Learning from the masters of figurative art

Video by Katherine De Jesus

With each brush stroke, the model’s earnest expression is revealed.

Student painter Lucia Morales studies every detail of her face – sorrowful blue eyes staring into the unknown, lips pressed together defying pleasure, deep lines etched between her brows hinting at a mind perplexed by the world.

Morales and her fellow art students try to capture it all, applying techniques honed by the masters of figurative art for hundreds of years.

Renowned artist David Chang goes from easel to easel guiding the artists-in-training. Classically trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, Chang is an award-winning Frost Professor of Art – and the “master” artist of FIU’s Academy of Portrait & Figurative Art.

The academy, the first at a public university in the country, is the manifestation of Chang’s vision of an atelier at FIU – a studio where an artist and apprentices work together to produce fine art. It carries forward the classical painting tradition to future generations.

“This is a structured experience that you don’t typically see in art departments at public universities,” Chang says. Ateliers require faculty that are credentialed in classical art, which is increasingly rare.

Chang studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, founded by famed 17th century painter Charles Le Brun. There, he mastered the skills and techniques associated with creating representational art– making two-dimensional images appear real to the viewer.

At FIU since 1986, Chang has painted all of the university’s presidents for their official portraits, benefactor Dr. Herbert Wertheim, and the founding deans of the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM). He says the key to creating a portrait that captures the essence of its subject is understanding that “a person is more than his or her likeness.”

Chang does extensive research on his subjects. He visited Betty Perry, FIU’s first First Lady and widow of founding President Charles Perry, to learn more about the couple for his portrait. He interviewed former colleagues of Dr. John Rock, HWCOM’s founding dean and senior vice president for health affairs, to help capture the intangible.

He trains his students to think visually and ultimately approach their work like the masters. He says nothing is ever perfect, no work is ever finished in a practice studio. The academy’s undergraduate curriculum is made up of a variety of courses, but at the core of the students’ education is the studio. The students, who go through a competitive process to be admitted, spend class time and any other possible free time practicing their craft using live figure models and still life.

Frances Oñate says studio time has made all the difference.

“I was terrible at proportions, but this helped me improve a lot,” Oñate says. The senior has also refined her appreciation of fine art. She is majoring in art with a minor in business. Her goal is to one day run her own gallery.

“I look at a painting very differently now. I notice details I didn’t see before.”

FIU Magazine visited the studio earlier this semester. In the video above, Chang and his apprentices share their passion for the atelier and the career opportunities that it will afford.