Interview with Brandon Soloff
By Mica d’Orléans of One Peek
I first heard of Brandon Soloff through my good friend Ed Bienstock. Instead of going for a Masters of Fine Arts degree, Ed decided to follow the path of the old Classical Art Masters by directly study with accomplished Contemporary Realism artist, Michael Aviano. After Michael retired, Ed joined the Art Students League to study under Dan Thompson and Jon deMartin. It was when Brandon substituted for one of Dan’s class, that they met.
Brandon himself is a classically trained painter who has studied extensively in Italy, France and the United States. His work has been commissioned and exhibited throughout the United States and Europe. In 2013 he founded the Chelsea Classical Studio (CCS), a small fine art school located in Chelsea, NY. CCS is run in the atelier tradition, with the primary focus on the human figure. To create a dynamic, non-competitive learning haven that fosters a solid growth for seasoned and new students alike, Brandon was able to gather his colleagues Jon, Dan, and Rick Piloco to instruct classes. As Brandon admitted in our interview, “It’s a healthy community where people improve.”
Chelsea Classical Portrait Rally
Last May I attended the Chelsea Classical Portrait Rally, a painting rally where Brandon, Dan, Jon, and Rick, did a portrait of a single model within three hours. Since all four instructors are known New York Realist painters, the small Chelsea studio was jam packed with roughly eighty curious art students and painters. I must admit it was my first time attending such an event. There was an exciting buzz in the air as all remained quiet while the four painters diligently worked. As the night progressed, the difference in style and execution became clearer. And to me, as I observed them paint in front of a crowd, it seemed that each of their personalities became transparent. At the end, you could see everyone was exhilarated from the experience. The rally was so successful, Brandon decided to hold one for his students, and is planning yet another student rally this coming Sunday, April 12, 2015. He also teaches at the Art Students League of New York, The National Academy School in NYC.
Curious about this conceptualized way of teaching art, to teach students to teach themselves, I decided to interview Brandon and a couple of his students at his atelier, which shares a space with CCS.
Mica D’Orleans: Is there a certain approach you have towards teaching art?
Brandon Soloff: For the students to learn how to better apply what they already know, and figure out what they need to work on and how to learn new things.
MDO: How so?
BS: I studied with a lot of people and am open to a few different approaches. I look at what each individual is doing, and how they can improve upon it. For example, I would ask, “Do you see what’s not working?” and go from there. Have them ask themselves lots of questions… Like, someone may know a lot, but only apply a fraction of what they know, so I show them how to better use what they already know, and mix it in with newer things [so they can] better understand the problem.
MDO: Like the Wizard of Oz…
BS: Well, people sometimes have trouble noticing problems in their own work, but once you explain it to them, they can suddenly see it. And, since they already have some tools, it lets them become aware of what to work on, hopefully in a more efficient, direct, and thoughtful manner.
MDO: How does it differ from schools that try to drill their signature into their students?
BS: I explain how they can do more than they think they can if they think about it a bit differently, and let them figure out what’s working or not, and what they can do to try and fix the problems.
MDO: So, you’re more like a catalyst.
BS: I wouldn’t say that. Maybe help them apply themselves… better than they normally do. To be self critical, constructively, not by beating themselves up for not following a rule or making a mistake.
MDO: Like think out of their box?
BS: More like asking, “What do I know? Is it possible to improve?” Rethink things through to get a different view.
MDO: That should make them more confident.
BS: Maybe it lets them build more confidence in themselves, which allows for growth and willing ness to change and try things. I think this approach is a more natural way for people to learn.
MDO: You somehow motivate them. My friend Ed had been studying for years, but when he began studying with you I saw him grow in leaps and bounds.
BS: Now people can get a Masters in art (getting a Masters in Fine Art is a post WW II concept). Before then you would have an apprenticeship with an artist, or study in academies with clear pedagogies. Instead of using a strict methodology based on obligation, [my approach] is a motivation based on need instead of being forced to learn. I think learning to draw is more like learning a foreign language. You gain the motivation by experience drawing and painting, and coaxing people to expect more out of themselves, push themselves and avoid being overly satisfied with results.
MDO: What is your next step?
BS: As we are getting more students, I’m looking into a slightly larger space to give us more options.
“Brandon teaches individually. He adjusts to your level. He easily finds things and is able to break down how to apply them into components. He’s very good at teaching students how to apply in a practical way, while others talk about the technicality of things. Beginners to advanced find it good. Common sense vs. academia.What do you think? It’s too big. So, when it’s said, you can see it. The fundamentals.”
“I didn’t ever take any art class. Before that, I drew by myself, but I never took any actual classes. I’m more critical now. I take more time to think about what I’m actually doing, whereas, before I had no idea of what I was doing.”
“I feel art is a way for other people to experience the same visual experiences that you have, like a portal into your own experiences. Besides the fact that he’s an awesome painter, Brandon helped me organize my thoughts when painting: How to fix things and not to cut out too much, but to see things more as a whole picture. I like his approach because there is no one set way of painting, so that makes him more open than other teachers in helping you find your own potential, and your own style.”
“I found that Brandon teaches his students with their natural ability instead of force feeding them, because, ultimately in the end, you only have yourself to rely on. It makes you accountable for your own results. He definitely guides you, but he wants you to find your own way through experiential learning, the fact of doing the same exercise over and over again. Doing a lot of painting and drawing helps you find solutions quicker. It makes you a better and faster painter. I’m actually constantly doing a lot more than any other place without any fear or pressure. Well, I can’t say without any pressure at all, but I’m painting a lot more than I ever have been. I think I’ve come to the realization that the only growth that occurs, you are ultimately responsible for. You have to set your goals and realize them. You have to tailor exercises to yourself so you can achieve your own goals. We have a very solid core group and everyone in supportive of the other.”