Studio day

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.fullsizerender5

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Once in a while something special comes along – Cartomania

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.

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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.

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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.

A new favourite app…apart from the name!

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!

img_2974-1The 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).

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When my pupils have had a go at producing their own designs I’ll post more.

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Once in a while something special comes along…..

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.

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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).

Abstraction – They’re too young to understand it

Lipstick, Powder and Paint….and abstraction

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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.

stella6Using 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.

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3 panels commission completed….

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.

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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.

Colour, geometry, art and context – James Turrell and Amish quilts exhibition in Tilburg

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.

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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.

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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”

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“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.

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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.

A museum in place of the last lesson of the week

Friday afternoon and what better way to end the week than a quick trip with sixteen of my fourth years (15-16 year olds) to the local museum to see a little art first hand. The town where I work, Oss in the south of the Netherlands, is not that big, but it is lucky to have an excellent small museum, the Jan Cunen museum to give it it’s full name. At least is lucky to still have one for the time being, as the council are busy with plans that is likely to end with the museum being a significantly less interesting and educational place to visit. But for now though on this sunny Friday afternoon I have been able to visit a fantastic exhibition of photographs by the Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter. De Ruijter is a landscape photographer although not really in the usual sense. First of all most of his work is made using a camera that is attached to a kite that is being flown above his subject. We are of course more than a little used to the idea of viewing the world from above, be that from a plane or by using Google Earth. What makes the work more interesting is the choice of the specific sorts of landscapes he chooses. They are most often landscapes where the effects of man are quite evident and have resulted in an exposure of geometric quality in the composition of the photographs. The results are often stunningly close to the appearance to certain kinds of abstract geometric painting, a fact that the photographer is more than happy to acknowledge.

blog Gerco de Ruijter Untitled 2009 Dubai  (l. de Ruijter, r. Mangold)blog imageshandler  (l. de Ruijter, r.Marden)

It’s interesting to watch the pupils respond to the work. They see the abstract qualities in the design, a circle carefully positioned in a square in a fashion that to me is clearly reminiscent to the paintings of Robert Mangold, but in de Ruijter’s case a roundabout framed sharply be the edges of the photograph. Or perhaps it’s Brice Marden, Sean Scully or Agnes Martin that comes to mind when seeing a composition of rectangular geometry. Such references are of course lost on my fifteen year olds (although it will certainly be a subject in a forthcoming lesson). However they do often get to an appreciation of the abstract qualities via a different route. The photographs offer a high level of fine detail and you find yourself drawn into looking ever closer in an effort to decipher exactly what it is that you are seeing.  That might be irrigation systems in the U.S., a frozen lake that has been ice skated over or countless rows of small trees or saplings in a plant nursery. The pupils found themselves searching and enquiring as to what each photograph was showing. Once it became clear what exactly they were looking at, the next question was, ‘how do these small details come to combine to form such a pattern or design?’ and one that dominates the photographic composition. This in turn leads to a greater appreciation of the order (imposed or not) that we encounter in the world around us. It was a short but very good visit, the pupils left having had a break from regular lessons, but they also left with a new enthusiasm for a photographic form of art that probably quite surprised them.  I head for home with the feeling that eyes have been culturally opened just that little bit more.

Lipstick, powder and paint….and abstraction

I’ve been working on a project that focuses on abstraction with my third years (15 year olds). The direction of the various parts of the assignments touch on a number of issues such as design principles, dynamics in an image, colour and draws a parallel with the abstract nature of music.

Some years I have made three dimensional work during this project, but this time round I have chosen to focus on the two dimensional image and try and push the creativity of the pupils as far as I can using simply drawing materials. As we near the end of the project (and the school year), I am certainly not unhappy with the results and the pupils themselves seem to be feeling a sense of achievement, certainly when they see the work they have made grouped together.

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I’ve been also trying to encourage the class to mix up the materials, look for interesting combinations, get the class to ask themselves ‘what else can I use?’. For the most part I had in mind a little collage in combination with the more obvious pencil or pen work. But as the photo here shows this has extended to some of the girls reaching inside their bags and pulling out the make-up and working the pearlescent and metallic colours into the design. I’d been showing plenty of Frank Stella’s work in the build up to the project, that may have influenced some of their choices. I’m sure he would approve!

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To reduce or not reduce? – Studio day

I haven’t posted a reflection on a day working on my own work for a while. Various reasons, the inevitable intrusion of other activities being the most significant of reasons. Still, the work goes on, even if it is not as speedy in its production as I would desire.

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Today I’ve been working on the two images shown here. Both are, essentially built of the same components; a sky, a bowing coloured wall in the foreground and distorted by perspective verticals that in the drawing on the left are trees and in the painting on the right have been reduced to single fine lines. Also in both cases there is an ambiguity in whether the ‘wall’ is standing in the landscape or whether the landscape is possibly a sort of theatrical backdrop that has been painted or pasted onto the wall and now appears to be becoming separated from the surface creating the illusion that it is bending in space. The way in which the verticals are, well not vertical, play into the visual uncertainty.

When starting these pieces I thought that the drawing with the four tree trunks was just an experiment for myself, to prove that I was going the way of the greatly reduced ‘trees’ in the curved painting with its red wall. But having worked on the drawing with the trees today I am less certain. I think there is still work to be done to strengthen the drawing, particularly in darkening it to make it heavier, but maybe there are still possibilities worth exploring here.