March 22, 2023

Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture Instruction Are Available from Princeton Academy of Art

EXCELLENCE IN ART: “Our mission is to bring exceptional quality instruction to artists working in the classical disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpture. Our students maintain the link to an unbroken chain of training that began hundreds of years ago, and has been passed from teacher to student for generations.” Anna Neis, right, founder and director of the Princeton Academy of Art, and Kelsey Doherty, Academy manager of operations, look forward to helping students achieve their artistic potential.

By Jean Stratton

Works of art resonate with people in many ways. There is a unique communication between artist and beholder. The artist has sought to express his or her vision, and the viewer’s response and perception vary according to a whole range of life conditions and circumstances. Thus, it becomes a very personal, often thought-provoking, and even challenging experience.

Before an artist can create such a work of art, serious study, training, and application are required.

“Artists need more than surface knowledge to progress beyond natural ability and a sharp eye,” points out Anna Neis, founder and executive director of the Princeton Academy of Art (PAA). “Creativity and self-expression are vitally important forms of communication for an artist, but before reaching the point where they can define themselves with complexity, they have to know the building blocks. Learning visual art is similar to learning a verbal language or how to play an instrument. Students must practice. That is what we are here for.”

Aspiring Artists

Indeed, the PAA offers opportunities for art students to be the best they can be. Helping to guide aspiring artists of all ages and abilities to achieve their potential is the priority of this special academy.

“Art changes the way you see the world. Art speaks to the soul. It is timeless,” says Neis.

An accomplished painter, she opened the non-profit academy in 2017 at 138 Nassau Street, after having previously established another art school, the Gemma Art Foundation, also in Princeton.

Neis’ love of art began at an early age, she recalls. Growing up in Washington, D.C., she was introduced to museums and galleries by her parents, and she studied art in school in addition to taking private lessons from the age of 12.

“I was born to enjoy, art,” she explains. “I loved pictures. I thought in pictures, and I also liked art history.”

She later attended classes at the New York School of Visual Arts in New York City, followed by a trip to Italy for further training. She then traveled to the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, where she studied for seven years and earned a master’s degree in fine art.

Classical Approach

“It was a very intense, rigorous program,” she says. “It was a classical approach, and I studied art history, drawing, and painting.”

Returning to New York City, she wanted to paint, but as she points out,
“I wasn’t sure about the
subject matter, and I wanted to know more about the contemporary situation in art. I was schooled in the strict Russian classical tradition, but I found I also wanted to express myself, with my own interpretation.”

She decided to continue her studies, this time at the New York Academy of Art, earning another MFA degree, Her love of painting intensified, and she began to focus on contemporary realism, specializing in figurative painting. Through her paintings, she depicts symbols and allegories she refers to as “contemporary myth.”

Increasingly successful, Neis has been asked to lecture, and her works have been shown nationally and internationally in New York, San Francisco, Paris, and Tokyo. Her work is in private collections, as well as  in the permanent collection of Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, N.Y.

She also found that she was becoming very interested in teaching, and after arriving in Princeton 25 years ago she opened the Gemma Art Foundation, a nonprofit educational institution dedicated to the education and promotion of fine arts. This eventually evolved into the PAA.

“Teaching art is unique,” she explains. “Blending the didactic teaching of technical skills with the abstract idea of creativity is the most important part of helping students reach their

Precision and Insight

The PAA offers full- and part-time sessions, and currently enrolls 100 students at all levels of ability, including pre-academy (youth aged 7 to 14), teenagers, and adults of all ages.

Drawing, painting, sculpture, and art history constitute the curriculum, and the instructors guide the students with expert precision and insight.

Teens are generally experienced and serious students, looking to develop and enhance their portfolios for acceptance to college or art school, explains Neis.

“The adults are often people who had an interest in art, but hadn’t pursued it previously. Some of them may have wanted to go to art school, but didn’t have the chance,” she points out. “Now they can take that first step.”

Children are introduced to drawing and painting and art history, she adds, and as she says, “We want it to be colorful and fun for them. We want to enhance their interest and help them to be amazed! And art is something they can do for the rest of their life.”

Joy of Teaching

Neis teaches adults and college portfolio prep students, and painter Kelsey Doherty, the Academy’s operations manager, is the main instructor for the youth program.

“This program is almost identical to our adult program,” explains Doherty. “It is classical, technical fine art education at a more digestible level. Children love to learn at a high level, and the information (and hopefully, inspiration) we provide them will stay with them forever.

“That is the joy I receive from teaching and working at the academy; helping to inspire the next generation not only to appreciate, but to be successful in the arts. I’m happy to be able to provide these kids with something I didn’t have access to as a young child. This is the education I wish I had had at their age. Looking back, this knowledge really is power.” 

In addition to drawing and painting instruction, sculpture classes are held at a separate PAA location at 10 Nassau Street.

The PAA offers a very specific program of study for each group of students. Full-time classes are held five days a week, with a different focus each day, such as still life painting, figure drawing, cast and still life drawing, sculpture, etc.

“Our courses focus on the development of observational skills and spatial concepts,” explain Neis and Doherty. “Students will develop technical abilities and improve depth and form perception gradually while growing accustomed to various media” 

In addition, they continue, “Students will explore the human figure as a structural mechanism consisting of three dimensional volumes in space. They will learn classical proportions, skeletal/muscular structures, and how to understand them from various angles and positions.

“They will also study the principles of composition used by artists throughout the history of painting, They will learn precise systems and strategies developed during the Renaissance and beyond.

Rich History

The PAA prides itself on continuing the teaching of art as it developed through the ages, and exposing students to this rich history.

“Our curriculum connects students to a living tradition rooted in Italian, French, and Russian classical academies,” reports the PAA’s mission statement. “Continuing this passage of knowledge, our institution brings rigorous training and research of the Old Masters’ techniques and the contemporary vision of personal expression.

“We are not reinventing the tradition, simply continuing one that our instructors inherited by studying at the Russian Academy of the Arts.”

“We are reviving a standard of fine art education that is extremely hard to find,” adds Doherty. “Its loss is due to a myriad of rapid shifting art movements, starting in the early 1900s, and the lack of preservation of this knowledge over the last hundred years or so.”

Working with Neis has been an inspiration for her, she explains. “Before college (the Maryland Institute College of Art), at around 17, I studied at the Gemma Art Foundation, building up my college portfolio. I also worked on technical training — learning the classical tradition showed me how much information I missed out on learning as a young student.

So Much More

“When I got to college, it became even clearer to me how rare this type of education is as many of my peers struggled in foundational classes. I learned so much from Anna. She not only helped me to expand my portfolio, but to learn so much more.”

Classes at the PAA are held from September to June, and there is also a summer session from July 10 to August 18. This is available for children, teens, and adults, and registration is open now.

The PAA is also focused on building and maintaining partnerships with local institutions of higher education and other nonprofits, reports Doherty. “We are currently listed as a partner for the Thomas Edison State University’s Community
Impact Program (ACI). Creativity is vital to all sectors, and through collaboration, we learn new ways to approach and resolve common problems, but also open the door to creation.”

The PAA studio (on the second floor) offers a very appealing and collegial atmosphere. Filled with examples of various art forms, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, and more, it provides a conducive setting in which aspiring artists can both learn and create.

New Styles

As Princeton University student and first year Academy of Art student Shang Chen has said: “I decided to come to PAA because there are painting techniques I wanted to learn and new styles I wanted to explore that were not taught at many other places.

“The classes here are especially enjoyable because of the variety of practices we try during class, such as drawing models but also studying anatomy. This class helps me understand the processes of different oil painting artists. Anna is knowledgeable about the traditional techniques of oil painting but also encourages everyone to be creative with color choices and composition, which makes portrait practices feel rewarding.”

Sharing her knowledge and love of art with Shang Chen and so many other students is Neis’ priority and pleasure.

“What I enjoy most is to share what I have leaned with others,” she says. “There is such incredible power with art. Once you come to appreciate it, you become a different person. Students have told me they have been transformed by art.”

Also, she continues, “Art can be a saving grace. When you are creating, in that moment, it can take the mind away from worries and troubles. I hope I can help make a difference in my students’ lives through art.”

For information on registration, enrollment, class times, and payment options, call (609) 454-3721 or visit