Peeling Back the Layers of Portraiture
In early August, art historians and teaching professionals from around the nation gathered at Yale University’s West Campus for a professional development program that combined technology and the arts. The goal was to instruct colleagues in the creation and replication of eighteenth-century portraiture techniques using a simplified four-layer painting process.
“Learning through Replication” was this year’s installment of the Summer Teacher’s Institute in Technical Art History (STITAH), which has met annually at Yale or New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts since 2011. STITAH 2018 sought to provide its participants with a strong foundation in historical and contemporary art-making techniques as well as encouraging discussion about the technical aspects of the objects they studied.
At STITAH, Jessica David, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, taught a workshop called “Portrait in Oils,” in which she broke down an eighteenth-century portraiture method into its four constituent layers: sketch, shadows, dead color, and light and dark shadows.
Olivia Noble, a summer intern at the Center, created hundreds of sets of sample portraits for the STITAH students to use as examples in David’s workshop. The subject of these teaching portraits was Annie Cornwell, Postgraduate Research Associate of Paintings Conservation at the Center, whom Noble had painted from a photograph. Each example canvas included two portraits—one on each half of the page—and all depicted one or more of the four stages. Side by side, the example portraits had a “before and after” effect—as the portrait on the right always looked more refined than the one on the left. The students would follow Noble’s lead, painting portraits of the same subject in four successive layers, each a bit more defined than the last.
STITAH not only gathers teaching professionals from around the country but also features local conservators and curators, like David and event co-organizer Ian McClure (Director, IPCH Conservation Lab and Chief Conservator, Yale Art Museums), as well as others from the Center and Yale University Art Gallery. Additionally, guest lecturers from peer institutions—both national and international—come to serve as presenters of case studies and leaders of workshops. Previous years’ themes have included, “Functional and Kinetic Art” (2016), “Inherent Vice” (2015), and “Structures of Art” (2014), and although themes change every year, this program always maintains its core mission of demonstrating the pertinence of technical studies in art historical research.
To recruit students, STITAH issues a call to college and university art history departments across the country, as well as promoting it on the College Art Association’s (CAA) website. To participate in the program, applicants must be full-time art history faculty at North American colleges and universities. However, those colleagues with a slightly different areas of expertise, such as an art lecturer or a scientist, may also attend with an art historian from a single institution. These collaborations are highly encouraged, and STITAH hopes that teams will return to their institution and develop a class or curriculum, which they might co-teach based on the knowledge they acquired from their experiences in the workshop.
Due to generous support from the Kress Foundation, which “devotes its resources to advancing the history, conservation, and enjoyment of the vast heritage of European art, architecture, and archeology from antiquity to the early nineteenth century,” STITAH is free for participants to attend, and includes complimentary housing and a meal stipend. The only expense that participants are asked to cover themselves is transportation and, as needed, even that cost can be covered by the program.
Yale also provides an abundance of support to the program. Many staff from the Center, the Art Gallery, and the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) conduct lectures and tours of their institution’s collections or organize and lead the workshops, which are often based around different artworks in their collections.
Written by Denise Bonilla, 2018 New Haven Promise Scholar, Yale Center for British Art