitivity and subtlety and have a wider use of vocab,” laughs Phil. “In the same way, I can employ these more subtle aspects to the craft of drawing. I have the foundation. To me, this encourages self expression, and not having the skills to express yourself only stifles creativity. I think to do anything really well you need to have a solid command of your craft. It takes a true artist to pave their own path and find their voice. I enjoy a lot of modern and postmodern work, but my favorite work, the stuff I really love that arrests me, it involves that understanding of the medium. I love technical proficiency. It’s not why I’m drawn to it, but it’s what I go back to over and over again.”
Whether a figure, still life, or landscape, you can plainly see the effects of Phil’s love of craft and proficiency when viewing his paintings and drawings. His works are accurate likenesses of the models he records. There is a sense of time and place in his landscapes. His still lifes are classical, simple, and beautiful.
After New York, Phil decided to return to Madison and create a place where others like him could congregate, paint, learn, and talk about art. His goal was simple: to organize a space to inspire, create, and start discussions. “I was grateful to go to school in New York and have those experiences and meet those friends.” Phil smiles. “Art friends are special. It’s important to know that you kind of belong somewhere—that you have a tribe—because it takes time to build it and figure out how you’re going to make things work. This is not an easy thing to do and to have other people say ‘this can be really hard and discouraging’ and ‘I’ve been there’ can help you push through.
“I think it’s so important as an artist to really remember who you are and why you showed up in the first place and what type of work you want to make. I think you have to be strong-willed and have a strong vision. I believe art is important and that it can be taught and should be taught. I see my role here as an artist and as a teacher. I love drawing and painting and teaching and feel most at ease and most alive while doing so. It’s a need, you know? Cats wanna chase mice.”
I ask Phil to tell me about his teaching. I ask if he teaches what he wishes he had learned in his classes. “Well, yeah, I try to be the best teacher I can be,” Phil answers. “I have a pedagogy that there are no wrong answers, though there are certainly conventions and traditions. I am very focused on craft and technique, but also focus on what the student’s vision and interest is, especially with Continuing Studies. You have people interested in all kinds of things: animation, Manga, artists who are in other mediums but want to learn to draw their ideas before they make their own thing.
“Ideally, students come to you enthusiastic and ready to work, but that’s not always the case, so I try to do my best to try to instill enthusiasm and to make my passion for what I’m teaching contagious. It’s fun to see students break through self-imposed boundaries. People think, ‘Oh, he’s so talented.’ But anyone can do this if they want to. It’s not talent any more than if you can write or speak a language. I’ve struggled with a lot of aspects of painting for a long time—color, form, proportions—and eventually the pieces come together, more or less. Classical drawing and painting is very difficult, and takes years and years to master. This isn’t checkers, it’s chess.
“Thomas Hart Benton said that the only way to personally fail in art is to quit, and I like that. There are so many things that might be difficult to grasp, but every artist struggles with something. Learning the theory is easy, but it takes years of practice to embed that into your brain, your muscle memory, and your subconscious to the point where it is effortless and fluent. As a teacher, all I can do is give students the tools and show them the door, but they have to walk through it. A map is not the same as the path, and you have to take your own journey to really understand it and become a master. What I am pursuing is not a 21st century American ideal; the results are not immediate. I am pursuing something that takes a lifetime to achieve, and I’m here for the people that are like me.”
You can contact Phil and view his work at philipsalamone.com. He teaches classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at his studio, the Atwood Atelier, in Madison. More information regarding studio classes is available at atwoodatelier.com. Phil’s work is also available for purchase at his studio or through dailypaintworks.com.
Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.