Portrait painting with Frank Giacco

Anna's world © Francis Giacco

Last year I had the privilege of taking a three-day workshop with the inimitable Francis Giacco at the Atelier Art Classes. Frank paints extraordinarily intricate interiors in his Sydney house: lush arrangements of sumptuous tapestries and fabrics in hushed light, speckled with late afternoon sunlight through elaborately patterned dividers; quiet, reverential scenes populated by quinces and cat-bowls and t-rexes and marionettes. His silent subjects seem to have private jokes with each other but the humour is drowned in a cacophony of pattern and texture. He is no stranger to the figure either, and family members and costumed models slip in and out of his paintings, often circling musical instruments, or playing them in the shadows. Ever attuned to the space before him, he integrates his figures seamlessly into their dreamy interiors, and it was this very skill that won him (somewhat controversially) the 1994 Archibald.

Frank has spent many years teaching at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney, and his patient, responsive teaching manner reflects the pace of the classes at Ashton’s. It being a school where a large core of students attend classes full time, the work is allowed to breathe and to unfold slowly over days and weeks, growing and refining as the student slowly absorbs the guidance of the teachers. Rather than initiating a set task or exercise for his workshop, then, Frank continued in this more fluid manner and simply asked us to start painting the model, with some broad compositional ideas in mind. As we painted, he gently guided our decisions, corrected some anatomical discrepancies, and made observations about the piece as a whole. At times he took the brush and made an alteration himself, forcing the student to explore something that she was resisting, prompting her not to be precious about this painting which was, after all, an experiment and an investigation.

Carmen, by Samantha

In this sense, there was a lot of freedom, and a lot of room to relax into the work and breathe a little. I had started out jittery and nervous, not having painted portraits from life before, and unsure of how to start. But Frank didn’t impose or push, he instead created a space for us to face that hurdle, to get past that fear and to be bold enough to simply start, knowing he was ever to hand to help. Each time it got a little easier—we painted three portraits in all, buzzing on the energy of being able to paint for three days solid in the company of other focused painters, and slowly feeling our way. I came to the workshop with an extreme fear of the complexity of painting a portrait, and left without that fear, confident instead that through sheer application this is something I can improve and enjoy, and no longer shy away from. Frank looked at my paintings, these first tentative steps, and nodded to himself. ‘Good,’ he said after a while. ‘Now just paint hundreds of them.’ No formula or recipe will enable you to do what pure time and practice (preferably with a little knowledgeable input from someone more advanced than you) will make possible.

Amy, by Samantha

At the end of each day we collapsed onto the couches and had quiet discussions about the day’s efforts. Each painting went up on an easel (with permission, of course), and Frank offered comments, and it wasn't long before other students were contributing encouraging words. These discussions were extremely uplifting since, as you well know, the Salisbury bunch are a kind-hearted lot, and it was both humbling and cathartic to share your private struggles openly with the others and to learn they had faced the same battles. And then we could take these insights, mull over them, and return the next day with new ideas.

Amy © Ryan Daffurn. Ryan took the workshop too, and explored some new ideas.

Happily, Frank is gracing us with his presence again in just over a week, and giving another Friday and weekend workshop. If you’ve never been brave enough to paint the figure, it’s my humble opinion that this is your best opportunity to start. If you have some ideas but feel hesitant about what to do with them, this is the place to air them and find some gentle guidance. Don’t expect demonstrations, or strict instructions, but expect a kind of painter guardian angel to help you follow through your ideas as you take risks and make difficult steps.

The Friday workshop is on 25 April and will be oriented around portrait drawing from life. The weekend workshop, to be held on the 26th and 27th of April, will concentrate on painting the portrait. The workshops cost $115 and $230 respectively. Talk to Nick, Ryan or Scott to reserve a place on the list, as the classes are kept at an intimate size.


Samantha Groenestyn