Priceless moments in education – the Jean Paul Gaultier dress

Once in a while something in the classroom happens that is just priceless. It might be the timing of a joke, throwing a ball of paper over your shoulder and across the classroom straight into the bin or a truly insightful comment of a pupil. Yesterday produced such a moment…..

It concerned a fashion assignment my fourth year pupils (15-16 year olds) are working on. A number of the girls were sitting at computers doing some preparatory work by researching nineteenth century fashion and contemporary designs. I don’t have any fashion orientated training, more a passing interest that has recently been stimulated visits to a number of museum fashion exhibitions. To my pupils, I think I am very much their art teacher and one with a particular interest in painting and sculpture.

As I walked around watching the pupils trawl through hundreds of photographs on a variety of sites one of the pupils stopped me and pointed to an image of a model in a dress on the screen.

gaultier“Do you know by any chance know who designed this dress sir?” she asked.

I looked over her shoulder, I could hardly believe the coincidence, it was one of the gowns that I had seen last year in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague last year, and better still, I did remember who’s it was!

I paused for a moment and said, “yes, that’s by Jean Paul Gaultier”, carefully saying nothing more, and definitely not referring to the source of my knowledge. A couple of searches and clicks later and the pupil concerned had double checked my identification and found it to be true.

The best bit though was when the girl sitting next to her (and a bit of a fashion expert herself) slowly turned and looked up at me and said, “and you can tell that just by looking at the dress?”

“Yes” I said and walked away. As I moved on I glanced back, the look of dumbfounded amazement on the second girl’s face was truly priceless!

They say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but equally, a little knowledge , used sparingly can be a truly wonderful thing. You can walk away appearing to be, if not a genius, at least a contemporary fashion expert.

Further fashion related posts:

Language and colour – a CLIL warm up assignment (content and language integrated learning)

For a number of years I’ve been using an assignment aimed at stretching pupils’ vocabulary in the very early days of them starting to get to grips with English in my bilingual art room.  It focusses on trying to introduce more descriptive terms than just the most basic ones. It is also an assignment that in terms of my art lesson is about a little colour theory and learning to mix colours. The aim being to stop them relying simply on the shades that come directly out of the pot.

muddyIn a nutshell, it is all about taking a particular shade of a colour, maybe a rather ‘in-between’ sort of an example and to try and think of an appropriate name for the colour.  I encourage them to try and be creative and not go for the obvious.  Perhaps my favourite example is ‘goal mouth brown’….that shade of brown of the muddy puddle of earth and water that forms in a well trodden goalmouth of a football pitch on the school playing field!

Its a simple little assignment, that could certainly be built on or developed.  In the art room by the mixing of multiple variations of a particular shade from the colour circle for  example, and dreaming up suitable titles for them.  In the language classroom the colours that have been given these new names could become feather focus of a piece of creative writing or poetry perhaps.

A link to the small assignment sheet that I use can be found below:

Colour mixing assignment sheet

One of the reasons I am prompted to write this post is that I discovered today the ‘colour-thesaurus’ as made by Ingrid Sundberg.  She’s taken this idea so much further and her grids of names could themselves also easily to generate extremely rich and varied pieces of colour inspired writing.

Ingrid Sundberg’s Colour


Kirchner in the Singer Museum in Laren

imageNever having made it to the Kirchner’s museum in Davos Switzerland Kirchner’s work has often been an experience of seeing one of his paintings amongst a group of German expressionist pieces in a museum collection. Seeing an extensive group of his work was reason enough to make a trip to another museum, much closer to home, that I’ve never quite made it to either. The museum in question is the Singer museum in Laren (the Netherlands).

The show consists of around a hundred pieces, paintings, works on paper and woodblock prints. We are taken on a journey from his expressionist roots and connections with Die Brucke group, his relocation to the Alps and finally to his depression and eventual suicide there. It was a period in the 1930s when his work was branded degenerate and 600 pieces were removed from German collections and were either sold or destroyed.
The paintings in the singer are almost all figure based work. The earlier pieces relying on aggressive brush work and strong us of colour. These are the sorts of pieces I have seen elsewhere in Die Brucke exhibitions. The more surprising part of the exhibition comes, for me at least, in the later work that displays perhaps more influences from the likes of Picasso and Braque but above all in the woodcut prints that are displayed.
The graphic limitations of the woodcut technique brings with it an economy of line that brings a simplicity of form coupled with the high contrast of black ink on white paper. This same simplicity returns in the later paintings in the exhibition.




The art teacher, Dirk and a very old computer game

Sometimes it can feel like the educational world we as teachers bring to our pupils is an extensive construct that pupils know that they are expected to play along with. It’s not their real world, a kind of necessary evil, a means to an end. Many of them are very good at playing this game, they invest in it, engage and often enjoy it. However their ‘real world’ interests outside of school life often seems quite detached and at times hidden from teachers and the school context. It might be that they are totally into music, dance, a particular sport, spend hours watching movies, gaming or something similar. These are the things that does something different for them, it makes them perhaps more unique or independent from their peers in some way. I notice this in my own children, my son with his passion for running and writing, my daughter with her drawing book and guitar.

Occasionally though this line between school and outside of school gets crossed and blurred. Rarely was this more evident to me than in an incident when I was teaching a group of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Somehow in a discussion with the class we got onto the subject of earning money and the jobs the pupils do outside of school. One of the class asked me what I did as a teenager to earn some extra money. I replied that I worked on a fruit farm, but I also mentioned that I used to write and have published computer games for an early form of the home computer. This was met with a certain amount of disbelief, ‘but you’re an art teacher’ was kind of the rough direction of the remarks.

YOOGORP1Dirk, one of the boys in the class, was particularly interested. Dirk is a smart and generally engaged pupil, although I should say at this point that art and my lessons where never really his thing, he did what was necessary to ensure a satisfactory grade, but at least as far as I was concerned never more. In the course of my years of teaching Dirk I felt that we socially had a good relationship, we could joke and laugh together, but I rarely saw him truly ‘switched on’ by one of our activities. This was the case at least until I mentioned my surprising past as a published author of computer games!

Initially Dirk didn’t quite believe me, I needed some proof. It was a long shot but I decided to Google the name of the magazine that published the games I’d written. You never quite know what you might find on the net and sure enough I found a couple of sites that mentioned the magazine. A couple more searches and I had found a lot more. There seemed to be a complete list of the titles of all the games that were ever published by the magazine. I scanned the columns and there, sure enough, amongst all the other names, there I was. I called Dirk to the front to show him, I had the evidence. Dirk and others in the class were impressed, I felt my credibility rising!

Interestingly my name was one of the few hyperlinked names in the list. A click on the link and to everyone’s amazement and my absolute astonishment it turned out that it was possible to download the code for the computer program that I had written. In the classroom at school on our protected computer network it wasn’t possible to fully download the game, but I could clearly see that Dirk’s interest had been well and truly activated, in a way that his art homework had never be able to do. He left the lesson determined to see if it would be possible to get this thirty year old computer game working!

A few hours later I was checking my mail in the train on the way home. Amongst the mails suddenly appeared a very excited one from Dirk, “Mr. Sansom, I’m playing your game, it works!!”  I’m still not sure who was more amazed me or Dirk. But one thing is for sure, on that day there was a bridge built between my world, the world of school and Dirk’s interests and experiences outside of school.  These sort of bridging moments happen more often in education, normally when you’re least expecting them. They sometimes offer educational opportunities that can be built on, but even if they don’t they do provide a chance to get a little closer to your pupils, understand them better and perhaps just as important let them understand just a little bit more about you.

ZX81-leftFor anyone interested in the computer involved in this post it was a Sinclair ZX81, the techy details can be found here. (I should also mention that the game screenshot above isn’t of my game, but it does give a good idea of the graphics capabilities of the ZX81).

Tonal drawing and a favourite non-Internet resource

We live in a digital age. For teachers the Internet is awash with ideas, lesson plans, didactic advice and useful resources. I also contribute to this chaotic library of material by posting to this blog. The challenge is often simply keeping some sort of order to it all, the sites, the Facebook posts, Twitter links and so on.

It is sometimes with some relief that, sitting at home, I can reach for book from my bookshelf and flick through the pages looking for the germ of an idea that could be used in one of my lessons. It was just this sort of occasion that lead me recently to pick up one of my all-time favourite books on the subject of drawing, Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis.  It is a fantastic book. It’s not aimed at any particular age group or situation but supplies a wealth of ideas that can be turned and manipulated for a variety of situations.  On page 106 is a particular favourite of mine, it involves making a tonal drawing of a face that has been distorted through the use of an irregular grid being applied to an original portrait image.


I’ve used it recently with two classes of fourteen and fifteen year olds that I teach. As far as I was concerned, the main technical aim of the assignment was to get the pupils experimenting with the full range of tones that a 2B pencil offers. They enjoy the idea of working with a portrait, although it should also be said that they are slightly intimidated by it as well. This is where Kaupelis’ idea of distortion is a bonus. It offers a degree of freedom and a step away from their own drawing having to ‘look’ like the original.

experimentaldrawingThe initial challenge of stretching and compressing the face looks initially to be quite complex. The face element that is originally framed neatly in a square box has to be stretched and distorted in order for it to occupy maybe a thin rhomboid form. I think it is fair to say that the more mathematically minded in the class seem to relish the challenge. Maybe it’s less intuitive, but perhaps that is what they often find difficult in the art room.

Once he basic deformation is in place, with particular attention paid to those crucial zones containing the eyes, nose and mouth it’s then over to the shading and tonal work. For me it is all about pushing the pupils to work to extremes of contrast, they are often reluctant to use the full range in their drawings from the darkest a pencil allows right up to the pure white of the paper.

The results of working in this way can be fantastic and it is great to observe a class at the end of a couple of lessons standing back and glowing amongst themselves in the level of achievement that they feel that they have reached! Documented here is a set of drawings produced by one of my classes this month. The following challenge is to take the same degree of accuracy and tonal work into an assignment where they work from life, instead of a two-dimensional source.

5e2540a66fbeI have in the past also used the same construction to produce a class group project where everyone produces a section of the deformed image before they are finally reassembled for a larger scale face.

Link to group project work

Incidentally, the face images that I used for both the small and the large versions are all those of Chuck Close’s ‘heads’, which offer a readymade chance to dip into a little art historical lesson element, and indeed how artists (an others) can deal with the challenges of physical disability.