Serious Fun at Grand Central Atelier's 2016 Figure Drawing Competition

When I walked into the unassuming entrance of the Eleventh Street Arts gallery in Long Island City, Queens, I was expecting a tense scene: competitors sitting in dead silence around a table, wringing their hands and anxiously awaiting their fate; the judges downstairs furiously debating the merits and faults of stunningly realistic drawings—all of which look nearly identical to the untrained eye.

So imagine my surprise when, instead, I happened onto a party. Laughter echoed around the large common room, which was adorned with Christmas lights strung up in a charmingly haphazard manner. Students lounged on couches or played ping pong in the corner, chatting animatedly. Boxes of pizza, beer and wine were scattered across a large table at the entrance, and I was invited to grab a drink and a slice. One young woman had brought her cat with her, who was sitting placidly in her arms as she balanced him with a red solo cup and conversed with her classmates. For a competition with $10,000 on the line, it was a remarkably light-hearted scene.

<i>Pakin</i>, Kevin Muller Cisneros, Third Place Winner

But the hygge atmosphere of the common room belies the rigorousness of the art-making that takes place under the same roof. Grand Central Atelier, founded by prominent Realist artist Jacob Collins, is a collaborative workspace focused on the training and practice of Classical Realism and traditional figurative techniques. In addition to workshops and programs of study, the studio also sponsors lectures, artistic competitions, exhibitions and public discussions centered on educating the public about classically inspired art.

I was there to report on the atelier’s annual Figure Drawing Competition, in which 11 artists sharing the same studio and live model drew for 40 hours over 5 straight days. Competitors agreed that the process was “intense,” as there were no interruptions save for lunch hour. “That model was a trooper,” one non-competing student remarked to me, as we gazed at the luminous, lifelike drawings on display. “Can you imagine how her standing leg must’ve felt?”

Participants were well prepared to tackle such a sustained challenge in focus and concentration, as almost all of them are current or former students of the four-year core program—an immersive, full-time course of study that trains artists in drawing, painting and sculpting from life. “We’re all kind of used to this working schedule, though this time there’s something on the line. You couldn’t really spare twenty minutes,” said third-place winner Kevin Muller Cisneros, who is going into his fourth year of study at GCA. Cisneros, who realized that a traditional college education wasn’t for him, discovered GCA a year after dropping out. “I saw [GCA] online, and I was like, wow…I didn’t even know this kind of a place existed.” Cisneros had strived to do Realist drawings ever since he was a young child, and thus welcomed the opportunity to hone his craft.


At GCA, “the emphasis is on form, and drawing like you’re sculpting, rather than just matching the shapes that you see” said Mackenzie Swenson, a competitor and rising second-year in the core program who had studied at a more Impressionistic atelier in the Midwest before coming to New York. “GCA is definitely an amazing, unique place.”

Not all of the four-year core students plan on remaining devoted to Realism in their own work; however, each one I spoke with expressed the foundational significance of the intensive training they are receiving. “I’m here to get the technique down first,” one second-year student confided, “but then I’ll use that to explore other kinds of art. I definitely want to experiment a bit.”

In addition to Collins, Jordan Sokol, the academic director of The Florence Academy of Art-U.S. branch, and Katie Whipple, a GCA alumna, served as judges for this year’s competition. Judging took place in two parts: The first round was based on a 1-5 point system, and included correction proportioning, natural gesture, correct understanding of anatomy, the modeling of a consistent finish, and correct observation of the light effect. The handful of drawings exhibiting the greatest strength in those areas were then judged on overall merit. GCA Artist in Residence Patrick Byrnes took home $3,000 for second place, and the Grand Prize of $10,000 went to Savannah Tate Cuff, a rising third-year.

<i>Van Go!!</i>, Savannah Tate Cuff, First-Place Drawing

I congratulated Cuff and asked her what she was going to do with her winnings. “Put it toward school,” she replied immediately, smiling. The $10,000 prize covers almost the entire cost of a year of full-time study at GCA.

And yet, in this reporter’s humble opinion, the most resonant judgment of the evening came from Collins, right before he announced the three winners: “I hope that whoever feels that they got chafed can accept that we did our best,” he began, “….And for those of you who don’t think you deserve first place—well, you might as well pack it in and go home now, because you’re never going to make it as an artist.”

According to Program Director Justine Kalb, GCA will be expanding its repertoire with a new one-year program devoted to the art of architecture, launching in September of 2017. For more information on GCA’s mission and offerings, visit





Thank you for this wonderful, informative article!

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