A class at the School of Painting in pre-lockdown days

The St Ives School of Painting is embracing online learning to bring a snapshot of its highly regarded short art courses to an international audience.

Housed in the famous Porthmeor Studios, overlooking the beach in St Ives, the school was forced to close in March for what is thought to be the first time since it was founded in 1938.

It had been taking tentative steps into the world of online learning for some time, exploring ways a digital offering might compliment the annual studio program. However, with the studios closed temporarily due to the pandemic, embracing digital opportunities suddenly became more essential and relevant than ever.

The charity had to innovate quickly to engage with its community of students and deliver a much-needed dose of creative inspiration into their homes. 

Beginning with a series of webinars in March, led by the inspirational artist tutor Alice Mumford, the digital programme has gathered pace with Naomi Frears — a highly regarded artist based in Porthmeor Studios — leading sessions attended by a growing international audience of aspiring artists.

The sessions have proved extremely popular; one caused the system to crash due to high demand, hundreds of people from all over the world have taken part, and courses with restricted numbers sold out within minutes.

Director Alison Sharkey said: “It has totally transformed our perception of how the charity can work in the future, and emphasised the importance people place on cultural experiences — even during difficult times. Many students who have engaged with the online learning sessions commented that it has been a highlight of their lockdown.”

Most of the short webinars currently cost £5, and hundreds of people have made voluntary donations to the school on top of this, giving a much-needed boost to what is a registered charity.

Naomi Frears in her studio. Photograph: Steve Tanner

At the end of June, the school will experiment with a more intimate teaching group akin to what one might experience if coming to the studio. The intensive four-day course was an instant sell-out and will see eight students from around the world studying simultaneously.

Led by Alice Mumford, the course combines live learning via Zoom with structured exercises and self-study time, and is inspired by celebrated artist Winifred Nicholson, an influential figure on the fringes of the St Ives artist colony in the inter-war years.

Winifred Nicholson + The Window invites participants to capture in oils their view of the world through a window. The theme has been chosen to show how people from different places are experiencing these unusual times.

The school now plans to make regular webinars a core part of its offering, even when lockdown ends.

Alison said: “We are aiming to re-open to students at the end of August, but with much reduced numbers. Although challenging, we’re seeing this as an opportunity to reach out to new audiences online, turning one of our studios into a hub for broadcasting and recording. A number of our tutors are shielding for health reasons, so this allows us to continue to offer them work.”

Chairman of trustees for the St Ives School of Painting, Neil Scott, added: “This crisis has simultaneously put a huge squeeze on the cultural sector whilst reminding us all how much we value cultural experiences. Finding new ways of making creative encounters available will be a big part of future planning for organisations like ours.”

• To sign up to the school’s newsletter to be part of its new online art school, visit schoolofpainting.co.uk/