The fear of getting started, the pressure of the empty page

The anxiety of getting started, we all have it to a degree. Those involved in the visual arts will certainly recognize the confrontation with that virgin white piece of paper, canvas or block of stone. For me, and I’m guessing for many others, it’s a bit of a mixture in reality, anxiety yes, but mixed with the sense of possibility.

blank paper

That nervousness and the feeling that something good might result is also a quality I recognize all too clearly in those I teach. This goes for the twelve year olds in my first year lessons right through the most elderly in the courses for adults that I lead. The edgy excitement that a blank canvas, immaculate sheet of white paper or other yet to be touched material presents us with is, I think, one of the driving forces behind creativity. It is the alchemy of turning neutrality into something of value.  But with this process of transformation comes pressure and responsibility. If you start something, can you finish it? Pressure indeed!

From my early days at art school I can remember tutors offering me and other students strategies to overcome this anxiety and to bypass that white paper confrontation stage. We were encouraged to splash paint across the sheet before we started or to screw the paper up into a ball, flatten it out and then start to work. Interesting approaches and ones that I too might from time to time also suggest.

A few weeks ago I tried an experiment with the group of fifteen adults that I work with every Thursday evening. It also produced a more experimental and open approach to drawing, an approach that also seemed to go quite a way in reducing the pressure the participants felt about the impact of their mark making.  Perhaps more interesting to me though, was the way this fed through to produce some very engaging drawings.

The set up was simple, fifteen people, fifteen pieces of paper and a variety of drawing materials on offer. I had a list of simple terms, the first was “water”. I gave them three or four minutes to draw something that for them was connected or associated with “water”. After an initial four minute drawing session the drawings were then passed on to the person on their left and I then gave them a new drawing theme for a further four minutes of drawing, “sweetness”, “Vermeer”, “five straight lines” followed.  Each time the drawing was in part a reaction to the word, but also a reaction to what was already there. The series continued with terms such as “window”, “red”, “1920s/30s” and “journey”. The final block was simply to look at the drawing that you now had in front of you and to add something that you feel the composition needs.

group drawings

Art with diminished responsibility

My initial worry was that the result was going to be either a mess or one person just obliterating the work of another. However, slowly in most (although not quite all if I am honest) a sense of order started to appear. One of the participants observed that it was kind of art with diminished responsibility, you had a part to play, but the knowledge that you would soon be passing the drawing on, having made a small contribution, was in a sense quite liberating, you didn’t feel the pressure that this sheet of paper was somehow representing you. The ownership lay with the whole group. It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see if I can persuade some in the group to take up the challenge of working one of the drawings into a truly ‘own’ piece of work.

Opinionated pupils cont’d……….

I have just come across a nice illustration to accompany the text I posted earlier in the day. It connects nicely with what I was writing about encouraging young people to learn to ask questions and in doing so forming opinions.


Thanks to Warren Berger and Edutopia and their Twitter feed for providing such suitable accompaniment!

Opinionated pupils….unlocking and articulating a standpoint?!

Teenagers have an opinion about everything it would sometimes seem. A teacher who is unjustly tough on them, why the training session at the football club is more important than their homework, how their timetable could be better organised and well, how Susan is wearing something that she just shouldn’t wear.


However trying to squeeze an opinion out of a pupil about matters of lesson content is sometimes a lot harder than you might think.  It is quite a central part in much of the teaching that I do. Cultural education involves a great deal of subjective evaluation, you are allowed to have an opinion, and I positively encourage it.

And yet, within a large part of secondary education we neglect this important ability of giving our opinion and being rewarded for how well we articulate it.  Instead we focus on testing that proves we know something or understand how to use it. I understand of course why and how this situation arises as we aim to test and measure academic abilities and understanding, this in an educationland that is constantly driven to record and classify pupil performance. But in this rush towards producing hard documentation the value of encouraging young people to give their own view and interpretation often gets completely snowed under.

In my own work as a teacher I often find asking pupils to step outside of this system is sometimes surprisingly difficult. There is often a nervousness to open up and simply to say what they think, even when we are on quite familiar ground to them, like giving an opinion about a film that we have watched in class. There is the constant “what does the teacher want me to say?” question lurking in the background. In a sense what is most often important to me is that they stop waiting for me to ask them questions and start asking themselves questions and discovering how to develop and manoeuvre a line of thought into interesting areas where they can present their own ideas and articulate them.

To help reach this point I’m noticing that my lesson material is increasingly built upon collections of short, open questions that help them to discover for themselves what sort of questions are useful to ask and which ones take them into areas that help them to formulate and justify their own opinions. The questions are often quite generic, but that’s perhaps the point, they have to discover for themselves which ones are more relevant and fruitful when trying to explain a standpoint. Ultimately I hope that the pupils will have the ability and confidence to ask their own questions, an ability that will serve them well as they move from being teenagers to young adults.

Incidentally, if there actually a Susan in one of my classes with interesting fashion sense, it might well be interesting one day to try and write a similar list of generic questions to analyse her choice in clothes.  That way we might discover more about the basis for such strong and judgmental opinions in this area!

End of the school week

IMG_20150114_201740603It’s the end of the school week and in my studio a canvas is ready, primed and the initial preparation work is done for the beginning to be made on an idea for a painting that has been rattling around in my head for the last six weeks. My working process is often quite slow and methodical paintings tend to unfold over weeks and months rather than hours and days. I’ve learnt to be patient in this regard. Studio time is always a balance between my three days a week educational work and any number of other commitments.

I feel excited by the work ahead. The concept for the painting is incredibly clear in my head, I’ve worked the plan out in a series of drawings and plans on the computer. In many ways it is simply a question of execution of the idea. Although ‘simply’ is a little deceptive.  The plan as it stands looks likely to be quite a labour intensive process and as anyone involved in the creative arts all sorts of things will, and do, happen along the way.

“….and what if Madonna was your mum?”

I’ve written that on a few of the reports handed in by my pupils in the last week or so. A little unusual I know, but the remark has come in the context of a module of work that I have been doing with my fourth year groups (aged 15-16) that has had the title of Remix in Art and Culture. Part of the module has involved taking a look at the world of copyright protection and how it works, and doesn’t work in the cultural world. Pupils have visited an exhibition by the Dutch artist Gijs Frieling whose work there involves a painted remix installation that touches on any number of his artistic and cultural references and favourites.


We have also watched the excellent and entertaining film RIP A Remix Manifesto, made by Brett Gaylor to give a broader picture of remix in culture and the way in which copyright is tangled up in it.

The pupils themselves have produced their own music remixes and examples of mash-up graphic design work to help them see and understand the role of creativity even when the artist seems to be ‘borrowing’ work from others.

It’s been a successful project and the pupils have certainly enjoyed it, especialy the practical activities. So what prompted the Madonna comment. Well, as with many such projects, the final part is a little reflection, and one of the questions I put to the class is as follows; if we are going to protect artists’ creative work with some sort of copyright law, how long should this be for? They have see in Gaylor’s film that in many countries protection runs for the life of the artist plus seventy years.

Some pupils are quite clear and outspoken, they think that the whole copyright law is completely unsustainable in our digital world and should be scrapped, or at least radically rewritten. Others though are more unsure and are clearly perplexed by the seventy year rule. Why on earth should someone have copyright protection after they have died? “They can’t benefit from it then can they?” they write.   I suspect that ‘if Madonna was your mum…..’ you might actually be able to work out why copyright protection extends in this way, and you might also be very in favour of it! Otherwise you, and, in this case your mother’s estate is going to be missing a lot of royalties.

Part of the aim of this cultural reflection subject that I teach is to develop the pupils cultural opinions. Teenagers are in general pretty good at opinions, however for my purposes, opinions do of course have to be thought through and explained. This second step of thinking through the consequences of an opinion can be surprisingly difficult and worth a post some other time.

Do you still draw and paint? – the iPad story continues

That was not a question for me personally, but a question about the art department where I work. It came towards the end of an evening where the bilingual department that I teach in presented itself to primary school children who are thinking about coming to the school next year and their parents. Having started a project last year that involves all new pupils working with an iPad, a considerable effort was made to show the effects of increasing digitalization in school.

Made with Repix (

After hearing the iPad story in the course of the evening, one parent came up to me and asked about the effects on the art department, “you do still draw and paint, don’t you?” Came the slightly nervous question. The parent involved I’m guessing probably didn’t honestly expect me to say “no of course not, we’ve given all that up and just use the iPad”! But at the same time it does reflect a nervousness that parents, and if I’m honest some teachers also have about creeping digitalization in education. Essentially its a throwing the baby out with the bath water fear, that good practice and successful classroom approaches will be somehow forced out by more (and not necessarily better) hi-tech strategies.

What I’m discovering in the art department is quite the opposite, I am still doing all the things that I always did, but the iPad offers new possibilities that I never had before to enrich the creative process. A good example of this is the clay project that I have just finished with my first years (12 year olds). As we have done before, the practical assignment was the create a ‘scary monster’ clay head, to fit onto a body that we will make later.  In the past the result of the project was simply a clay fired clay head that ultimately went home with the pupils. This year though I asked the pupils to photograph the development of the head at the beginning of each lesson. As a result each pupil has a photographic record of the whole process, from the beginning with just a formless lump of clay, to a finely worked head with a whole array of scary features. These photos have been put into an iMovie with accompanying text describing the process and the best of the photographs of the final piece of work have be digitally reworked (as in the examples here) to try to create even more sinister effects.

So to return to the parent’s question, well, yes of course we still paint, draw, work with clay and other materials. The digital developments are there to help, support and above all extend the educational possibilities, not replace the parts that already work perfectly well. It does sometimes feel like we are in a race towards a digital educational world, but drawing and painting does still have a place along with a whole load of other ‘old-fashioned’ approaches, it’s important that we don’t throw those ‘babies out with the bath water’, but equally we can’t close our eyes to the new possibilities on offer from the new tools and techniques that we have.

Fishing from the same pond

Children need a school to go to and a school needs the children just as much. Ideally a school would like exactly the same number of pupils each year and for them all to have the potential to be top class learners. Anyone who works in education knows that the reality is often somewhat different, constantly fluctuating pupil numbers and a huge range of academic abilities.

books_1The school where I work is in direct competition with a neighbouring school and is also effected by the catchment areas of a number of other schools just a little bit further away. There is of course a limited number of potential clients though, we are all fishing from the same pond of children, it is just a question of how they are going to be divided up. As a result of this situation there is quite an intense rivalry and a determination to show just how exceptional your own educational institution is. It’s educational market economics at its best, or at its worst, depending on your point of view. For me there is a lingering thought that education money is being wasted in educationland during this internal competition, but with the income of a school being largely dependent on the number of pupils it attracts is there any other alternative?

It is of course also a little bit of a double edged sword though, because no school would literally want all the children, that would present a whole range of potential problems, even if they could find the space to put them! But that said, the PR circus is in full swing and we have to but our best foot forward and create a good impression to potential new pupils and their parents.

It helps of course if you have something distinctive to offer and offering bilingual education is in our case just that. We are one of about 150 Dutch Secondary schools that offer around seventy percent of the timetabled lessons in English. My role for the evening is to give a number of demonstration lessons to interested twelve year olds and their parents, giving insight into how teaching in a second language (for the pupils that is) actually works. I, like other colleagues will be giving the lessons, but if we’re honest, we’re not the stars, we’re not even the most persuasive element. The real winning element are the children who just one year earlier sat in the room being persuaded themselves. By letting them participate in the demonstration lessons and allowing parents and children hear just how much language acquisition can be achieved in just six months and you have an extremely persuasive formula.

Big skies and geometry

I grew up in the east of England in an area to the north of Cambridge known a s the Fens. It’s a landscape that is dominated by the simple and often hard geometry of a flat horizon line interrupted by an odd house or cluster of trees. Many might find it a bleak and empty landscape but it is an area of great beauty, rich colours and hugely expansive skies. I love visiting the area, as I often do, and driving and walking across the roads and tracks that run like ribbons across the fields.


Simple geometry and hard lines have always been an important part of my own work and I often wonder whether some of the reason for this might actually be in part tied up with my love for the simple structures found in the Fenland landscape and indeed the expanses of the nearby north Norfolk coast with its beaches and marshlands.


The fact that I have ended up living in the Dutch landscape has, I guess, only strengthened this fascination. I don’t consider myself a landscape painter, although I am hugely interested in the landscape and what it means to us, how we use or abuse it and how we manipulate the way it looks.  These are the sorts of issues I am considering in my work.  Whilst doing this, that interest in geometry keeps coming back, and above all that horizon line stretching taught across a composition.

Having been back to the Fens during the Christmas break with camera in hand I feel the geometry recharge has set me up for the coming months in my studio work.