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.
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.
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.
Artists have always had notebooks, drawing books, sketch books, call them what you will, the place where ideas, impressions and notations are set down. The links below take you to records of my own favourites:
Many artists value them more highly than the actual finished pieces of work, they form a chronological document of a creative life, record a working process, a document full with potential, waiting to be developed.
I can relate to much of that, I have a collection of hard back books of various sizes that go back to my teenage years. To call them a diary would be wrong and create a different sort of impression, however they are records on my creative life and when I open them up I see notations that carry me back to where I was in by creative activities, but often a whole lot more beside. A particular page may conjure up recollections of people I was with at the time, where the drawing was made and maybe particular circumstances that led me to take a particular approach.
However, during the last eight years or so there has been a development in my sketchbook use. I now have two quite distinctive sets of books. The first is a book of plans, doodles, experiments and thoughts that relate to my main studio practice. They contain notations and instructions to myself that will help carry me towards the type of work that is documented in the ‘My own paintings’ link at the top of the page.
Within these pages I am puzzling out ideas and arrangements, recording plans and trying to find my way in this section of my creative output. This is undoubtedly the most important part of my work as an artist. The pages of these books rarely have a very aesthetic appearance, that’s not the point, they are about recording, experimenting and hopefully avoiding dead ends and the pursuing bad ideas when studio time is precious.
Alongside this I have a second set of books. These are mostly a little smaller, A6 or A5 format. I call them my ‘recreational’ books. For that is what they are. The very first one in this series was made in 2009 during a month-long family trip to Orkney in northern Scotland. I decided it would be interesting to somehow record this family expedition. It felt like a big adventure, my wife and me travelling with our children aged 9 and 11 at the time, on trains, boats and buses, with two small tents in rucksacks on our backs.
The resulting A6 sketchbook became filled with forty or fifty drawings and watercolours of the expansive skies and glistening horizons that we encountered. Since this trip I have continued the practice, whenever we travel the latest book comes with me, also if it is just a day trip. I enjoy the process, and over the years I do seem to have got better at rapidly capturing, mostly the landscapes, that we pass through.
So, I have two seemingly quite distinct set of documents in these compact books on my shelves. I have often found myself wondering about other artists who might have similar split creative outlets. One that springs to mind is perhaps Ellsworth Kelly. On the surface, his elegant and deceptively simple line drawings of plants seem to have little connection with the large scale geometric abstractions. But look a little more carefully and the connections are there, lines and edges, intersections and an economy of information.
Like with Kelly’s work, I am starting to feel increasingly that these two streams of creativity do in some ways show tendencies to converge. Geometry in the landscape has always fascinated me. Where is this geometry ever stronger than in the hard edge of the horizon of the sea on a clear day….a scene that I have often enough recorded in the travel notebooks. And more recently trees as a motif are finding their way repeated into the studio work and I would certainly be inaccurate to say that my experiences of drawing trees in the landscape in my ‘recreational’ books hasn’t in some way been feeding through into what I consider to be the ‘real’ work.
Since Christmas I’ve been working on a series of drawings that merge elements of geometry with the more chaotic side of nature. Nature, you could say is being checked and controlled by hard edges being imposed on it.
The drawings have been progressing well, and at speed, so the point has been reached of scaling the up a little to see how they work in a larger form.
I remember one of my lecturers at art school using the word ‘cartomaniac’ to describe herself. It struck an immediate chord with me because I recognized something of myself in the term. A gallery full of large scale map paintings at the Vatican museums that I had seen a few months before my teacher’s remark had truly captured my attention. The balance between the pictorial and the graphic qualities, the representation of landscape and yet the apparently abstract forms all come together to, form a type of image that engages and fascinates.
It is the schematic representation of the world around us, everything so familiar, yet so different, the symbols, the lines and patterns, the place names. There is just so much to see. When I travel, a map is always a necessity, seeing where I am, what’s around me and where I can go. I, like most people, have a small collection of maps from various holiday destinations I’ve visited over the years. But perhaps my favourite is actually one closer to home, it is a very Dutch map indeed and one showing the most interventionist approach to the real landscape. It shows the 32 kilometer long afsluitdijk, a 32km raised causeway that was built across the North Sea to create a division between the sea on one side and the Ijsselmeer on the other.
For a long while I’ve been planning to work with maps in my own teaching work (I continue also to ponder how I actually might one day include them in my own paintings too). The school plans though have made progress this year and resulted in a series of paintings made by my third year groups (age 14-15). While I feel that the project is still a bit of a work in progress and can be refined and developed next year, there have been some good results that I am posting here.
The assignment was built on top of an abstract drawing assignment where pupils explored ideas of movement and flow in an abstract design. There are also some very dominant conventions in map making, water is blue, more natural areas green and so on, one of my aims was also to break free from these more obvious routes.
Building on these ideas we were able to take map representations of cities around the world. Exactly which city plan was the basis us left to the pupils, for some it was a location they’d been to, for others it was an aesthetic choice and for still more it was place that they hope one day to visit.
The resulting works have an impact that catches the attention and has given us material that once displayed together on the printed banners we’ve made grabs the attention.
From time to time I post things about apps that I am making use of in the classroom on the iPads that the pupils I teach all have. One of the limitations I have in this area is that the apps essentially have to be free. Generally the school has a policy that if the app is one that is likely to be used by multiple subject areas they may consider buying a collective license, but if on department, and certainly if it’s just one teacher who’s involved it has to be a freebie!
The art department this understandable policy often presents a problem. There are many good drawing and painting apps out there, but most have restrictions and limitations with the free versions that simply make them less interesting to use. But one that doesn’t suffer from this problem is the truly awfully named MediBang Paint. Whoever thought of that name!
Aside from the name though, this really is an excellent app, with a tremendous range of well-organized possibilities. I’ll be using it during the coming weeks as an extension of an abstraction project that I have been working on. For this application I particularly like the guided drawing tools that allow you to work extensively with concentric circles, parallel lines or with a vanishing point (see the example below).
When my pupils have had a go at producing their own designs I’ll post more.
Most art teachers are constantly changing, adjusting and refining their lesson material and the projects that they do with their classes. I for one am rarely completely satisfied and am constantly looking to push the various assignments that I do with my pupils into new areas. This approach keeps things interesting for me and also keeps in the possibility of being surprised by the results that the pupils make.
Sometimes it’s quite difficult to predict what will work and capture the imagination of the classes and produce really memorable work. When this happens though you can often sense the excitement running through the whole class as they realize that the things that they are designing or making are indeed something a bit special.
This happened recently whilst working on a project based around abstraction. I’ve written on my blog before about dealing with abstract art with the third year classes I teach (14-15 year olds).
Abstract art is a theme I enjoy exploring with them. The module starts with some drawing assignments that relate mark making to sound and music followed by some collage preparation work. This year I decided that I wanted to include in this module also a element about how illusionistic and real space can be combined in an art work. I wanted to make abstract work with them that lurked in the middle ground between two dimensional and three dimensional abstract form. There is maybe no other artist that has explored this middle ground so thoroughly than Frank Stella.
Using Stella’s Cones and Pillars series as a touch stone the pupils set to work using a 30×30 cm piece of plywood, a hand saw, acrylic paint and wood glue, each pupil produced their own abstract work based on a quarter circle base form with a number of two-dimensional painted forms set in three dimensional space.
At a certain point the pupils started to see what was going to be possible and spurred on by the complexities of Stella’s work began to become more and more creative in looking for their own solutions. The end results across the fifty pupils in the two classes of this age that I teach was consistently good with a number of exceptionally well worked out pieces of work.
All of a sudden I had boxes full of rather fragile, but really interesting pieces of work that the pupils were actually very proud of. It was work that had to be exhibited around school. A few pieces will find their way into a glass case at school. But thanks to a little extra budget being made available by the finance department I’ve been able to photograph all fifty and had them printed onto a plastic canvas to hang up as an eleven meter long artwork in the school hall.
Since early May this year I have been working on a large scale artwork for a research institute in the Dutch town of Nijmegen. I have never had the chance to work on such a large scale piece of work knowing that the location for it has already been decided. The finished work is close to four metres in width (over twelve feet if you prefer!).
The three panels are based directly on earlier completed paintings although the new versions gave the opportunity to refinement and further development in some areas.
Most of my paintings are essentially quite small. So the chance to work on such an expansive scale has been technically interesting although more so in the area of actually seeing how ideas that worked well on a more intimate scale would scale up. The the paintings show a stretch of bleak landscape that reaches across the panels in combination with bending geometry of the coloured walls. The graphic sharpness of the geometry has been increased from the smaller versions, heightening the tension of the edges of the walls where they meet the sky and where the birds appear to disappear ‘behind the sky.
The ‘ordering’ in the landscape isn’t quite what it would’at first seem. Is it actually a landscape that we are looking at? Or is it a sort of ‘décor’, scenery or film set? Is this the tranquil scene that it at first might appear to be? Where are the birds flying too?
I’ve been documenting the process of development over the last months in a series of photographs. I’ve been doing this mostly for myself, but the short film does give an interesting insight into how these paintings come together in a series of steps.
I have quite a soft spot for the minimalist, post-painterly abstract paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m too young to have memories of the work as it happened and made its way into museums and galleries in the period, but it was important to me particularly during my years at art school where it was a regular reference point to many of my teachers.
From this perspective it was interesting to visit the de Pont museum in Tilburg (the Netherlands). Alongside the permanent collection they have a temporary show, not of the aforementioned abstract work from forty to fifty years ago, but of a curious juxtaposition of light installations and graphic work by the American light artist James Turrell and historical Amish quilts that are all eighty or more years old.
It is a strange combination, an extensive collection of beautifully made bed quilts and a documentation of Turrell’s extensive sky observatory work at Roden Crater in Arizona, alongside a number of his museum space installations of projected light creating geometric forms. I love Turrell’s work, and oh how I would like to make a trip to Roden Crater. The intensities of the colour he makes use of, the manipulation of geometric form, but above all the ambiguities of surfaces in his work draws you in and keeps you asking questions about the nature of visual perception.
In quite close proximity to the light installations in the de Pont museum hang the Amish quilts. They are of varying sizes but many share an intense, but unstated use of colour. I think my biggest problem with the quilts is how they have been displayed. As I have already said, I like looking at geometric abstract paintings. De Pont has the same beautifully sharp spaces and walls that many a modern museum has. Onto these walls the quilts have been hung, with generous white spaces around them, like paintings. It is very difficult (for me at least) to escape looking at them as paintings. And yet, they are not paintings, they are quilts, built up of separate sections of fabric, immaculately stitched together. They have the added charge of a history, a personal narrative and a domestic craft. They are designed to be decorative and to lay flat over a bed as a blanket, at least in part as a functional object.
I am used to encountering functional objects in a museum context, where they are to be looked at, contemplated and definitely not touched. I don’t normally have a problem with this, here though it is simply the overwhelming tendency to try and view these objects like they are something that they are not that I find problematic.
This is clearly a deliberate strategy by the museum, the hard geometry on Turrell’s work, alongside the equally hard geometry of the Amish quilts. It’s all very interesting, but is it a reasonable comparison to be asking us to make?
Turrell’s work is designed for the museum space, the quilts very definitely were not. They were designed to add decorative qualities to the Amish home, with its otherwise quite frugal appearance and a surrounding life focussed on family and God. They were also designed to lie flat, in a different plane than the way they are displayed in the museum. In the museum, they are not only removed from their context, but displayed in a way that deposits art historical baggage onto them that seems to be pushing a point that in my view isn’t really there.
I liked both parts of the current installations, each for its own merits, but the shared importance of geometry doesn’t make the two parts, if you’ll excuse the Amish quilt context pun, easy bedfellows.
“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”. This was pretty much the advice I was given by one particular teacher when I was doing my art teacher training. I was rather shocked at the time and it has been a comment that I have often thought about since. I have always been drawn towards art with a strong abstract qualities and it is also important in my own studio work. The point this lecturer was trying to make was that in terms of art interpretation it was undoubtedly easier to give a fifteen year old a figurative image with a strong sense of narrative. It gives them simpler things to work with. The entry level is easier. I get all that, but does it mean we should avoid abstraction? Of course not, that would be crazy, we would be neglecting way too much of art history that way.
Abstraction is difficult for many teenagers, why just paint lines, shapes, colours and textures when you could paint objects, people, places and stories? It does need some careful explanation. And so this week I will begin a short series of lessons that I often do with my groups of fifteen year olds that focus on trying to show why and how some artists set about making largely abstract work.
There are various ways in which this can be done. Some teachers, like my own teacher when I was at school was amongst them, choosing to make use of figurative art that has been reduced and reduced until little that is recognizable remains. I choose though to try a route that hopefully is more recognizable to a teenager. Drawing links to music (instrumental in order to avoid confusion with narrative lyrics) or contemporary architecture. I try to show pupils how non-representational sounds in the case of music or forms in architecture can work to produce, expressive, engaging and complex results.
They are used to becoming emotionally engaged in a favourite piece of music or enjoying the wow factor of the gleaming metal lines and reflective surfaces of a modern building. It is still something of an intellectual leap to discover some of the parallels that a visual artist might be trying to explore. But is it too difficult to make it worth trying to explore it? Certainly not, in fact I would say quite the opposite. When it comes to working with pupils on practical work on the theme it offers creative possibilities to pupils who with many other sorts of art assignment may struggle.