Photography By Jim Graham

Arts & Antiques

Neilson Carlin

American Realism

By Matt Freeman |

One night in 1997, on a train somewhere near Trenton, a young artist named Neilson Carlin began to wonder why he had to commute back and forth to New York City just to get the kind of instruction he wanted. And as he thought about his situation, he came to a decision. Carlin decided to become a teacher as well as student of a burgeoning movement in the art world, a rigorous, demanding genre called “classical realism” rooted in centuries-old traditions. And without knowing it, he set in motion a chain of events that may well become a new chapter in the Brandywine Valley’s own rich artistic history. A Kennett Square native, Carlin had graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 1992 and worked for a time in commercial art. But he wanted to do more work in the fine arts as a realist painter, so he began studying in New York City with Michael Aviano, a celebrated realist painter himself. Aviano could, by looking at his teachers and his teachers– teachers, trace his own influences back to the École des Beaux-Arts of 19th-century France. There, promising young artists got training in the realist tradition that reached back to the Renaissance and further back to antiquity.

Then came the modernist movement, and art training changed profoundly. Carlin cheerfully declines to talk about the relative merits of abstract versus realist art. “I have no axe to grind with modernists or modernism,” he says. “I don’t have time for that.” But what he does see as a problem is the influence that several generations of modernism had on the curriculum in art colleges. The schools no longer offered the sustained study and guidance needed to achieve skill in realism. In today’s schools, students encounter “20 different teachers with 20 different philosophies,” Carlin says. “The institutional system has failed.”

But there were still numerous painters like Carlin who wanted to excel as realist painters; and starting in the late 1960s, more and more teachers like Aviano began taking on students for private lessons. This blossomed into what is today called the “atelier movement,” after the French word for “workshop.” The concept harks back to previous centuries, when young artists worked in the studios of established masters, learning as they went.

Carlin studied with Aviano once a week, riding the train up and back to New York City. And that night near Trenton, he had his epiphany. He remembered his mother’s advice for such situations’solve a problem yourself, instead of complaining about it. He decided on that train ride that there would, in fact, be a person providing intensive training in realist art techniques in the Brandywine Valley, and that person would be Neil Carlin.

Carlin started small, bringing students into his basement studio in the Orchard Valley development near Kennett Square. He did not yet have a whole curriculum worked out, but after art school and his ongoing training with Aviano, he felt confident he could help people grow as artists. He would simply assume the Aviano role for artists in Chester County less skilled than himself. “I naturally understood that to be an effective teacher you only have to know a little bit more than the person you’re teaching,” Carlin says.

In addition to private lessons, Carlin began teaching in schools and doing workshops for art associations and other venues. And as his own fine-arts portfolio expanded, he began exhibiting up and down the East Coast, garnering national awards, and receiving commissions to create new works.

The accolades kept coming, but for a long time Carlin worked in relative obscurity in his own area, exhibiting his work only rarely in the local galleries.

He eventually moved into a converted warehouse space in Kennett Square with the comprehensive program on classical realism he had developed. He called the program Studio Rilievo, after the Italian word for “relief,” stressing the illusion of solid form in a two-dimensional medium.

Most people in the area were still unaware of both Carlin’s paintings and his educational program. The warehouse was on a side street, and the only sign on it was a historical marker saying it had been Kennett Square’s first mushroom house.

Nevertheless, people who wanted to paint realistically were finding their way to Carlin’s door. Some were hobbyists who wanted deeper, more sophisticated technical training than local art associations were equipped to offer. Some, like Carlin, had been to art school but wanted to deepen their skills in realism and had nowhere else in the area to go.

Karen D’Allaird is one such person. She had known Carlin when they were both children, because her mother had a home-based nursery school where the two future artists met. They were out of touch for years after that, but D’Allaird heard he had gone to art school, as she had.

Some six years ago, she re-encountered her childhood acquaintance and saw his work. “I could not believe the level of competence he had achieved,” D’Allaird says. At the time, she was frustrated with her own work. “I found myself unable to do what I wanted to do. I told him, ‘I need your help.’ It was serendipity.” She studied with Carlin for about four years, and today, like him, she’s exhibiting and winning competitions.

And like him, she’s been passing her skills on to a new generation of students. D’Allaird had been working as an artist in residence at the Unionville Elementary School, and parents were always telling her about children who did art all the time at home, and could not find the depth of instruction they wanted at school.

So last year, D’Allaird founded the Willowdale Art Academy, offering lessons like Carlin’s but geared to a younger set of students. “That’s exactly what we do, and I really don’t dumb it down at all,” she says. The program is geared to elementary- through middle-school-aged children. They typically don’t see themselves as part of a movement toward classical realism, D’Allaird says. They just want to make pictures of horses or dragons and want to know how to make them look real.

Recently Carlin himself has been gearing his program toward younger students, too. He created a new program called ‘studio Disegno,’ named for the Italian word for ‘drawing,’ aimed at students 14 and older. The program focuses on drawing and, like Studio Rilievo, offers a comprehensive course in the techniques of classical realism. Someone who takes the full course will be “light years ahead” of the other students entering art school, Carlin says.

And they’ll be ahead of the game, he argues, no matter what style they want to work in. “If you want to paint with your toes outside of here I don’t care,” Carlin says. He feels knowing the principles of classical realism will make one a stronger artist in any genre.

In recent months, Carlin has opened up his studio on First Friday Art Stroll days, and visitors come away bowled over by the quality of work his students are doing. And as the word continues to spread, Carlin feels that he, along with D’Allaird, is making the area a new center for classical realist instruction. He likens it to the situation more than a century ago, when the artist Howard Pyle offered summer classes in his Chadds Ford studio, in the process creating the Brandywine School.

Carlin feels what he offers is not so much a philosophy about what subject matter you should choose–theme and vision are things people have to decide for themselves, he says. What he offers are the skills his students will need to achieve their personal vision.

With D’Allaird teaching a few miles north and steering her older students to his program, Carlin sees a bright future. “southeastern Pennsylvania could be the mecca for art training,” he says. “We’re thinking big. We’re thinking bigger and regional.”

And Carlin is also thinking about history, and the way this serious approach to teaching realist art is a new chapter in the area’s rich artistic history. “Between Philadelphia and Baltimore, I’m it,” he says. “I am a new Brandywine tradition.”