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In the Studio: Scott Waddell

by Allison Malafronte

Scott Waddell in his Rhode Island studio

After spending several years training and living in New York City in his twenties, artist Scott Waddell found his way to New England and now makes his home and studio in Rhode Island. One of the first waves of students at Jacob Collins’ Water Street Atelier, Waddell has spent the fifteen years since making a career of painting highly realistic portrait and figure works, both through commissions and independent ideas and projects. A former Grand Central Academy instructor for eight years, Waddell now primarily teaches through his Online Mentoring Program, as well as through occasional workshops at various schools around the country. 

Waddell learned early on the importance of dedication and discipline in his art practice, and has continued to follow this path. Now a father of two, the artist still maintains a steady schedule in the studio, where he works from the live model, maintains his online teaching, and manages the details of various projects. Enjoying the solace and privacy of his studio, Waddell admits that he prefers to work in solitude. “As a student you are constantly working in a group, and that has numerous benefits, but I have never really been an artist who enjoys working alongside other artists,” he says. “Mostly because I'm easily distracted and would probably talk all day instead of paint. I also get performance anxiety around other artists, so painting alone in the studio six-plus hours a day suits my temperament well.” In this interview, Waddell shares some further thoughts about his studio practice, as well as details about his training, current work, and the benefits of online education.

In addition to his Online Mentoring Program, Waddell also frequently posts tutorials through Instagram. This drawing is from a recent tutorial. AM: What was the training like at the Water Street Atelier when you studied there in the early 2000s compared to the environment it later evolved into at the Grand Central Academy, where you taught for eight years?

SW: When I was a student at the Water Street Atelier, the only teacher I had was Jacob Collins. Because it was in Jacob's personal studio, the setup was less of a school and more of a shared artist space. Jacob would critique, but it wasn't formalized at the time. I actually preferred this because I got to see him work on his professional work, and the teaching was very streamlined to his point of view. There was also an independence to it. This matched the way I learn very well, and I’m grateful I was able to study there. At the GCA there have always been far more teachers and perspectives. It's all rather similar, but still, the variety in points of view makes for a different environment.

AM: You briefly studied at the Florence Academy of Art prior to training at the Water Street Atelier. What was your greatest takeaway from your FAA training, and what was your greatest takeaway from your Water Street training?

SW: Although I was only at the FAA for a short time, it was the first time I was exposed to classical art and the discipline of drawing all day in a regimented way. That was very valuable. It removed the presumption I had that an artist is always supposed to be inspired to draw or paint. No. You just go in and do the work. Ninety-nine percent of any drawing or painting is simply work. I would also say that later in my career I returned to principles I first encountered at the FAA. The school is very good at putting together pictures. I have started to work a little more general to specific in recent years, and I credit the FAA with giving me an awareness of how to do so. I tend to plan my compositions according to large value relationships, which I also learned at the FAA. 

An in-process, detail shot from Waddell’s multi-figure paintingsAt the Water Street Atelier, Jacob taught form, and that remains the core of my technique: the idea that you are sculpting three-dimensionally in space while painting. You had to "be on the form" and make it "turn." That intense focus on one particular skill instilled in me an undying desire to make things look three-dimensional. Sometimes, when a painting is giving me a tough time, I just buckle down and try to make the form look real and three-dimensional—for better or for worse. Because of the intense focus on form and the practice of believing in the illusion as you work, I didn't formally study color, anatomy or perspective. Those were things I studied on my own later. Color, in particular, was a big interest for me after my training because I wanted to conceptually connect the physics of color to the ideas of form I had been practicing.  

AM: You have an online school called The Online Mentoring Program. What has been the response to this model of education? What benefits do online teaching/mentorship offer that in-person training does not?

SW: There are certainly a lot of positive aspects of training in person. I taught at The Grand Central Academy for eight years and continue to teach workshops elsewhere. Teaching can be easier when you can converse in person about certain ideas and point things out on a cast, model, or on the student’s work. But, oddly enough, I've found that teaching online has yielded as much success for the student as those who I've taught in person. The growth I've witnessed in some of the artists in my program has been astounding. One of the benefits of training remotely is that many of the participants are simply not in a position to travel to New York City or Florence to study long-term. So this is an opportunity for them to study classical painting in an organized, thorough manner in their own studio. The other benefit is the overlays I prepare. I digitally draw or paint over their submitted images and make detailed notes for them to follow. Also, whenever I teach, I don’t just list the issues I see, but rather I try to understand the root cause so that the artist can modify his or her workflow to address the problem. I've had many artists in the program since I began it three years ago. I have real relationships with these people, and it's very gratifying to be able to work with artists I otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to teach.

A second detail from the artist’s multi-figure painting in process

AM: What is currently on the easel in your studio, and what upcoming projects or ideas are you working toward?

SW: I have a large, near life-size, double figure painting I'm working on. It's a narrative about life in the American West. I've always had an interest in that genre and am just now moving in that direction. I'm not sure if it will be marketable, but I'm not really thinking in those terms. I know that there are a lot of galleries that deal in Western-themed paintings, but these will be rather dark and somber. I also look at the painting, and as much as I fixate on its flaws, I don't really want to sell it and not have it anymore. 

AM: Who are some of the artists working today that you admire the most?

SW: I think many of the Water Street/GCA artists and alumni are amazing. I am also inspired by FAA alumni. I can't pick out individuals as I might mistakenly leave someone off the list who deserves to be there, but collectively they all make me want be better so that I can try to keep up with their skill. In recent years, I've been more attracted to concept art. I'm talking about some of the high-level design work you see out there. I didn't formally study design, and it's been a lacking aspect of my work as I've been so focused on form and general paint technique. So, if I look to other work nowadays, I tend to be looking in that direction. 

Waddell working from the model in his studio

AM: What was the last drawing or painting you completed that you felt highly satisfied with the result?

SW: I really don't feel that satisfied with any. I work on them until I don't hate them, but that's not to say that I like them. Weirdly enough, I don't want to lose them or let them go either. 

The head from this portrait (a detail from a multi-figure painting) is nearly life-size. AM: How did your involvement with the Star Wars book come about? Have you always had an interest in illustration? 

SW: I just got an email one day from Lucas Books. I honestly thought it was a prank because it's well known that I love Star Wars. But then I learned that other artists in my group had been contacted as well. At the time, social media wasn't really used by artists that much so I think they discovered me in American Art Collector from an article about my gallery at the time. I love illustration but didn't have any background in it. I've since become more interested in that world and would do things very differently if I were to plan those paintings again. 

AM: What aspect of coming into your studio every day do you most look forward to?

SW: Listening to my audio books. As I said before, painting is ninety-nine percent hard work and discipline. I used to be emotional about painting and be either elated or depressed at the end of a day, depending on how it went. I can't live my life like that, and I know too that you can't measure progress every single day. So, I try to find an audio book to keep me out of my head and look forward to that. 

One of Waddell’s recent studies in graphite and white chalk on walnut-ink-toned paper

All photography in this article courtesy the artist.