An art class in action

Jeffery Camp is from the old school - he thinks painting is a language to be taught, not the innate gift of the few. And here's how... By David Cohen
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The Independent Culture
"The spiritual starvation that has killed painting in the past is close to us ... Sometimes the life of art seems to hang by a thread." These stark, apocalyptic words are from a disarmingly mild-mannered and generally good-humoured man, the painter Jeffery Camp. They are tucked away in a discussion about Thomas Eakins and Balthus in his new book, Paint, which he has written, he tells me, because his students haven't heard of half the artists he recommends.

Paint: A Manual of Pictorial Thought and Practical Advice, is the sequel to his celebrated Draw, a bestseller within its genre, which has been translated into seven languages. But what is its genre? The titles make them sound like "how to" books, but it would be a big mistake to consign them to the company of step-by-step guides to copying the impressionists or drawing your cat. What they have in common with the old-fashioned manual is that they advocate copying. Where they are different is how voraciously they get down to doing it.

Paint is stuffed with images, apparently 1,500 of them, of a range and sophistication that is giddying. Mostly they are Camp's copies of works that inspire him, both among the masters and among his own contemporaries. His copies are skilful, perceptive, but all the while in his own distinct "handwriting". He is not interested in drumming home any conventionalised skill. There are no tips for special effects or short-cuts, but rather a highly personal, sometimes almost poetic evocation of the whole business of being an artist. For this reason, Paint is as much a mine of information and insight to the art-lover as to the maker. Anyone who spends time with either of Camp's books will end up looking at art and the world with sharper vision.

At 73, Camp has spent the best part of his life in and out of art schools, from his days as a pupil at 14 at a provincial school where the instructress had won the King's medal for "stump" drawing - the epitome of academic technique - to his quarter century teaching at the Slade, witnessing years of turbulence and transformation in British art education. He spoke to me of the whole experience with tremendous fondness. "It's like when parents say they want their children to have a long childhood. Through teaching, you can be a student for a very long time. Ingres at 70 said he was still a student."

Camp reckons laconically that "drawing from life and copying is pretty much all you can do as far as learning is concerned." This obviously makes him a traditionalist in educational terms, and it is unsurprising that he is despondent about the current state of art schools - and thus the future of art. "The big mistake the art schools made was to believe it possible to learn to be a painter by doing art," he writes. His premise is straightforward if unfashionable: that painting is a language - "paint has been spread for thousands of generations. It is one of the great languages of poetry" - and that it is a language that must be learnt. Even though one can be coached for football, playing the violin or an exam, art is supposed to come naturally. The idea that art must be taught offends avant-garde orthodoxy. The hard graft of practicse and exercise seems to go unrewarded when the art world is making demands of young artists to produce something new. But according to Camp, the revolutions in art have all taken place, which is why we now have what he disdainfully labels "Dada revival".

Students today are "better at knowing than doing", he says, pointing in his typically down-to-earth way at the central problem of conceptual art. He illustrates the point with reference to Richard Wilson's new installation at the Serpentine: "When this man makes a hole, he knows what the hole is going to be." But then with characteristic generosity he pulls back from complete dismissal. "I suppose he does a bit of intuitive walking around to decide where to put it."

Reminiscing about his own training, he is pragmatic about its benefits and limitations. "I was lucky because they weren't good on theory. You could go on copying and doing reproductive painting without feeling embarrassed."

"I had marvellous old teachers because they actually taught. Even if you didn't want to carry it on, you learnt about measurement, bravura painting and so forth. Once you digested it, you could reject it if you wanted. Now there is little teaching, I don't know what they do." Of course, he does know what they do, because he is still intimately involved as a visitor to the schools. The emphasis is now entirely on verbal communication, in stark contrast to the way he learnt from William Gillies, the Scottish landscape painter who taught him at Edinburgh. "Gillies didn't do much verbal teaching. Once he took a brush and drew over a whole figure I was doing. No one would put up with that now." Clearly, as far as Camp is concerned, draw-draw is better than jaw-jaw.

Strange, then, that such a reticent talker should write books. Actually, however, the unique charm of Paint is the mood it creates of an art class in action. The short texts under each lesson often ramble off their allotted topic, which can anyway be quirky enough: "Creamy White Players", "Folds of Life" (on buttocks and growing things). Even a little homily on "Apple" ends with a warning about painting in blizzards. The texts almost free associate. They are like background noise to accompany the real work of looking and copying that fills the pages.

"The way to teach is to present a situation you really believe in. It can be attacked, but that's all right: it's learning through jousting." This almost sounds like playing the academic fall guy, and there is a nostalgia in Camp for the good-old bad-old days of an academicism to rebel against. Robert Hughes takes a similar position in his famous remark about the pioneer Modernists being put through the paces of a traditional education and so "earning the right to radical distortion within a continuous tradition". Camp now draws upon those radical distorters - Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Mondrian - as part of the tradition. Although, with a wry smile, Camp confides: "It's easier to copy Picasso than to copy Ingres."

Camp is a curious, endearing mix of a traditionalist and an open-minded spirit, an advocate of discipline with an almost mystical sense of the joy and wonder of painting. He actually looks the caricature of a painter, bearded and usually wearing a beret or a straw hat. While the idea of copying as the core of art education recalls fusty academies with students drawing from classical casts, Camp has his reader-student looking to such a fantastic range of art, as often at modern and contemporary art as at the old masters, that there is no sense of having to learn from precedent before going to nature or the model. He doesn't want anyone to start painting like the masters. On the contrary, he exhorts his students to "paint life as directly as the human voice is used in a Beatles song".

Camp belongs to a distinctive strand in the contemporary art scene. Allied to the broad grouping sometimes labelled "School of London", his imaginative, ethereal, joyous pictures are a foil to the lugubrious, expressive tenor of some of his colleagues. Works by such peers as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow, Craigie Aitchison, Leonard McComb, and Paula Rego are discussed, lavishly reproduced or reverentially transcribed. There is also generous space for his better students, who include Timothy Hyman (who edited the book), Henry Kondracki, Neil Jeffries, Jeffrey Dennis. Only Camp doesn't like to call them students. "I wouldn't say I taught them. They were just there - we overlapped."