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In The Studio: Dan Thompson

by Allison Malafronte

Dan Thompson talking to a collector about his drawings during his 2017 solo exhibition atThe Southern Atelier: A Center of Fine Art (Sarasota, Florida).

Dan Thompson is a draftsman and painter par excellence, and one of the most articulate and intelligent instructors in the realist-art community. It’s no surprise then that Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia—founded in 2002 by the late Nelson Shanks and Leona Shanks—recently appointed him the Dean of Faculty and Students and Artistic Director.

Although he had large shoes to fill, Thompson nonetheless stepped into his new position with confidence and patience, gradually parlaying the more than twenty years of teaching experience he has accumulated at a range of ateliers, academies, and schools into this role. Like any leader taking the reigns from formidable founders, Thompson has approached his faculty, students, and the school’s curriculum with both respect for what has been established and an eagerness to progress that vision forward into the future.

<i>Heff</i>, 2018, graphite on paper, 17x 23 in.

Above all, Thompson knows the role of Artistic Director is one of selflessness and stewardship. He is deeply committed to each student’s progress and the lineages of learning that have preceded him. Whether it’s the Hawthorne/Hensche’s approach to color that Nelson experienced firsthand or the principles of Italian classicism, French academia, and Impressionism that Nelson and Leona wove into Incamminati’s foundation, Thompson and faculty are continuing the dialogue from art history while solidifying Incamminati’scurriculum in contemporary times. In this Q+A Thompson shares more about that continuum, his career as a teacher, and what is currently on the easel and in his own studio.

<i>Ozymandias</i>, 2014, oil on linen, 18 x 28 in.AM: You have taught at and/or led numerous schools and ateliers in your career, including the Arts Students League of New York, The New York Academy, Grand Central Academy, Janus Collaborative, and Parsons the New School for Design. When you teach at a particular academy or atelier, are you allowing all of the influences that you have experienced as an artist, student, and teacher throughout your career to coalesce in the teaching, or do you have to codify a specific approach that the school must approve of/agree on?

DT: Every school that I have collaborated with has possessed what I call a culture of learning. Studio Incamminati’s culture of learning is founded upon a single word, essentially “improvement.” Our students paint the human figure and strive for a profound understanding. Within this pursuit, Studio Incamminati promotes and advocates for specific skill sets that make the school’s culture unique. My guidance is therefore twofold: I must appreciate the intrinsic character of Studio Incamminati while accenting the program with lessons that have proven themselves enduring and revelatory, regardless of what culture they exist within.    

AM: Since you have a lot of experience training and teaching at different types of schools, what would you say is the key from the instructor’s perspective to teaching a methodology rather than a specific style? And from a student’s perspective, what is your advice to making the most of what the teacher is presenting while still retaining a certain level of openness to other approaches or influences?

DT: Certainly one of the keys would be to find lineage on a particular technique. The evolution of a discipline can be very provocative. Take color, for instance, something that Studio Incamminati celebrates. The notion of light having likeness is altogether sensible, yet strange to contemplate teaching. How would you go about instilling that in your lessons so that your students don’t simply default to an arbitrary ensemble of color choices? When I seek answers by peering into history at visionaries such as Hawthorne, I can see points of emphasis and experimentation. I appreciate the development. I know where I belong in the caretaking of an idea.

From the student’s perspective, my advice is to develop a mature and sophisticated temperament. When you are with a great teacher, she or he will recognize the vulnerability of student practice. Aspire to be selfless and focused—and remember that, above all, you are learning to see.

<i>SSELFLESS</i>, 2017, oil on linen, 30 x 20 in.

AM: I’m sure over the last year you have given much thought to the overarching philosophy and tenets of your teaching, as well as to specific decisions on practical matters of technique. In some ways have you been preparing for this position of Dean and Artistic Director all along with the many teaching posts you have taken on throughout the last several decades?

DT: I really appreciate the thoughtful and intelligent questions you’ve posed. Without being fully aware, I have indeed been preparing for this. Having been a workshop instructor for more than twenty years, my sensibilities for the manner and variety of instruction globally have been enriched. Variously, as an Adjunct Professor, I learned what distinguishes M.F.A. and B.F.A. instruction. I learned how to “free form” my criticisms while teaching elsewhere. Building, maintaining, and refining the multi-year atelier programming proved beneficial in very tactile ways.  

My journey has been concentrated on legitimizing skill. Virtuosity has not been replaced, nor has it ceased to inspire. Humanity will always value those who turn a practice into an art through superb aptitude. Virtuosos speak with a sublime cadence that is inaccessible to most.

<i>The Runner</i>, 2017, red chalk on paper, 15x20 in.AM: What changes have you made to the curriculum or guiding philosophy of Studio Incamminati since you have been there? What aspects of Nelson’s and Leona’s founding principles are you determined to keep the same?

DT: Presently, I am focused on strengthening compositional and design studies as well as anatomical coursework. Knowing Leona and studying with Nelson has been extraordinary. Both of them were stewards of the Advanced Fine Arts program at Studio Incamminati before me. Our curriculum emanated from their superb example, and I am committed to its bedrock principles, as well as to curricular fortifications that were later implemented by our incredible faculty.

I want to underscore another, somewhat elusive standout characteristic that I admire about Nelson: concerning succession planning, by design, Nelson Shanks had no real successor. There was only one of him and always will be. Studio Incamminati preserves his legacy by making the disciplines that he embodied accessible to our students. It’s like chess: our goal as a school is not to teach students to play chess exactly as Nelson did. We want to strengthen the students’ insights, vision, and strategic thinking so that they may craft their own manner with these skill sets.

AM: What was your personal experience with Nelson Shanks as a teacher, and what is the standout characteristic that you remember about his teaching or ability to steer a school that you admire?

DT: Nelson was the ambassador of urgent achievement. He did not advocate for the emulation of his painting practice, except in cultivating a fearless and adventurous attitude. Studio Incamminati is a four-year conservatory, originally conceived as an echo of his technical principles. Each of our students will connect with the principles in his or her own manner and use them to discover a personal methodology within. I deeply admire that Nelson saw the effect that principles, rather than methods, would have on our students.

<i>Alloy</i>, 2017, oil on linen, 24 x 30 in.

AM: Have you relocated studios to Philadelphia? How many days a week are you able to devote to your own artistic practice and painting?

DT: I live in New York City, where my kids attend an amazing elementary school. In terms of my own routine, I believe in applied practice—meaning that the time is less important than the quality of engagement at the easel.

<i>August 28</i>, 2015, oil on linen, 20 x 24 in.

AM: What painting is currently on the easel and what’s the next self-assignment that you’d like to challenge yourself with?

DT: I have a large vanitas piece on one easel, and on another I am preparing to launch into a formal portrait commission for an Ivy League school. My sitter has a compelling narrative: He’s a surgeon and the designer and developer of a ground-breaking medical implant device. He’s also a visionary for formulating medical networks and building care infrastructure. I’m intrigued by his biography, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to commemorate his body of work.

<i>Mr. Li, Demonstration, Shenyang, China</i>, 2016, oil on linen, 16 x 24 in.  Thompson conducted this demonstration during a master class in Shenyang, China in 2016.AM: I know a few years back you had participated in a realist art symposium in China. There seems to be a lot of interest in American realist art in China, both in training and in the art market. What is your opinion on the reasons for that interest?

DT: I had the honor of participating in a master class in Shenyang, China, where I made many new friends. Our conversations centered on the capacity to lift oneself professionally and socially through excellence. I didn’t get a sense that I was being welcomed so much for being an American artist, as much as being capable. In turn, I tried to emphasize the same in my Chinese colleagues. I asserted that it is not important where one is from or what ethnicity or gender they are born into—anyone can be an exemplar by mastering the components of realism, and exercising them through the power of his or her intellect to forge a visual cadence. This is a very motivating phenomenon and a hopeful thing for humanity.

AM: What is your gallery representation these days? Are you still selling your work through galleries, or do you have other associations and independent ways of getting your artwork seen?

DT: Years ago, I was turned off by the product-oriented nature of gallery-showing. I have continued to sell—often and without commission—privately. I have been able to support a genuine practice where every piece matters to me as an endeavor that I have my whole heart invested in. Teaching has supported this vigorous practice. I believe that the sincere collectors recognize authenticity in the work, as much as they would recognize insincerity or complacency. As repelled as I’ve felt toward gallery subsistence, I’ve had the opposite reaction to getting to know collectors.

AM: When you look back on all your varied training and experiences thus far, what would say has been one of the most influential and seminal experiences in making you the artist you are today?

<i>Angel Grave at San Miniato,</i> 2015, oil on linen, 13 x 21 in.

DT: Having kids. I believe that being a parent has changed me fundamentally. My wife and I talk about this a lot, and I try to remember what it felt like to be in the world only for myself. Having made two beautiful people together, the knobs on my empathy settings have gone up to eleven. Because my capacity to feel for others has been sharpened, I am far more interested in the narratives and biographies of others, and in the contexts of creativity. Beauty itself, which used to consist of unrelenting symmetry, has become a celebration of the defining characteristics and personal imprints within the asymmetrical. Life is so much more fulfilling from an artistic standpoint with my wife and my children; I feel like I can see in between things or notice the blind spots in life that I might have otherwise been oblivious to.  

Dan Thompson teaching at Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia, where he has recently been appointed Dean and Artistic Director