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In Boston, a grueling battle of the canvas

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Traveling from as far away as China, realist painters vie with one another in a weeklong contest.
Traveling from as far away as China, realist painters vie with one another in a weeklong contest.

In a contemporary art world awash in -isms, realistic figure painting may seem like a quaint throwback.

But don't tell that to the 10 artists in town this week for a marathon figure-painting competition at the Academy of Realist Art, Boston. Palette knives at the ready, the competitors, many of whom exhibit nationally, have traveled from as far away as China to take part in the five-day event — a grueling competition that demands its model hold the same pose for 30 hours.

"This is an athletic event," said artist Cesar Santos, a wiry, bearded former boxer who traveled from Miami for the contest. "I'm attacking this."


Equipped with an arsenal of brushes, crumpled paint tubes, hand mirrors, anatomy books, and opera glasses, the painters have labored with quiet intensity since Monday, sizing up their work as well as the competition.

Stepping in close to his canvas, Santos worried over the model's upper arm, detailing a highlight and modeling a shadow. Then he turned around, squinting into a handheld mirror for fresh perspective.

"It's just beautiful to stand in front of a live model," said Santos, whose oil paintings retail for what he estimated as $15,000-$25,000.

A few canvases down, Jennifer Balkan was fresh off an excruciating decision that had nagged her for days.

From left: Emanuela De Musis, Jennifer Balkan, and He Lihuai at work during the 2016 Boston Figure Painting Competition.John Blanding, Boston Globe staf

"I had to perform a little surgery: I had to move my head," said Balkan, an Austin, Texas-based artist who'd awoken the night before thinking, "Bad! Bad! I have to move the head."

Her triage complete, Balkan peered into her phone, comparing a photo of the pre-surgical head with its post-operative result.

"This is what obsessed painters deal with," said Balkan. "It was driving me crazy."

Now in its second year, the 2016 Boston Figure Painting Competition gives artists 40 hours to work on their canvases before crowning a winner Saturday at the Guild of Boston Artists. Although the competition encourages creativity, their paintings will also be judged on anatomical accuracy, gesture, and integrity of form.


Those skills are prized at the Academy of Realist Art, Boston, a small atelier in the Leather District that trains artists in the French academic tradition. Focusing on careful draftsmanship and traditional oil painting techniques, the school trains everyone from art school graduates to retirees.

"It definitely fills a gap," said Cindy MacMillan, who founded the school in 2008. "One lesson builds on [the last] lesson. . . . In order to have a school like that, people have to have gone through the training."

For Santos, who received similar instruction in Florence, such academic rigors are essential.

"Like a poet will be able to write a sentence . . . we have to be able to write what is in front of us visually," he said. "[You] control your tools so that you can express your feelings."

During the competition, however, Santos and his fellow artists must balance personal expression against the contest's more formal criteria.

"Everybody's trying to gauge what they think is just enough detail for the judges," said Rose Frantzen, who drove from Iowa to compete.

Model Natalia Carbullido, as depicted by artist Julie Beck at the Academy of Realist Art, Boston.John Blanding, Boston Globe staf

Looking at the model head-on, Frantzen had shifted her painting's color palette from red to blue. She'd also composed an abstract background, reducing the model's legs to their barest structural form, while intricately rendering the head and torso, which seemed to emerge, ghost-like, from a sea of abstraction. "Maybe I'm overthinking it," she mused.


Meanwhile, model Natalia Carbullido had very different concerns. Nude but for a silver bracelet, Carbullido stood still as a statue, repeatedly checking her posture to ensure it was consistent.

It isn't easy to hold a pose for so long. "Some of the time I'm moving pain around mentally," said Carbullido, who's worked as an artist's model for the past five years. "Sometimes I think about how I'm putting so much effort into this, and I'm not putting any money into retirement."

She added, however, that she sees her contribution as creative. She also loves working with artists. "Some of my poses have meant a lot to me," she said. "I think a lot about what the Existentialists were concerned with: being a subject and an object in the world. What is this tension between observing and being observed?"

With a first prize of $6,000 — an amount roughly equivalent to what some competitors' work retails for in galleries — a win here is certainly a resume builder, if not a career maker.

Nevertheless, the painters insist the event is mainly a friendly competition and a welcome respite from what is often solitary work.

"When we're in a room together . . . you have all this stuff to relate to," said Julie Beck, the school's assistant director. "Nobody gets excited about the nerdy paint things that we get excited about."

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.