February 2019 – linos progress

I posted a week or so ago about returning to lino prints and the feeling that the medium was offering new possibilities.  One week further and I’m feel more certain.  There is still plenty to do, but progress is refreshingly fast.

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Abstraction for teenagers

When I was doing my teacher training, I distinctly remember one of my art history lecturers arguing that abstraction was simply not something worth exploring with teenagers in their early teenage years.  Figurative art was the way to go, being more accessible, more linked to a narrative and simply more of an open door to them.

I would certainly acknowledge that figurative work is a more straight forward route, but to leave abstraction out of the picture seems to me to be a neglection of rather too much of the art of the twentieth century!  Each year with my classes of 14-15 year olds I launch into a quite extensive series of lessons that explores abstraction from a number of different directions.

I can’t pretend that the first session is often greeted with some bewilderment, but as the lessons and assignments progress there is an increasing realization that there is serious work to be done and artistic decisions to be made.

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I normally start by drawing parallels with the world of instrumental music (lyrics being way too much of a distraction).  Music is closer to their world of experience and discussions around rhythm, expression and emotional tone are all easily possible.  Also matters of personal taste can be explored. I use various music fragments to set the ball rolling, challenging the pupils to react with line, shape and tone to pieces ranging from the most minimal of Brian Eno compositions to pastoral classical music and techno rhythms.  Each fragment produces its own distinctive results.  The door towards abstract compositions swings slowly open.

We explore directional flow around and towards focal points in abstract arrangements. Graphic qualities in design, chaos and order, both working on paper and in digital work.  We have also explored step by step processes of abstraction from a figurative starting point, moving slowly away from pictorial conventions. We have also worked with street maps as a starting point towards working towards a much-abstracted version that has often become essentially unrecognizable.

When working around these themes I often refer to the work of Frank Stella, and this year couldn’t resist the chance to dip into his work to explore the differences between illusionistic form (through the cones and pillars relief pieces) and the real three-dimensional space that these huge constructions have.

All-in all there seems so much to explore and experiment with and I have to say that often after a little initial scepticism there is an increasing focused engagement and they start to understand the considerable possibilities and freedom that these assignments offer.  Do they miss the narrative?  My impression is that they don’t really, they just focus on the choices and options that are on offer, and they are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and technically able at the end of the module.

 

Pupils and their accessories – the ‘coffee’ cup

Is it just me, or do the pupils at my school seem to have a new accessory in their hands in the corridors and outside the classrooms?  Is it a new status symbol, a sign of who you are?

A few years ago, this would doubtless have been their mobile phone, but now everyone has one of those.  No, it’s rather more lo-tech than that.  I am seeing twelve and thirteen-year olds standing around waiting to go into lessons holding a disposable drink beaker from the coffee machine.

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We’ve had such a machine at school for ages.  Pupils have often sat around in the breaks drinking a warm beverage.  But something a little different seems to be going on.  I can’t say I’ve ever noticed them nonchalantly standing outside the classroom still holding (an often seemingly empty beaker). It might be my imagination, but it does kind of feel like this is some sort of performance. Are they trying to emulate or simulate something than they have seen elsewhere?

On my way to school each morning I am used to seeing the commuters grasping their first coffee shot of the day.  But my pupils won’t have made the same observation on their bike ride to school. Could it be that they want to be like their (incredibly cool) teachers who are regularly seen walking the corridors with a tea or coffee on the way to the next lesson?  I have to say, that also seems rather unlikely!

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I can’t draw many other conclusions other than to think that it is a somehow linked to all those informal celebrity photos of this star or that star snapped walking down the street clasping their own personal favourite brew.  A flat white or a macchiato for our pupils? No, I know for sure that the machine doesn’t dish out anything so exotic.  In fact, I would go further and say that it is still the age old favourite sugar shot of hot chocolate that they are buying.

 

An ex-pupil, art history and medical observation

It is always nice to run into an ex-pupil. It doesn’t normally make much difference whether they were a model pupil in the classroom or not. It doesn’t take long for enough water to have gone under the bridge to allow a nostalgic reflection on school or even individual lessons to be easily shared.

A while back I ran into Philippe, an ex-pupil from four or five years ago. Philippe always enjoyed being creative in the art lessons at school and indeed probably most other things that she did at school. After graduation she headed off to medical school.

As an art teacher you hope that you have given such a pupil some cultural baggage that will in the future be relevant or maybe even useful to a young person as they grow up. In the case of Philippe I don’t think I ever really doubted that. She was serious, curious and creative in class. Things would undoubtedly fall in place in the years ahead.

Even having said all that, when I ran into Philippe in the train a short time ago, I was still surprised and interested to hear a connection between our art and art history lessons at school, that we were reminiscing about, and her medical studies. She had been returning to looking at art as a part of her course. This might seem a little unexpected but there are precedents for it at Stanford medical school and others.

On her course, like at Stanford, art history was being used to hone and focus cognitive and observational abilities.

Sarah Naftalis, one of the art historians involved at Stanford outlines a few of the key points of this interdisciplinary overlap and how the “productive ambiguities of art,” as well as the benefit of engaged, close looking without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.”

Topics of the course included narrative, body in motion, skin and tone, and death, with doctors from the fields of family medicine, orthopedics, dermatology, pathology and anesthesiology leading each session.

“Bringing medicine into the space of the museum was a great aspect of the course — simply allowing different bodies of knowledge to exist under one roof. The medical students would sometimes use clinical vocabulary or concepts to describe works in the gallery, making for an interesting range of language in our discussions.”

Contributes Yinshi Lerman-Ta, another art historian involved in the program.

One important takeaway for him from the course, was learning to observe without jumping to interpretation. “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”

Sam Cartmell, medical student.

Sections above from:

Stanford medical school article

These sorts of medical/cultural overlaps are further explored in this Artsy.net article (along with broader discussions related to other medical benefits an involvement with artistic and cultural practices bring:

Artsy.net article

As an educator, and in particular as an arts educator, you never quite know where the cultural foundations you are laying may take your pupils to and what future relevance may be found. Once in a while though, like with my discussion with Philippe, you catch a glimpse.

Patience and discovery…

When time is short, particularly studio time, it is difficult to remain patient.  The feeling that every second counts as you try to squeeze creative time in amongst other, mostly work related, activities is a challenge.  This is particularly the case when you are learning new skills, skills that you need before interesting results might roll out.  The question of whether you are investing time that in the end will prove fruitless always nagging at the back of your mind.

 

lino

This is very much the case when it comes to printmaking.  Whilst an art student I spent a little time in the print room learning the basics.  Since then though, well, nothing at all. Earlier in the year I bought myself a small lino press because I suspected that my current  work might offer some possibilities to produce some prints.  I’ve had a few sessions making some initial attempts, with limited success. Today I have been busy again, and for the first time I have looked at the results and thought that there are indeed possibilities to produce some interesting images.  I’m not there yet, but am on the way I feel.  More patience and more experimentation in the weeks ahead, maybe we’ll get there.

Remember this…the reverse perspective?

 

I’ve had a lot of interest in my previous post about reverse perspective. I’ve promised a number of people that I’d try and post some more detailed instructions, so here they are:

Firstly a few basic facts about how I worked……

  • I was working with classes of twelve year olds (of higher than average academic ability)
  • All in all it took about three hour long lessons to complete

Materials:

  • A4 paper, 120-160g drawing paper (it needs to be thick enough to hold its shape once folded, but at the same time not so thick that accurate folding of the paper becomes a problem)
  • Pencils, erasers, rulers
  • Coloured pencils…..as always, the better the quality, the better the colours and results!

reverse perspective diagram

Click on the link below to download this file as a .pdf that is suitable for printing

Reverse perspective diagram

I have included an A4 printout diagram here, I didn’t give my pupils anything that was printed out, I preferred to draw it all on the board at the front, step by step and explain as I went along.

The printable has all the lines that play a part in this assignment on it all at once, the PowerPoint that I have added shows a step by step series of photographs of the order that I carried out the various steps. Click on the link below for the PowerPoint.

Reverse perspective

I’ll be interested to hear how you get on if you give it a try.  Incidentally, the illusionistic effect works better with:

  • Strong colours in the drawing work
  • When multiple ‘rooms’ are lined up together

Good luck!

Peter

Reverse Perspective

Every year in my first year classes (12 year olds) I touch on the principles of perspective, at least in its one point form. We do a little art history, take a look at Masaccio and Mantegna. We make a drawing, or a painting that in one way or another makes use of one-point perspective. There are of course lots of ways in which this can be done.

Mostly for my own amusement I mix things up a bit on a yearly basis, and also a bit dependent on just how complex I dare to make it with a particular class (although it has to be said that with some classes the term vanishing point seems to refer more to an ability to follow instructions than a place on their drawing!).

This year I decided to tackle head on an approach I’ve pondered doing for a couple of years now. It makes use of the three-dimensional ‘reverse perspective’ that British artist Patrick Hughes employs. Like perspective itself, it is a bit of a visual trick, but one that invites us to look again and question our interpretation. Whether we are looking at the resulting artwork for real or on film, in summary everything seems to not be quite as you would expect.

The drawing assignment begins with an essentially quite straight forward piece of one point perspective of an interior space. The receding lines along the top and bottom of each wall converging at the vanishing point. The most important alteration in this familiar setup is the wedge in the gap between the wall and floor or ceiling (see link to a model below, where the light blue parts need to be cut away). By removing this wedge you are able to fold the paper so that a sort of pyramid form is made, one that has had its point cut off. This can be folded in such a way that the back wall of the drawn room is forced forward. In effect it sets up a conflict between the visual illusion of the drawing that places the back wall in the distance, and the physical reality of the three-dimensional form that has been created that places the same back wall actually closer by. It is this conflict that makes the illusion so intriguing.

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The pupils this year followed the instructions carefully, added colour and folded. The results had something of a magical quality for the class. Judging by the number of views of the films that I made of the work and posted on the school’s Instagram account it had a fascination for many others too. Try it for yourself!

reverse perspective

Word of the day….”lethargic”

lethargic

“What does lethargic mean Mr Sansom?”.  An interesting question from my class of Dutch fifteen and sixteen year olds who have had three and a half years of being taught in English as part of their bilingual education.  Three and a half years of English and yet somehow they hadn’t yet come across the word ‘lethargic’.  It’s surprising really because it is undoubtedly a highly appropriate word to describe them as a class. I was teaching them during the first lesson of the day (8.20 am-9.20 am). As a class they are completely up to date with their homework, the quality of the written and creative assignments that they do are, whilst generally not being truly memorable, certainly acceptable.   

So why am I complaining?  Well, as I pointed out to them this morning, teaching the class whilst not being difficult in terms of general order, does feel a bit like having your fingernails pulled out or maybe dragging a dead weight up a hill.  It is painfully difficult to get an opinion out of them on anything, and as the subject I teach them is about unlocking opinions or art and cultural issues I find myself at a bit of a log jam. 

So what’s going on?  Well, a number of things probably: 

·         It is 8.20 in the morning 

·         This is a class of the more science related children, the culturally orientated ones are in a parallel class 

·         It is a class that is a mix of two classes from last year, a mix that somehow never seems to have come together 

But I think for me, in my lessons, the problem comes down to a maybe extreme case of a common problem amongst fifteen and sixteen year olds.  They simply spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what their peer group thinks of them. 

They are only too happy to make a remark under their breath to friends sitting in the vicinity, but outing and opinion to the whole group, certainly if it about the lesson material, seems to be a bit of a no go area. 

I could just carry on, we’d get to the end of the year OK. But I like my classroom discussions, at least I do when I’m not having them by myself.  Discussion is also good for their English and brings extra insights to the themes we are dealing with.  The teaching challenge is there for the weeks ahead.  Having taught them the word ‘lethargic’ today it is time to move on to ‘engaged’ and ‘contributor’. 

I see the class twice a week for an hour, so there are opportunities enough to experiment with different approaches.  I fact, I’m seeing them again today.  However, by a strange twist in the roulette wheel that is a new timetable for the second half of the school year, I’ve ended up with the class on two successive days at 8.20 am. Sometimes the flow just seems to be against you!

Studio days in December

three together

Combining education and producing your own work isn’t always an easy an combination. You often find yourself saying next week will be quieter, there’ll be more time then.  Then a week later…..well, you get the picture.

In the last couple of days I’ve been making an extra effort to find my way back into my studio practice, finishing of paintings that were near to completion, drawing out the next plans and documenting photographically where I am currently up to.  The images here are a series of six ring formed canvases that I have been working on.  I suspect there might still be more in this fruitful series, but at the same time the current drawings I’m making are hinting at new areas and forms that these geometric and tree based motifs are heading.

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These are quite labour intensive works, built up of numerous layers of paint, and each is accompanied my drawing, collage and digital work to plan out the possibilities.

Differentiation in the art room – are there things for other departments to learn?

I recently exchanged a number of mails with a former student of mine. She didn’t follow an arts related curriculum in her last years at school choosing a much more science related timetable. Eventually she left school to go to university to study physics and, if I remember rightly, astronomy.  During our digital exchange, quite unprovoked my me, she said that she and some of her fellow university students had been discussing the state of education recently, and had come to the conclusion that not all was really as it should be.

It short, at a distance of maybe three or four years, since they left, they had concluded that the secondary school education they had experienced had fallen short in a number of ways. She identified a number of areas:

  • The amount of time that is wasted sitting in lessons where you really are ready to move on with the teaching focusing on points that you have already fully grasped
  • The little opportunity there is to pursue themes and areas that genuinely interest you
  • The lack of challenge that there is in much of the teaching that is on offer. 

A bottom line to this discussion was one of the lack differentiation in the classroom. Differentiation as a theme has been a bit of an teaching hot potato of late, generating a lot of discussion along with moves towards more personalized forms of education. Matching education that you provide to the diversity of individuals in the class, the varying abilities and styles of learning being the aim. Whether my ex-pupil is aware of the background educational discussion I’m not sure.  But her point was, that whilst at school, a great deal of time was used and wasted (in her experience) solving fifteen maths problems when she was sure that after five she already understood what was necessary and was ready to move on (a perhaps over-simplification, but one she used to make her point). Others in the class may well have needed all fifteen, but ,in this case, she didn’t.  There lies the challenge for the teacher, how do you organize and practically cope with diversity when you are faced with a class of thirty individuals?

Alongside this observation she made an interesting point, and one that I’ve often thought about. In the art room, whilst working on a practical assignment, differentiation often happens almost automatically. You set a painting or drawing assignment and the more talented and able in the class simply challenge themselves more, both technically and creatively, than those less so. Pupils seem to have a good idea of their abilities, they try (generally) to push up against them to make small improvements, but have a reasonable idea of what are realistic aims for themselves. The result is a sort of sliding scale where, at least in theory, differentiation occurs with the pupils themselves controlling where their own learning boundaries lie.

This does sound a little to good to be true, but it is a process that I recognize and see occurring in my classroom. It begs the question, and this was my ex-pupils question too, how could you simulate something similar in other subject areas?

  • Less front on, one size fits all, traditional/classical educational approaches
  • Lesson material that incorporates a more elastic quality that stretches and challenges the pupils to challenge themselves
  • Different lesson material that incorporates a more exploration, challenge and, dare I say it, use of creativity in all subject areas
  • Digital text books that adjust want they offer depending on the strengths of the pupil
  • Timetables that are a little less rigid and along pupils more space to better cater for their strengths and weaknesses.

The school where I teach is in the process of investigating how we might incorporate a number of these types of ideas into a more personalized form of education, it is at least nice to think that we have the support of at least one ex-pupil in doing so.