As students return to the St Ives School of Painting overlooking Porthmeor Beach, Lucy Studley discovers a brave new world emerging onto canvas…
When Covid hit and the St Ives School of Painting was forced to close its doors to students, you could be forgiven for imagining abandoned paint brushes and dusty easels as you passed the historic Porthmeor Studios – a building which has been shared by artists and fishermen for many generations. However, behind closed doors, the art studios which have welcomed students for over 80 years were continuing to do so, as staff and tutors embraced digital technology and broadcast-quality recording equipment to reach global audiences online during lockdown.
The historic School diversified, embracing new opportunities at a rate that a tech start-up would be proud of. Within weeks of the first lockdown, students from Mumbai to LA were transported to St Ives, where world-class art tuition was being live-streamed from the Cornish coast. Director Alison Sharkey explains: “People really embraced the opportunity to learn something new or hone their skills during lockdown. I think it was a time when many of us invested time and energy in our own wellbeing and creativity, so I suppose we tapped into the zeitgeist!”
However, the return of students for face-to-face tuition is a very welcome moment. “Although we were broadcasting from the studios throughout successive lockdowns, it still felt like something was missing,” says Alison. “Seeing people come back through the door and pick up paint brushes again, admire the view and feel that sense of wonderment that these iconic studios hold, has been quite special.”
The facets of painting being taught are as diverse as ever, as students return with a renewed hunger to learn and an enhanced appreciation for this opportunity of self-expression. For example, in May artist Ashley Hold leads Sea + Rocks – a metaphorical and literal journey to the rugged edges of St Ives for an evocative few days of abstract oil painting, working en plein air as much as possible. Meanwhile Kerry Harding also encourages students to work at the fringes of their practice with her course Pushing The Boundaries, exploring the frontiers between representation and abstraction.
In June, colour theory in practice is the subject of a three-day course by Jill Eisele, whilst Amy Albright gives students an insight into oil and acrylic layering techniques to evoke depth and emotion – and the ever-shifting moods and colours of the sea – in her new course, Elemental Ocean.
Meanwhile the online courses will continue, enabling the School to reach a wider and more diverse audience than ever before. “Diversifying to online learning has totally transformed our perception of how the charity can work in the future,” reflected Alison. “With courses starting at £12 and accessible from anywhere in the world, we can fulfil an important need for a broader section of society – from young people craving more of an arts education, to adult carers looking for a creative outlet, or people who simply want to paint as a mindful activity which benefits their own wellbeing.”
However, for those starting their creative journey with the School’s online offering, the ultimate experience will surely still be a trip to St Ives to visit the atmospheric studios overlooking Porthmeor Beach, where so many famous painters have put brush to canvas before them.