Barnes Collection Online: #PortraitChallenge via @StudioTeaBreak

We released the collection online last week and overnight we saw a few things happen with newly minted open access. One was a virtual drawing challenge hosted by Sarah McIntyre’s The Virtual Studio (@StudioTeaBreak on Twitter). Sarah selected one of our images and issued a challenge for others to draw the same image — and throughout the day, we got to see so many awesome collective responses to Modigliani’s Boy in Sailor Suit. This kind of creativity and collective dialog is exactly what we hoped would happen when we published the collection, so I thought I’d interview Sarah here.

Shelley: Tell us a little about yourself and the #portraitchallenge you’ve created…

Sarah: The Virtual Studio (@StudioTeaBreak on Twitter) came about because so many artists work from home and can feel very isolated. I work in a studio with other people now, but I’ve been there, working home alone for my first five years as a professional illustrator. (It almost did my head in!) A lot of people dream about getting a studio with other people, but not everyone can find a good space or afford it. So I wanted to recreate some aspects of a real illustrator studio, with people being able to show off their experimental work and play around with drawing challenges, without the pressure of creating portfolio work. We get people of very different ages and backgrounds; it’s great seeing the range of ideas and techniques, and people chat online with each other about what they’ve done.

For Thursday’s #PortraitChallenge, I pick an interesting portrait that I think has strong composition or patterns that might inspire people. I love it when I can link it back to the museum where it’s based, to encourage people to draw from what these museums have to offer. And I always try to link to a bit of information about the artist, so people can find out more about them. As a children’s book illustrator, I see a lot of children’s sketchbooks, where they’re not exposed to many different styles and they draw the same manga faces over and over and get bored. By taking part in #PortraitChallenge, they can learn that there are countless ways to draw people, and by copying lots of different portraits, they can gain those skills for their drawing toolbox. I find that I only really remember details of a painting when I draw it. There’s something about looking hard, and following the lines and shapes with my hand that make it stick in my brain and I think, ‘Ah, I see what the artist has done here!’.

Shelley: On Twitter we were having a bit of conversation about your earlier experiences at the Barnes when you were studying near Philly. Tell us a bit about that?

Sarah: It’s wonderful you’re so supportive! When I was at Bryn Mawr, taking art classes at Haverford, the Barnes Foundation seemed like this buried treasure box that we weren’t really supposed to find. We weren’t allowed to draw from the collection, but there wasn’t any way of looking up the pictures online to remember them by. The rules felt very extreme; we were told we couldn’t wear jackets, and I recall one of my classmates wearing a zipped parka with no shirt underneath, and he had to go around the collection topless.

Shelley: That’s crazy, but I believe it! The rules at the Barnes are some of the most rigid in museums. We moved the facility from Merion to Philadelphia and increased our visitation from 60,000 visitors a year to 260,000 visitors a year without changing the physical footprint of the galleries. This leaves us with a see-saw conundrum. More people can visit, which is great, but we end up hosting exponentially many more people in these very tiny rooms. We recognize, though, that the rules designed to protect the art — gallery capacities, no photos, no sketching, no coats, no bags, stay behind the line, etc — are equally hard on a visitor’s experience of the place and we’re working to do something about that.

Right now we’re doing a ton of pilot projects to see if we can loosen some of these restrictions. Honestly, it’s a tough nut to crack and this leads us to other things we know we can do like the open access to images online while we continue to figure out things onsite, which is a bit of a slower, methodical testing process.

Take a look at the Moment on Twitter to see all of the creative responses to this work in the Barnes collection! Thanks to everyone who participated!

Sarah: It’s great to see images go online, so it feels less like a sealed fortress against people who genuinely want to learn from the artwork.

Shelley: For the #PortraitChallenge you selected Boy in Sailor Suit by Amedeo Modigliani. Why did you pick that one?

Sarah: I love redrawing Modigliani’s portraits, he has such a lovely use of line and simplified, long shapes. I try to pick a good variety of subjects for the Thursday challenges, and works that are 100 years old or older, so there’s less likelihood of offending living artists or their children. But in old paintings, there are a lot of very ugly or overly sentimental pictures of children; it can be hard to find ones that don’t feel terribly kitsch. Boy in a Sailor Suit isn’t at all sweet or sentimental, and the compositional lines are strong and easy to follow. I remember when I was in college, how I really enjoyed sketching from a painting by Mary Cassatt of a girl in a white coat and discovering its strong compositional lines, which aren’t that dissimilar. I guess seeing the Modigliani picture sparked a memory that made me think his painting could engage people. It’s very simplified and stylised, and shows people that sometimes playing with shapes can be just as fun as aiming for something more photorealistic.I knew some people would copy it in a very straightforward way while others would riff on it to create something very different, but each approach is great practice. We definitely emphasize experimentation over perfection: it’s a place where we can post terrible drawings if we want to, and feel safe that no one’s going to think we’re showcasing it as our finest work.

Shelley: Did anything surprise you during the Thursday challenge (or since you’ve been doing this)?

Sarah: We got a remarkably wide range of techniques for this one. (Do have a browse of them online at @StudioTeaBreak!)

Since I’ve been hosting the challenges, several people have stood out to me in particular: @CFcomiX is an 8-year-old kid who lives in Kendal in the Lakes District, and is very inspired by Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants comics. I love seeing the interpretations he regularly gives to the subjects of each challenge and I notice how his comics background has given him a good sense of different possible layouts. Mrs Jeffries — @MrsJTeaches — is an elementary school teacher from Edinburgh and it’s been a joy to watch how her work has grown in technique and confidence. Her work is very line-based, somewhat reminiscent of folk art, and I find it very inspiring. Dave Windett — @Dave_Windett — is a professional comics artist who takes part in almost every challenge and he absolutely nails them, particularly on the #ShapeChallenge days, often by bringing in quirky robots or spaceships. A professional saxophonist named @ADsaxist takes over on Tuesdays with her environmental #ShapeChallenge, and often @CFcomiX or someone else will suggest a challenge over the weekend.

It’s all very fun and casual; we welcome mistakes and lunch-break post-it note scribbles. I’d encourage anyone to take part, either individually or with their family, school class, library group or retirement home community.

Shelley: We loved seeing the results on Thursday — so many great perspectives!

Sarah: Browse @StudioTeaBreak to see what we’re up to, and find out more about the studio in this article I’ve written.

Sarah McIntyre is a British American illustrator and writer of children’s books. Some books she creates solo, such as There’s a Shark in the Bath, and others she works on collaboratively with friends: Jampires with David O’Connell and many books with Philip Reeve, including Pugs of the Frozen North and Cakes in Space. Born in Seattle, she studied Russian at Bryn Mawr College with a minor in History of Art, and ten years later did her Master’s degree in Illustration from Camberwell art college in London. She now lives in south London and shares a studio with illustrator Elissa Elwick.

The Barnes Foundation collection online project is funded by the Knight Foundation and our code is open source. Follow the Barnes Foundation on Medium.