Neil Davidson is an artist and the founder of Raw Umber Studios – a non-profit art studio based in Stroud that focusses on representational drawing and painting workshops. Having only existed for a few months before Covid-19 lockdown was enforced in the UK, Raw Umber Studios took their teaching online to resounding success. In this interview I ask Neil about the studio, the importance of honing your skill, as well as future plans.
Lisa: Can you tell us about Raw Umber Studios – how long has it been running and what is its ethos?
Neil: I opened the studio space in Stroud in December 2019. Raw Umber is a non-profit – our aim is to support artists, train students and promote representational art rather than make money. I set it up because I’m a keen amateur painter myself and had been studying part-time at a studio in London. I’ve recently moved to the South West and wanted a way to continue my education.
Lisa: On your website you say that all the tutors are classically trained – how important do you think this is and is the ‘classically trained painter’ a dying or growing breed?
Neil: The art I admire is created by artists that have a tremendous amount of technical skill. Often – but not always – they’ve acquired that skill through classical training. It’s a practical rather than a dogmatic point: classical training gives a structured approach to teaching and learning that’s guaranteed to improve your skills, no matter what level you’re at. Being classically trained isn’t enough though – you need to take those skills and apply them in an interesting way. Luca Indraccolo, a Raw Umber tutor, is a great example.
Lisa: Throughout lockdown you have been broadcasting weekly portrait painting/drawing classes via your YouTube channel every Sunday afternoon. What has been the response to these and has it changed how you feel about delivering classes post lockdown (i.e. do you think you’ll keep providing this service?)
Neil: The response has been great! We’re getting several hundred people joining us every Sunday for these free sessions and they seem to be enjoying it. We draw from three poses, and Lizet Dingemans draws along, gives a demonstration and answers people’s questions. I set this up because the regular life drawing class I go to in Stroud can’t operate at the moment, but once physical life drawing classes start again my plan is to stop the Sunday online sessions. Having said that, I think life post-lockdown is going to be different, and it’s definitely changed my attitude to online training. If there’s something that Raw Umber can do online that adds value to what artists, models and students can provide by themselves then I’ll definitely consider that.
Lisa: On your own Instagram I have seen a few digital paintings that I would have very easily mistaken for real oil paintings. Can you tell me your thoughts about painting digitally, your favourite app to use, and any basic tips to get started?
Neil: This might be a longer answer than you want! I think any sort of representational painting requires a fundamental set of skills. Those skills are very easy to state but extremely hard to learn. The hardest skills are, in my opinion, relating to seeing: you need to be able see complicated scenes and understand them in terms of shapes, values, edges and so on. After that, you need to be able turn what you see into a two-dimensional image. To do that, you need a certain amount of manual dexterity, and to understand some general principles. Finally, you need a familiarity with the tools you are using. In other words, the materials and equipment you use – whether it’s pencil, watercolour, oil painting, or a computer – are a small fraction of what you need to learn about. So my top tip on digital painting is not to worry too much about the ‘digital’ aspect and to focus on the ‘painting’. Personally I use Photoshop but it’s complex and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re starting out. I would say use something like Procreate on an iPad, and use a pen or stylus (rather than just your fingers). And keep things simple so you can stick to the fundamental principles. Use a single brush, start with black and white, focus on drawing, values and edges, etc.
Lucas Garcia has a great video about this on our YouTube page (rawumberstudios.com/youtube)
Lisa: To anyone who is hesitant about painting from photos or a computer screen, what would you say?
Neil: The short answer is, don’t fret about it. Often it’s a necessity, especially in portrait painting where you don’t have the luxury of paying for a model for the many hours a portrait can take. Accomplished and famous painters have worked from photographs as long as they have existed. It is, however, important to paint from life as well.
The long answer is …
Any two-dimensional representation of the real world is some sort of compromise – it’s impossible to represent the variety of colour, value and luminosity of the real world in a two dimensional image. You’ll know this yourself if you’ve ever taken a photograph of a spectacular sunset on your phone and then been underwhelmed by the bland, bleached out image that’s the result.
That means you need to make choices and decisions when painting from life. If you’re working from a photo then the camera has already taken a whole bunch of those decisions for you, and they might not be the best decisions, or the decisions you would make yourself.
To paint effectively from photographs you need to understand how light behaves in the real world, and how the camera distorts that. For example, if you slavishly copy a photograph of a person, you might end up with dead shadows and bleached out lights. If you’ve painted a lot from life, you’ll understand that, and adjust your image so it looks more life-like than the photograph.
So the long answer is: you should learn to paint from life so you can learn the skills to interpret photos. SJ Fuerst has a cool video about this on our YouTube channel.
Lisa: Can you tell us about the physical studio that is Raw Umber Studios – what can people who sign up to a class expect?
Neil: It’s a dedicated space in the centre of Stroud, so close to shops and parking. The classes tend to have between 8 and 12 students, so the teaching is very personalised. I’ve tried to create an informal, friendly, and yet serious environment so it’s easy to learn. The classes last between 2 and 5 days. Other than the teaching, people have said they really like carving out several days of their time they can devote to just painting.
Lisa: There’s a set format for your weekly online classes, and those who work more slowly may struggle with the time constraints of the poses. What would be your suggestions for those people?
Neil: I thought about offering longer poses, but the 10, 20 and 30 minute poses are roughly what you might expect in a physical class. There’s no obligation to follow the time restrictions – you can rewatch the videos afterwards, or pause them, and you can download the reference photographs afterwards. People often follow the class and then go away and work on their drawings for much longer.
Lisa: The future is pretty uncertain with regards to how we will deal with coming out of lockdown, how do you manage the future of the studio with this in mind?
Neil: For now, I’m focussing on the online side of things, and I’ll re-open the physical space as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Lisa: Where can we go to learn more about Raw Umber Studios and all its upcoming classes?
Neil: Head to rawumberstudios.com/youtube
Header image: detail of ‘Nude’, oil painting by Luca Indraccolo