Story telling, illustration and digital books, language and creativity in the art room

For several years I have been working on refining an art project that involves a number of distinct phases.

  • Research an artwork from art history
  • Presenting the research about the artwork and artist involved in the form of an infographic
  • Writing a story aimed at primary school aged children where the researched artwork plays a central role
  • Illustrating the story using a variety of drawing and/or painting techniques, traditional or digital
  • Designing the layout of the pages of the book where images and text have to be combined
  • ….and finally, the presenting a completed book

I will write about the use of infographics as an alternative to report writing on another occasion, but here I want to focus most of all on the story telling, the illustration and the designing of an online book.  Due to the uncertainties of the way the school year was going to develop I decided early in this lengthy project that I was going to encourage the pupils to aim for a more digital based working process.  In the end virtually the whole class chose to go virtually completely digital.

The story, once the research was completed, was hammered out on the iPads the pupils work with.  Incidentally, I should mention that we are talking here of pupils aged 14 or 15 mostly, and as part of a bilingual education stream, the pupils are working in English, their second language rather than their native Dutch.

Digital illustrations were produced using a variety of drawing apps, before these were then uploaded into the Canva app (also a pc application) to work on the page layout and overall design.  Even working on the relatively small iPad screen the pupils were able to produce some interesting and varied work. 

When all the pages are complete a .pdf can be exported of the complete book.

The pièce de résistance comes in the form of the Yumpu.com website that allowed the pupils to upload the raw pages to the site to generate an online digital version with three dimensional pages that can be turned. 

Click below to take a look at some of the possibilities the project offers from this year’s results:

Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Once we reach this point it is over to their teacher to grade the work on four criteria:

  1. The interest, complexity, and engagement of their story writing
  2. The use of English and grammar
  3. The quality of the illustrations
  4. The quality of the layout of the book

It is a lengthy project.  But in a world where we are all (and in the art department) are having to lean heavily on digital means, it is a project that offers interesting online possibilities for classes that have a little digital know how.

New Year’s resolution……to draw more, again

Last year I started the year with a plan to draw more. I have drawn a lot in the last twelve months, but still have the feeling that I should do it more, if only to avoid later dead ends in paintings that haven’t been sufficiently planned out.

So this year we start again and above is the first drawing of 2021.

Last year’s resolution can be found here:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/new-year-the-same-old-resolution/

2020 – Looking back on some creative online group projects

I coach a group of enthusiastic part-time painters.  We have been meeting up one evening a week for years, except of course in 2020.  In mid-March this year our painting sessions, like so many other things came to an abrupt halt.  We were temporarily able to restart for a period of four weeks in the autumn, before once again having to stop again.

I’ve done what has been possible to keep the group active (at least for those who wish to carry on at home), and the group themselves have retained contact via our app group, sharing what they are up to in the area of creativity and artistic interests.  It has, all-in all, worked well.  The group does still feel like a group and the stream of creative output certainly hasn’t dried up. 

In terms of “going online”, like my other area of work in mainstream education, it hasn’t been quite the same.  The commitment to an online lesson at a specific time didn’t feel like the way to go.  Instead, what seems to have worked best has been a series of group paintings/projects.  Anyone who wanted to, could easily contribute, and I worked on grouping things together.  Some have been very loose, and in a way, not much more than a collection of paintings and drawings around a theme, while others have been quite structured in their approach.

Looking back complete 2020 set, it is surprising just how productive the group has been, and how well this loose online approach has worked.  We are all of course hoping for better things in 2021, but as a record of 2020 it certainly shouldn’t be a year best forgotten by the group as the results below show.

Art, language and typefaces (a design project with a CLIL extension)

Since the restart of the school year back in August I have been working on a quite extensive art and language project with two of the third year groups (aged 14) that I teach. Essentially it is a design module that focuses on the fonts and typefaces but has involved:

  • A photography assignment
  • A black and white, graphic typeface design assignment
  • A painting assignment exploring more painterly approaches
  • A poetry assignment
  • Digital illustration assignment
  • A page design/layout assignment

Often with such a long drawn out assignment the challenge is to keep the energy going, but in this case, with the diversity of activities, I have never felt that to be a problem.

A brief summary of the art and design activities and a few of the results:

Typeface design made using found objects

Create a coherent font using objects that you find at home. Arrange at least five letters that clearly belong as a set and make use of the same types of objects.  The most significant challenge here is to get the pupils beyond the stage of using five pencils lying on the table to spell out a set of easy to create letters.  There are so many possibilities but it does require a kind of mental leap to bring the pupils to a point where they start to see the design possibilities.

Typeface design using only black ink

This is the most purely design related step and before we get as far as using the ink we go through a series of design steps that first involve sketch designs of three quite different design ideas. One of these is then chosen and a series of design refinements using different types of letter are made. Finally we arrive at the ink work where a series of five or six letters from there font are inked in using brush and pen work.

Painterly letters

After the graphic work of the previous assignment things become considerably looser in this coloured in and painting assignment as the pupils build on and further develop their design work.

Poetry assignment

To include a significant language element into the assignment I ask the pupils to chooses the names on at least two typeface names (and there are so many to choose from!).  These names, be they Broadway, Cairo, Baskerville, Freestyle, etc. are the starting point for the creation for writing a short poem.  The names of the letter types have to actually be a part of the poem’s text, and ultimately when the poem is presented for marking the typefaces referred to must be used.

Personal bilingual education milestones x2

During a slightly quiet moment at a conference in Brussels about a year ago, a colleague and I were reflecting on our working lives in education, and in particular on where we currently teach.  I say currently teach, but that makes it sounds like we are always switching from one school to another. But that for us is definitely not the case. As it has turned out we have been in for the long haul.

Cathy Silk and I started work at the Maaslandcollege in Oss on the same day back in 2001 and have continued our parallel educational routes ever since, Cathy in the English department of our bilingual stream and me in the art department.

During our reflections last year we found ourselves recalling pupils that had passed through our classrooms, colleagues who have come and gone, and just how many lessons we must have taught.  We also made the calculation of how many weeks of teaching we had given to our school.  As it turned out, back then it was around 950 each.  Yes, we were each nearing 1000 weeks of teaching in Oss.  Further calculations and we knew that the milestone of 1000 weeks would occur in mid-November 2020.  We could have a small party we thought, maybe a sort of reunion with some colleagues, ex-colleagues and  pupils, nothing too official, just an occasion to mark a point in a journey that continues and to involve some people who have shared it with us.

So here we are in November 2020, 1000 weeks of teaching later, but no party.  Like so many festive moments, plans have been disrupted.  That is of course no big deal, there are more important things in play at the moment, and such an anniversary is just a moment in time.  But it is worth reflecting on what has caused Cathy and I to have stuck around in the same school for so long.  I think I can probably write for the both of us in saying that quite a few things play a part.

Firstly, being part of the bilingual educational project in the Netherlands and, at the Maaslandcollege in particular, has been both fascinating and rewarding.  Our school was one of the first to begin this form of education back in the mid 1990s.  A form that sees Dutch children taught in English in order to fast track their language learning abilities and ultimately brings them to levels that surprise me every year.

Our colleagues, both present and past have also been a reason to stay.  An enthusiastic, social and knowledgeable group.  In the occasional dip moments there have always been people around to remind you that it is a school that makes you want to be part of the team.  One colleague, Lobke, should get a special mention, she was a twelve old pupil at the school, starting the very same week as we did.  She is now an established member of our bilingual team as a biology teacher, a reminder for us both in the staffroom of the values of the bilingual program.

Educationally, both Cathy and I, have always been given considerable freedom to form and shape our own teaching programs.  This is without a doubt one of the main reasons we have remained so steadfastly committed to our Maaslandcollege.  By giving teachers space to explore and experiment in their work you keep them interested, enthusiastic and awake to new possibilities.

But then there is the school itself.  On paper it is a fairly standard looking sort of school, 1500 or so pupils, quite comprehensive in terms of the educational streams that it offers.  But apart from the staff, it is of course the pupils who make a school. It is difficult to calculate just how many Cathy and I must have taught over the years, other than to say that it is plenty!  They arrive as, maybe rather uncertain of the themselves 12 year olds, you fight and joke with them through the middle years of their secondary schooling and finally they depart with their diploma and a sort of mutual respect as arrived in the relationship.

It’s nice to be able to follow many of my ex-pupils through Linked-in.  The contact is low-key, but does let me see what some of them have moved onto do.  I think also gives the pupils themselves a sort of contact route with something of their own formative teenage educational years.  It’s a line of contact that is very definitely open (as far as I am concerned) to go further if the need presents itself.  Before the summer I was able to help an ex-pupil with the development of a museum educational program she was working on, and next week I will be doing something similar with another who I last taught, I think, about six years ago.  As a teacher, such moments are really greatly valued educational extras.

It is always nice to run into ex-pupils, on the train, at the station, in the supermarket.  It reminds you just why you are in education.  For both Cathy and me it is especially rewarding when these chance encounters involve a young (Dutch) adult launching into an enthusiastic conversation with us in English, fluent and without hesitation, reason enough to have stayed around to reach that 1000 weeks mark!

Studio progress during lockdown

During 2020 in the Netherlands we had the lock down months, the return to a summer of reasonable (but stay at home) normality and then back into lock down again.  I have been in an out of my studio quite a bit. Not for long periods of activity, it was mostly a quite fragmented working process as any number of other commitments seemed to continually get in the way. 

Maybe it is this broken up character of a working process that have been to blame, but I do feel that 2020 has been in terms of my own practical work a period of a few interesting discoveries, but also a number of dead ends.  I know that exploring dead ends is all part of the creative process, but these are generally parts that don’t actually leave you feeling that content or satisfied in what you are doing.

However, as we near the end of 2020, at last I feel these cul de sacs are starting to pay me back in the paintings I’m making.  These steps have been supported by quite a bit of drawing and printmaking to find the way to where I am now. Finally there are a variety of possibilities to be explored, a view I haven’t had for a while as I have struggled through a number of creative processes that can best be described as interesting failures.  And so the twisted, folded and manipulated nature as it is seen in the newest versions of the circular tree paintings can continue.

The long and drawn out tale of a Frida Kahlo painting

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and has subsequently been rescheduled for the autumn of 2021……..I’m sure as a group we’ll be going.

Our group reconvened back in September.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

We almost made it!  Four weeks later, we are back in lockdown, hopefully not for as long as last time.  We are returning to our sharing of creative work in the app group and working at home on some group projects that I assemble as we progress.  Such projects help us all feel that we are still part of a group.  Our Frida work is all but finished, we’re just missing a couple of panels from the outer most reaches of the composition, but the work as it currently stands is a satisfying result and good approach work for the exhibition visit next year.

What the art teacher did…..apart from just teaching

We are not quite at the time of the year yet where I spend time encouraging pupils to consider choosing art as a final exam subject.  It is often quite hard work opening pupils eyes to the possibilities, the personal development that such a choice might bring or, if they were to take it further, the range of opportunities on offer if they were to head in the direction of the creative industries when seen as a whole.  There is often resistance to such a message from home, from colleagues and, it has to be said, from other influential places such as mainstream media and government. 

A recent crass an ill thought out British government advertising campaign to recruit for the National Cyber Security Centre underlines the problem.  The message to the ballerina seems to be to to go and get a proper job.  There was a suitable reaction to the image from those who work in culture, and social media was suddenly full of reactionary  memes and the government was forced into some embarrassed back-peddling, but it shows an underlining message.

Financial Times article

The Big Issue reaction

These prejudices run deep. At the school where I teach we essentially give lessons in twelve subject areas.  Eight of these are seen as being “before the line”.  A cut-off line that defines the eight that are seen as weighing most heavily when monitoring a pupil’s achievement. The four subjects ‘after the line’?  Well, those are art, music, philosophy and physical education.  Mainstream education still has a way to go to understand and value the place of culture and creativity it would seem.

I trained in the arts, both my brothers did and my niece did.  We all work, and are engaged fully in areas of work that we trained for.  I have more art and creatively orientated work on my plate than I have time for.  I teach teenagers to understand and appreciate the informative, communicative and enrichment that the arts can bring to our lives.

There is an irony here though, as I mentioned, I have plenty of work to do.  And part of the reason for that is the extent to which the school at which I work can make use of my creative skills.  Think of things such as:

  • Animation films, posters, folders and flyers for any number of in school and PR related reasons
  • Films documenting school activities and trips
  • Exhibiting of pupils work around school
  • Website building to make lesson material accessible for pupils
  • Playing an active role in school related social media work and the material that we place there
  • Giving workshops and developing lesson material in the area of digital media

These are skills that have their roots in deciding to chooses art as an exam subject, these were built on during my years at art school and further developed independently thanks to the creative, problem-solving attitude I developed whilst pursuing this study and indeed afterwards.  What is this ‘behind the stripe’ nonsense?  Art and creativity is work and it is truly all around us. One variation on the Fatima image takes this a step further.

I could go on, but those schooled in the creative industries are often multi-skilled and hugely useful in all areas of work.  A school is no different, and with that in mind, I’m just off to brush of my Illustrator skills again and do the next bit of PR design work…..which will in due course benefit all my colleagues, in whatever subject area, in the long run.

A book of our time, a book about dealing with losing time, place and opportunities

I’ve never posted a book review, the mention of an odd art or education related book perhaps, but I’ve never felt the need to…. despite being a fairly avid reader.  Until this week that is.  I have been reading Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book The Diving-bell and the Butterfly.  It is a collection of observations and anecdotes made whilst paralyzed with Locked-in Syndrome. Trapped inside a completely static 44-year-old body Bauby dictated his text using a system of blinking his left eye to indicate which letter his assistant should note down.

The sudden and completely unexpected brain injury the writer suffered that left him bed-ridden is both shocking and confrontational to read about in someone so young.  But as you read on you are drawn into Jean-Dominique’s world, his past, his family and friends as well as the interactions with his carers.  This should, you would think, be a challenging and heavy read, and yet it is anything but that.

Bauby displays an ability to see so far beyond his hospital bed plight.  It seems an almost superhuman achievement to explore and reflect on his life and his future when all his faculties to communicate have been closed down by his injury.  He discusses the simplest things, such as not being able to run his fingers through his son’s hair, to amusing stories from his past as an editor in chief of the French edition of Elle magazine.  He takes the reader away on memories of holidays past, dictating them to us the reader just as he has explored them for himself time and again confined in his prison-like body.

Throughout there is little evidence of a voice that is expressing regret, rage, or frustration, although all of those emotions must surely have been experienced. No, what comes out of this short one-hundred page book is a writer who seems to want to share, to maybe open our eyes a little more and to still feel part of a world that is in so many ways cut off from him.

Whilst reading it isn’t long before you started to see the connections with the world as we are experiencing it now. We are all feeling restricted, like the world as it was, is passing us by. Times are indeed difficult and challenging. But Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book does throw it into a different perspective and one that does bring a feeling of wonder for one man’s inner spirit and inner world.

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination and my memory

Footnote: Although I have only just read Bauby’s book The Diving-bell and the Butterfly I did also see the film made by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel several years ago.  The structure of the film is rather different to the book, but it too is excellent and visually fantastically strong.   

H3P going where few classes dare to go

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek post that mentioned my third year class H3P (mostly 14 year olds).  The post referred to how they sit down the back of the classroom, seemingly trying to get as far away as possible from me, which in the Covid classroom is, in some ways, quite welcome.

But H3P deserve a mention today for a completely different reason.  They are just over two years into their bilingual education. About 70% of all their timetabled lessons are taught not in their native Dutch, but in English.  We work hard at school with our classes to break through the tendency pupils have to slip out of English and back into Dutch.  Being a native speaker of English my own use of English is 100%, but even with that sort of input, some classes have to be pushed, cajoled and bullied into full participation.

Today during my lesson with H3P at the end of the afternoon I had to pop out of the room to go to the copy machine.  On returning to the art department I entered the corridor, the door was open and from the far end of the corridor I could already hear the class.  They can be a rowdy and chaotic bunch, especially when they think that I am not looking!  I crept up to the doorway to have a listen to hear what all the noise was about before entering the room.

The class seemed to be shouting and arguing with each other.  Nothing too heavy, it was all good humoured.  I listened on.  It was fascinating to hear my group of fourteen year old Dutch children arguing with each other in English, shouting to each other in English, joking in English. 

Two years ago I traveled to England with the very same children.  A trip that we use to try and help the children over the psychological barrier of daring to speak their first English words and broken sentences.  And now, two years on, the same group is arguing amongst themselves in English.  I stood outside for a while, it was fantastic to hear!