The modern academies (usually known as “ateliers”) usually follow something similar in format to the curriculum of these great institutions. First, students usually copy prints after classical sculptures, becoming familiar with the principles of contour, light, and shade. Once sufficiently proficient in reproducing these drawings, students then draw from plaster casts of classical sculptures. At the same time students work from the live model.
Painting was not taught at the leading French school, the École des Beaux-Arts, until after 1863. To learn to paint with a brush, the student first had to demonstrate proficiency in drawing, which was considered the foundation of academic painting. Having learnt to draw, students would then join the studio of an academician and learn how to paint.
In my own self-directed study, I have tried to be as faithful as I can be to the curriculum adopted in a typical modern atelier. This has involved copying “from the flat” (that is, copying from drawings and lithographs of classical sculptures), cast drawing and painting, and figure drawing and painting. I hope that, as I study and my skills develop, I will move onto portraiture, still life, interiors, landscapes and genre painting. There’s a long road ahead, but then, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!