Ellsworth Kelly, at last, and a new Dutch modern art museum

Ellsworth Kelly has always been an important artist to me, ever since I first encountered his work as a student in London back in the late 1980s. His use of line and form, coupled with intense colour, drew me towards an interest in abstraction. His reduced artworks had a beauty that engaged my attention and helped me resolve how I could deal with abstract elements in my own work. Kelly’s work continues to be a touchstone in my own studio practice.

Despite this interest in his work I have never seen a solo show of his paintings or sculptures. I have regularly come across pieces in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Otterlo near where I live, but normally only one or two at a time. So it was with considerable anticipation that I arrived at the new Voorlinden Museum, on the outskirts of The Hague to see that elusive solo exhibition, ironically enough, just a few months after the artist’s death.
Kelly himself acknowledged the connection of his work with nature and the world around us. The Voorlinden museum in this regard presents a fantastic context. The architecture itself is reduced and and lean, no decoration here, less still in Kelly’s work. Always close by is the natural world, seen through the expansive glass walls of the museum.
The paintings are given the chance to breath their intense colour, the geometry of the forms cutting across the immaculate walls.
There is an attention to detail in Kelly’s work that is at once simple and fascinatingly complex. An edge that to all intents and purposes looks straight, but just by the smallest of margins isn’t, or one of his curves resting, and seemingly waiting to pivot, on the most fragile of points resting on the ground. But above all in the difusely top-lit gallery spaces of the museum it is the colour that captures the attention. Immaculately laid down surfaces with a rich intensity.

There are many other interesting pieces on show elsewhere in the museum, but in the context of he Kelly show, Open Ended by Richard Serra and Skyspace by James Turrell are particularly enjoyable combinations. Serra’s huge curving arcs envelop you as you walk through them, the rusting steel surface of his sculptures share nothing of the immaculate surface quality of Kelly’s work. However, for both artists the geometry of the edge is crucial. In that regard the edges of Turrell’s Skyspace installation work could hardly appear sharper. From the reclining benches around the sides of the room you look up through the sharp square opening in the roof to the limitless space of the sky above. The awareness you have of the surface of the canvas in Kelly’s work is replaced by an abiguous sense of surface that you know, in reality, is completely absent.. The slowly passing clouds so carefully framed up by the work taking on a feeling of the most full-colour projection possible.

The Voorlinden museum

Photography and posters on teenagers’ bedroom walls

This may turn out to be just an initial post on this subject as I am just starting a photography project that I’ve been working on together with Pasi, an art teacher colleague in Finland. It will hopefully throw up some interesting work and stories to tell over the weeks ahead. The two of us have been working hard over the last couple of months creating an engaging series of assignments and collaborations that will hopefully culminate in some sort of online exhibition.

That though is all for the weeks ahead, yesterday was for me at least, just the introduction lesson, aimed at framing up the context of the weeks ahead. I gave an introduction presentation to two classes with a total of about forty-five pupils. During the lesson we talked about the place of photography in our daily lives in 2016.


It’s no secret to say that teenagers (a society as a whole) are taking more photographs than any generation before, but I wanted to talk in more depth about the place and importance these photographs have , why we take them, what we do with them and what they say about us. We talked about the selfie-culture, school photos, holiday photograph albums, wedding photos on the mantle-piece at home and photographs of the children of the family on the bookcase. We also considered the places and ways we store/organize our photographs nowadays. It was an interesting and enjoyable discussion with both classes. However, in the last twenty minutes of the lesson, I broadened the discussion out a little bit into other areas where we find and collect photographs. Having two teenage children I knew that we also had to talk about the bedroom wall at home.

I moved the discussion onto the photographic images, firstly of musicians and performers and then sports stars, thinking in both cases we would be able to talk about this genre of photographic imagery in poster format on bedroom walls.

It was at this point I made a surprising discovery, of my forty-five pupils just two had pictures of any form of ‘hero’ on their bedroom wall! So much for my view that the bedroom wall was the bastion of self expression and identity, a place where you could mark out who your heroes are and freely associate yourself with them.


This seems, alright within my relatively small sample, simply not to be the case. ‘What do you have on your bedroom walls?’ I asked, ‘my tv’ came the answer back! I shared an image that I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, a huge poster of Beatrice Dalle from the Jean-Jacques Beineix film Betty Blue. A film that made a strong impression on me as an eighteen year old.

I have to admit to feeling pretty curious as to why this is. Do my pupils simply have no heroes? My own children seem to have them, my daughter is constantly changing the pictures on her wall. So what is it with my pupils at school. Too shy to say perhaps? Somehow I don’t think that this is the story here. I have a theory, and perhaps that tv or computer screen on the bedroom is a clue. This is a generation that has access to so much. A huge array of multiple tv channels, online entertainment in the form of games, films, Spotify and YouTube. They soak it all up, often I feel in a fairly uncontrolled and unfocused way. It’s like they experience and expose themselves to everything (or at least a whole lot) and become in doing so, fans of nothing. Ready made playlists are their music, focus and identification with a particular artist or performer seems to be occurring less. A consequence of our media saturated times perhaps? What I do know from my pupils, if I ask them about their favourite band, singer or film even, they find it difficult to express opinions that have any real focus, it is all rather generalized and vague.

I could go on to express many other opinions and theories as to why this may be, but a particular favourite I have, and I do think that it is highly relevant is the idea ‘shared experience’ being important in forming opinions in this sort of area of cultural identity. In the past pupils would talk about the film that had been on the tv the previous evening or the music programme they had all seen on tv. Discussions the following day would occur and cultural identities and preferences would slowly start to be formed. This simple sharing of experience to a large degree has been lost as young people make their own way through the media and cultural world in a more independent way.

This independence might well be a commendable and valuable thing, but there is maybe a flip side, are they becoming fans of everything and at the same time nothing?

Culturally stepping backwards

img_2314I view the UK, my home country, from the short distance across the North Sea from my home in the Netherlands. Geographically it is a small distance and yet somehow it seems to be drifting slowly away, certainly in a cultural dimension.

Yesterday it was announced, in changes set in motion by former education secretary Michael Gove, that art history, as a so called ‘soft’ subject, was to be removed from the national A-level exam programme for eighteen year olds. It is not an announcement that is going to directly affect tens of thousands of teenagers, it is indeed a subject that is only chosen by relatively few students. But the numbers involved aren’t the reason being given for the scrapping of the subject. A spokeswoman for AQA, the exam board, was quoted as having said,

“Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front. That’s why we’ve taken the difficult decision not to continue our work creating a new AS and A-level.”

It would seem that the priority is the grading of the exam is more important rather than the actual content of the programme itself. It is a perspective that those who work in education have heard often enough before. Babies and bath water seem immediately to spring to mind.

This is one more drop in the increasing filling bucket of news stories that reflect a shift in perspective and hardening of attitudes that is increasingly effecting the cultural fabric and riches in the UK.

There is irony here in the outrage shown in the destruction of world heritage sites and cultural history in Syria during the last few years, and yet we seem to be offering reduced perspectives for those who actually want to contribute to understanding why these high points of human creativity are actually important to us.

On a more contemporary note art history and a deep understanding of the cultural world is perhaps more important than ever. The modern world is increasingly one that is driven by a visual culture and art historical perspectives have an important part to play in developing a visual literacy that is needed to engage and understand.

For a more background on this backward step see:

Last art history A-level

Last art history A-level II


A simple exercise in tonal/value work

Teaching the basics of drawing and what a simple pencil is capable of is one of the first things I like to get to grips with my first years (aged 12) at the start of the year. They are familiar with the idea of line, the setting up of an arrangement, but tonal work is often limited to shading an area in gently with a shade of grey. I want to deal with the extremes of shading, going from the whitest white to the darkest grey and everything in between that a 3B or 4B pencil can offer. I want to cover the gradations in shading and how you can achieve sensitivity in your results. Building on this I like to lead onto the modelling of form that can be achieved.


fullsizerender-7There are numerous ways of doing this, from shading in boxes, drawing cylinders and imaginary balls. The ‘how to draw’ books are full of such exercises. Technically they cover the same ground, but they hardly catch a twelve year old’s imagination and leave them with a feeling of ‘wow’ as they leave the art room.

Yesterday I had the chance to cover some of this ground when I visited a neighbouring school to lead two, two hour workshops. I decided to cover these same areas with the two classes of 23 twelve year olds.

Working with a gridded up version of one of my favourite subjects, Chuck Close I was also able to bring in a little art historical context that was completely new to the pupils. After discussing his work for a while I was able to set them loose on trying to produce high contrast fragments of a large scale group drawing.

Four hours later I had a reworking of the first Close self-portrait and his image of a young looking Philip Glass and a classes full of children wanting to photograph the result to share what they had achieved as a class working together. In terms of creativity the assignment might not be the most experimental. But as an exercise in an important technical skill it does lay a basis that can be built on later.

For a more challenging variation see:

Tonal drawing and a favourite resourch

Text interventions – A CLIL work in progress

Scrabble is perhaps the world’s best known language based game. The puzzling out of word options within limited possibilities forces us to think hard and squeeze out the longest and highest scoring configurations.   In essence the same could be said for a small language and image assignment that I was experimenting with last week.

The idea ordinates from a piece of street art by the British artist known as Banksy.


The image doesn’t need a great deal of explanation. An altered text, an image is added and a social point is made……in this case, our city parks are being concreted over to provide city car parking. Simple and to the point, something that my pupils have no problem in ‘getting’. But coming up with an idea of their own is a whole different kettle of fish. Could my third year pupils (aged 14-15) face up to the challenge?

I was asked to provide a 90 minute language orientated workshop for a group, an ideal opportunity to try the idea out and see if they could.

Technically we were able to simultaneously use the project for a little digital orientation using iPads to do the necessary image manipulation (we used Brushes Redux for those interested) however in principle a desktop or just pencil and paper could be used.

I asked the pupils to go looking for warning signs, road and traffic direction boards, text on the roads, walls or anywhere else where text could be found. Like the Banksy example the challenge was then to remove letters to change the direction of the meaning of the text in a humourous, ironic, serious or simply crazy and unexpected way.

Like my Scrabble example the pupil is left trying to manipulate and construct within the limited options available. Also like the Banksy example a little extra imagery could also be added or the context behind the text altered.

An hour and a half later I am left with a series of examples. Some pupils have picked the idea up and developed some interesting angles. In truth we were perhaps a little short of time. Surprising, inspired ideas don’t always come so quickly. With a little more time I would also like to push the images that have been added a bit further, but there is certainly potential here to develop the idea into something a little more expansive.

Language and creativity 3 – content and language integrated learning idea (CLIL)

It is perhaps a little overdue, but I’ve been planning for a while to post a little about the results from the classroom of the obliteration poetry project that I ran with my third years (fifteen year olds) at the end of the last school year. I’ve posted twice before about the preparation, ideas and influences behind the project.

Creative with language 1

Creative with language 2

Now though I have the results and some thoughts about how the project was received and engaged with by pupils.

Overall I feel that the assignment as a whole worked well. The pupils understood the challenge of the language part of the assignment clearly and enjoyed the language puzzle aspect of it as they battled with the options that the text offered. In many pupils there seemed to be a determination to squeeze everything possible out of the available words. Equally though others found it a frustrating business when they had settled on a direction for a given sentence only to discover that they just couldn’t quite get there due to the absence of sometimes the smallest of linking words. The more creative linguists saw this though as a challenge to discover a new direction to take the new narrative in.

As and when I repeat the assignment I think I will offer maybe a little more time and support in getting the grammar and logic of the constructed sentences as sharp and correct as they can possibly be. This language component and the challenge to try and ensure that the text is both correct and interesting to read is a crucial part and requires considerable focus and time to perfect.

Once the text is in order I made a number of requirements for the design element:

  • The text must be clear and easy to read, the design of the page must lead you clearly and easily across the page finding the chosen words quickly and in the correct order.
  • There should be a number of figurative elements that relate to the newly created narrative/poem/story line. These should be bold and easily visible amongst the other aspects of the page.
  • The page should be filled with imagery, patterns and colour that show strong attention for the overall design of the page as a whole.

This design part of the assignment certainly provided the pupils with considerable engagement and it was clear to see that approaches and techniques were being used, reused and modified around the class. Some pupils were very successful and using often quite abstract design concepts in order to pull the separate figurative element together in order to create an overall engaging design. Others struggled to connect pictorial elements that resulted from the text construction. Often it would seem that weaknesses in the language partly fed weaknesses in the design work, further reason to give the text part a little more focus on a future occasion.

Overall though I see no reason at not to peruse and develop the assignment further, any improvements being more a question of fine tuning rather than a total rebuild. I would also encourage non-visual arts teachers to have a go, at the very least at the textual part of the assignment. It is fascinating to watch and support pupils in the puzzling that goes on.

The examples posted here make use of the opening chapters of Wuthering Heights as their starting point.

Grabbing the attention…..and making a point

It is great to immediately grab the attention of your pupils at the start of a new year, to make them sit up, have a memorable first lesson experience and, if possible, deal with an important content related issue.

I have something of a favourite way of doing this with my third year classes (aged 15) at the start of the school year. The point that I want to make, apart from perhaps shaking them out of their summer holiday slumber, is that art doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful or skillfully made. It can also be simply about an idea, a point that the creator is trying to make, be that incredibly serious, humouress or thought provoking.


The way I do this is you ask the pupils to set up a small still life of objects from their school bag or pencil case. We talk a little about what a still life is and how they should approach making a pencil drawing of their own arrangement. I subsequently then give them half an hour to make the best possible drawing they can produce. I then ask them to sign their own drawing in the bottom right corner.

All very regular art lesson stuff up until now, but then comes the twist. I ask the pupils to switch drawings with the person sitting next to them. I think initially I think they expect to carry on drawing on someone else’s picture. But instead I ask them first you rub out their friend’s name and replace it with their own name! Some are very happy to do this, others less so, but I insist!

But then comes the moment that causes the most uproar in the class. “Rub the whole drawing out , remove as much of it as you possibly can”, is the following instruction. The whole room bursts into discussion, laughter, one or two sometimes initially refuse, but in the end, after some frantic work with a rubber the drawings are removed.

We then compare the new versions on the drawing and talk about points such as:

  • What the difference is between the ‘drawing’ and a brand new and clean piece of paper
  • What the ‘drawing’ actually records….it is after all a sort of document of the first half of our lesson
  • The importance or not of beauty in art
  • The value or such a rubbed out drawing

rauschenberg_eraseddekooning1Those who know their art history well will perhaps have guessed where this is going. I then recount the connection of what they have just done with the incident from 1953 when Robert Rauschenberg rubbed out one of Willem de Kooning’s valuable drawings in order to create his own new artwork entitled Erased de Kooning drawing.

Use the link below for a bit more historical detail:

Erased de Kooning drawing

The pupils are old enough to appreciate the element of humour in the work, but I think with a little explanation they are also able to understand that here is an artwork that has little to do with creating an aesthetic object. It is about the idea, the performance or an action and the curious way that the artwork has become a document of that action. It poses a question to these fifteen year olds about what can be considered art.

All in all it’s a great lesson to start the year with. You get engaged pupils, you get drawing activity, you a little art history, you get a serious ‘what is art’ issue into the discussion and….you get laughter and a lesson that they’ll talk about when they get home.


In at the deep end…

Today is my first day back at school after the summer break and I’m closer than ever before to simply starting with my new bilingual first year classes in English, with none of the pupils’ native Dutch thrown in to make it easier for them. I describe them as a ‘bilingual classes’ but they aren’t really, or at least not yet. They are just starting down the language learning road. Virtually all have a smattering of English already, picked up from tv, films, music and the Internet. Normally the first weeks of the school year are for me and my first year pupils, sessions of constant switching between English and Dutch. So what has brought me to this point where I think I should just start in English and not offer a Dutch language back-up or safety net?

For the last three years I’ve been doing a workshop at a nearby school (where I don’t normally teach) that also has a bilingual stream. I am hired in for an intensive day of language and art activities that results in a presentation for parents.


This workshop is also done with first year pupils (aged 12), just beginning their bilingual education. They are actually beginning with a lot of new things at once, it’s a big week. A new school, many new friends, new teachers, a new experience of subjects being taught as separate hours in a timetable and…….a new language of instruction. Could we make it a more intimidating and difficult step for a twelve year old I sometimes wonder.

For the pupils I worked with earlier in the week it was the start of just the second week at their new school, and the second week of wrestling with their new language of communication. It’s also been a week and one day of a huge number of new impressions and challenges for them.

Today was just such an example, verbal word games, poetry, describing activities, group communication games, drawing and illustration, all in a day long project, lead by someone they had never seen before. In short, variation ruled the day as we bounced from one assignment to the next. Variation that is, mixed with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is one of my strong points, and today it was greeted by the enthusiasm of the pupils.

(Click here for examples of the sort of lesson assignments I make use of)

As a visitor to the school I can pretend for a day that I don’t speak any Dutch, and so force them to do all their communication in English. This way I can usurp the natural hierarchy of language in a typical Dutch school. They struggle to communicate with me in English because that is the only way it’s going to work. Rather like when you are on holiday abroad. Just like I was in France during the summer. I struggled to make use of my minimal knowledge of the French language when it was necessary. Yes it was easier of course to leave it to my wife to communicate with the locals with her much superior knowledge of the French language, but the question is, is my French ever going to improve that way?

I don’t think that I’m advocating that all my bilingual colleagues take such a hard line and aggressive language approach. I can imagine in some subject areas it could be more problematic if English was the only language used right from the beginning. But so much of my subject in the art room has the back-up of visual elements, demonstrations and images to support to aid understanding. My workshop earlier in the week was a demonstration of just how far children are able to come when thrown in at the language deep end. It’s all about listening hard, helping each other out when they don’t understand or miss a bit. But above all, and I posted about this a year ago (Learning through not understanding), keeping them stretching and reaching beyond the capabilities that they think they have.


A Curious Expressive Juxtaposition

Intentional or not, there is a strange coming together of art at the Fundatie Museum in Zwolle in the Netherlands. Two quite separate exhibitions, one of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter the German movement of expressionist art from the begininning of the twentieth century, the second by the Dutch artist Rob Scholte create this contrast.

imageThe display of the German expressive paintings from a century ago features many of the names that you might expect, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke, Franz Marc and Max Pechstein are all to be found. The museum website documents the show well as does the second link here on Wikipedia:

Museum de Fundatie

Die Brücke

The paintings displayed have many expressive hallmarks. Free and aggressive use of the brush and the marks it can make for example. There is also an abundant use of non-naturalistic colour and a freedom in the way the creation of form is approached and faces and figures are manipulated, stretched and adjusted to fit pictorial purposes.
It is all very much what you might expect from expressionistic art, a cutting loose from the art that had gone before that had become too self conscious of itself.
With this as a visual background it is interesting to then move on to the Scholte exhibition. The display of many hundreds of embroidered artworks is undoubted a creation to the Dutch artist, however the individual artworks themselves technically speaking aren’t. Spread out in expansive clusters are embroidered artworks that the artist has been collecting over the years. Picking them up from flea markets, jumble sales and second-hand shops.

imageSome of the groupings are of rather kitsch hunting scenes, flower arrangements and the like. Perhaps the most engaging collections are the embroidered versions of icons from the worlds museum collections. Multiple versions of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard and Millet can all be found. It should be underlined just how many of these images that there are to see, spread across the museum walls in loose grid arrangements.
The variations in the various version of the same base image is one of the engaging aspects of the exhibition. These variations are rather greater than you might expect, you might think that one embroidered version of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch would be much the same as another, the whole point of this form of embroidery being to meticulously execute the sewn version of the original and as accurately and evenly as possible.

imageIt is here that Scholte provides the twist, by displaying the reverse sides of the embroidery rather than the front sides. The variations and irregularities are fascinating to see. It is also here that a surprising parallel with the German expressionist work arises. These painters from the beginning of the twentieth century were interested in a looser and less self-conscious approach to there image making, less lethargic and more expressive. When you look at the reverse sides of the embroideries you are struck by the “unselfconscious” way many of them are made. This is of course hardly surprising when the makers’ attention has been so fully engaged with the other side of the image. Many of the resulting images have an extremely expressive quality as abundances of loose threads cross cross one another leaving an often chaotic, reversed and yet recognizable end result.
It is tempting to describe the work as being almost accidentally made, but that is to go a step too far, for in most cases it is functionally that governs. The loose threads are knotted off and twisted away. It is how this is done that creates the expressive and loose qualities. Although even here there is the extra variation in the way one work rapidly secures loose ends, whilst another applies a rigorous system of neatness to the back as well as to the front.

Empty classroom, cleaning up and preparation….and no kids!

The end of year phase is at last here. The corridors and classrooms are empty.  Although, at least in the art department that isn’t entirely the case. First the piles of rubbish bags of a year’s worth of debris have to be shifted.  At the same time the grades have to be entered into the computer before the deadline.  And then of course there is the start of the next school year to think about.  Every hour of prep work now can save you an hour of prep work during the holidays.


It is all a little bit frantic to be honest. I find myself switching from one task to another. A new colleague is starting after the holidays, so it’s important to make the necessary extra arrangements to ease her path at the start, which of course means more preparation now.  There is also the visitation that we are having from the bilingual education board here in the Netherlands that will be rolling up in October….large volumes of documentation of all aspects of the education that we offer to be gathered and got ready for presentation.

These are very different kinds of weeks at the end of the school year. The thought of a holiday just around the corner is a good feeling. But the quiet emptiness of the rooms that are normally so full the rest of the year is kind of nice to enjoy.

1700 pupils on one site is the set up where I work. On a rainy day in the winter when everyone stays inside through the lunch break, or at the switch between lessons the building is really heaving with teenagers flowing through from one place to another. In contrast to that the last days and weeks of a school year can have a fantastic sense of calm.  Yes there is a lot to still be done, clearing up, meetings, preparation for the next school year and the marking of end of year projects and work. But often in these last days you find yourself simply sitting at the computer in an empty classroom or some other solitary task and you are struck by how wonderfully different your familiar work place feels without the kids.