A secret art project…..and a unique opportunity

The post below was written six months ago. At the time it had to remain unpublished, an art related secret yet to be told. Things have moved on, I can now tell the story.

27 February 2019

I am writing this knowing that for the time being at least, I’m not going to be publishing this post. The reason for this is that it involves an artwork that at the moment is something of a secret and is related to the ‘Rembrandt year’ that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is hosting to mark the 350 years since the artist’s death.

The story starts two and a half weeks ago. My colleague Caroline and I were at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We had split our group of twenty-two pupils into two groups and were receiving a tour from two tour guides focussing on Dutch 17th century art. Such a tour inevitably stops off in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. I was elsewhere in the museum with my group when Caroline was standing in front of Rembrandt’s massive masterwork.

While the group were answering questions Caroline noticed that the group was being very closely observed by another visitor. Moments later the same visitor came and introduced herself as Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch art photographer who is perhaps best known for her photographs of teenagers, awkwardly posing before the camera on apparently empty beaches.

Dijkstra didn’t waste anytime in getting to the point, she had been commissioned by the Rijksmuseum to produce a new video work as part of the current Rembrandt year. It was going to be along the lines of the earlier work shot in Liverpool of British children talking and reflecting on a Picasso painting without the painting itself ever coming in shot. The new project was going to have its focus on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch though……and the bottom line was, that she wanted to use Caroline’s group of pupils as a part of the project.

Two weeks of organisation followed, permission from school to participate, permission from parents because the group was mainly made up of sixteen and seventeen year olds and the willingness fo the pupils themselves to be involved.

Two and a half weeks later we find ourselves, after museum closing time in the essentially deserted gallery of honour, with its collection of Vermeer, Steen, Hals and Rembrandt works. But in front of the Nightwatch a temporary studio has been errected for the film shoot. A white cube, bright lights and multiple cameras. It begins, I think, to dawn on the pupils that this is actually really quite a big deal! We are introduced to Rineke, she also seems quite excited about the work to be done that evening.

One of the Rijksmuseum tour guides take the girls off on a quick tour of some of the other paintings to settle nerves (yes, only girls, clearly a factor that made the artist pick Caroline’s group from the masses a couple of weeks earlier). A clear embargo was placed on photographing the set or any of the activities around the shoot. No images were to find their way onto social media!

Then it was down to work. Rineke sellecting clusters of girls to join her on the set that had been created in such a way that the pupils were issolated against an intensely lit white background.

I stood, a little out of view. Behind three monitors streaming the input from the cameras, not unlike the multiscreen effect that I had seen before in the Liverpool work. However, unlike that work, where the children involved were presented in a row side by side, this time the artist seemed keen to experiment with different approaches and compositional devices. The girls were arranged sitting on a bench together, but with the bench lined up in such a way that it was angled towards the camera. The result being that the faces of the girls appeared almost stacked up behind one another, way more dynamic and perhaps more in keeping with the work of Rembrandt himself. The girls were encouraged to talk about what they saw, what they thought, no script, just spontaneous reaction.

Dijkstra also asked a group of the girls to look at the painting and draw from it in their sketch books. After much careful positioning and repositioning of the girls, and laughter and a little bemusement from the young subjects, Rineke gave the sign, cameras rolled, silence decended. The girls drew, they looked, they drew again. This time the shoot ran for a considerable time, in fact it seemed to go on and on. The concentration was palpable. Were these really the same chatty, and often enough, distracted children that we see in class at school?

The material that was recorded was fascinating to see, as was the process of work of Ms Dijkstra as she cast her critical eye over the detail of the framing of each of the cameras. One of the later shots that was made reminded me more of Rineke’s well known photographic work of teenagers on the beach and a certain discomfort that creeps through in those images. A row of girls took up position against the white backgroud, the Rijksmuseum guide, just out of shot started to talk them through the painting, an extensive and detailed monologue which went on for quite an extended period. The girls focussed on the image of the painting, following the guides descriptive speech. You saw their gaze move around the image. They remained standing and looking. After a while you saw an ocassional adjustment of balance, a dip in concentration, a momentary distraction. Suddenly you observe that ‘not completely relaxed’ mark that is present in so much of Dijkstra’s work. Simply by filming for just long enough that lapse in focus starts to show itself, both physically and mentally.

23 August 2019

At the time of writing we had no way of knowing how much, if any, of what was filmed would in the end be used in the film work. We’ve reached the point now though that there is a finished work that will shortly be unveiled in the Rijksmuseum. The presentation of the work Night Watching in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a couple of weeks away and the group of girls and us, their teachers, have been invited to the preview at the beginning of September.

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End of year…..jobs you just don’t get to the rest of the year

The last weeks of the school year have arrived.  The pupils are intermittently at school for tests, a few last appointments and finally the picking up of reports.  Apart from a huge amount of clearing up, once this stage of the year is reached there is generally time at last to spend a little while working on a task that has been continually pushed to the side throughout the year.  That being presenting the work of pupils on the walls and in the glass cases around school.

It is an important job, at least in terms of raising the profile of the art department in the school as a whole, both for pupils and staff.  Some great things do get made in the art department, we produce good final exam results, but still the importance of a bit of PR work is never wasted. Colleagues from other subject areas are generally pleased and interested to see the creative work that pupils produce. But undoubtedly the most important thing is building the interest of the younger pupils to potentially choose the creative subjects as an exam subject in our upper school.

From a personal point of view, I do also get a sense of satisfaction in seeing the pupils’ efforts presented clearly and well.  This is especially true for the larger group projects that I have carried out with whole classes during the last months.

 

Favourite app of the week…Folioscope

It’s heading towards the end of the year.  Sometimes you have to work a little harder to hold the attention and keep the motivation in the classroom.  H2Q are such a class.

I see them for just 60 minutes a week.  They are chaotic, at times noisy, very socialable and generally very likable bunch.  But given the right challenges this group of twenty five 13 year olds can be focused and engaged with what they are doing.  Sometimes this year I’ve been spot on with an assignment, and at other times less so.  It is often difficult to predict what will hit the mark.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been working on an animation project.  The iPad’s that I have at my disposal certainly help here and the app Folioscope is great in offering enough possibilities without the kids becoming overloaded and confused by the choices on offer.

We took our inspiration for the project from Rhubarb and Custard, and old BBC animation that made use of a fairly course, but extremely lovable, drawing style.  Apart from that though it was an open door, the pupils could approach it how they liked.

The result, two lessons later, apart from a whole set of animations similar to the two below, was a surprisingly quiet classroom.

Geometry, grids, rows and long walks – De Pont, Tilburg

It’s a bit of a trip for us to get the De Pont in Tilburg. Half an hour on the bike, ninety minutes in the train and fifteen minutes walking from the station in Tilburg. But such expeditions are peanuts in comparison to Richard Long, who is currently exhibiting in the museum. 586 miles (943 km) in eighteen and a half days across Southern France and into Italy, between Bordeaux and Turin was one such outing. Various text installations documenting Long’s walks formed a significant part of the exhibition, but the major spaces were dominated by the geometry of his stone installations, with crosses, circles and columns of raw or cut stone stretching out over the museum’s cool white spaces.

Long’s work has a longer history in De Pont and fits in well with the curatorial style of the museum. Geometry and a certain leanness visually are often returning features in the exhibits. A fact seems particularly underlined at the moment by a number of other works on display, repetition, grids, rows and symmetry abound. It is very much an aesthetic that appeals to me and I don’t hide the fact that I myself often work in series producing rows of variations on themes. It is simply my way of doing things and so a visit to De Pont always recharges my own visual batteries and leaves me ready to work again, this time sent on my way by the likes of Gerhard Richter, Roni Horn, Ann Veronica Janssens, Jan van Duijnhoven and Sean Scully.

The eyes have it, in the history of art and in teenager art

The human eye has always had a prominent role in the history of art. A statement of the obvious you might say. The tradition of the portrait has been such a prominent feature in art for so long and can indeed be traced back to ancient Egypt. The eyes of a subject are more often than not the focus. The eyes are, as they say, the windows on the soul. The arrival of photography brought new challenges for artists, but even within the modern chapter of art history it has remained relevant and extensively explored.

But here I am less interested in the tradition of portraiture, and more in the eyes, or maybe even ‘an eye’ when it is taken in isolation. The singling out of the eyes, or a single eye, reached something of a peak in the art of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and the work of the Surrealists in particular.

Odilon Redon was more than happy to remove the eye from the human face, to isolate it or combine it with other objects or contexts. Rene Magritte and Man Ray also produced work that see a one-eyed stare coming out of their canvases. And then there is the unforgettable eye sequence in Un Chien Andalou, the film made by Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dalì, a reference that is certainly not for the squeamish.

The eye, as a sensory organ, is of course a crucial to the artist both in terms of perceiving the world around them and realising their own creative work. Without vision, the artistic practice becomes massively restricted. Added to this, we experience our eyes as both tremendously fragile and vulnerable in comparison to much of the rest of our body. These sorts of reasons contribute perhaps to the eyes place in the history of art.

Having made these observations I’m not altogether convinced that these are the motivations why the eye in the drawings of teenagers is at times so extraordinarily prevalent. I have just finished an extensive session of marking of final school exams, where candidates (18-year olds) have documented their working process and drawings that have moved them towards final pieces of work. What has undoubtedly caught my eye is just how many eye paintings, drawings and doodles I have seen.

Maybe it’s not that surprising that YouTube has rather more films about drawing eyes than they have for drawing ears. But what is especially noticeable in the exam candidates’ works is how often the eyes are isolated from the face, so not as a form portraiture, indeed very often they are just a single eye.

Have I got some great theory forming here? Well no, not really. More likely just more questions relating to the subject. Is this more prevalent amongst girls than boys? Is it connected to a fascination in Manga and Anime illustrations with their enlarged eyes? Or is it simply because it is relatively easy to do in comparison to a complete portrait? Do these eye drawings carry some form of symbolic meaning for the young artists involved?

One thing is for sure, they don’t seem to be being made with any great knowledge or insight into the artists’ work that I mentioned earlier, which is a shame, because a little more development of an idea around such a motif, can make it a great deal more interesting, certainly when it is the 137th exam candidate that you are marking!

The homework issue

Some of my first years (aged 12) have truly transformed their artistic ability this year. It is almost like they’ve developed a completely different artistic soul……which may well turn out to be an extremely accurate evaluation of the situation.

The pupils concerned handed in a homework project yesterday that they had been working on for the past month or so. I was an assignment that involved a little internet research, writing a short text and producing two drawings.  I flicked through the folders afterwards and two in particular caught my eye.  I’ve watched the two boys concerned struggle with their drawing capabilities over the last year.  I’ve pushed and encouraged, there has been some progress, but generally quite small steps. Below are two drawings that the pupils made while we were working on a monsters and gargoyles project earlier in the year.  The paper is filled, the drawings quite unrestrained in their character and the shading is, well lets be positive, quite expressionistically done.

Perhaps I should also mention that the drawings were done in class.

So back to the project.  The main drawing assignment was to take a flower or small branch from a tree and lay it on a sheet of white paper and make a pencil drawing of the plant form and shadow.  We didn’t spend time practicing this sort of observational drawing in class, although I did give a little instruction about filling the sheet and trying to make full use of the range of greys that your pencil offers.

The same to pupils from the drawings above produced these drawings:

Something quite remarkable seems to have occurred.  As the art teacher, I would like to claim that my pupils have suddenly become so much more sensitive in the use of their materials.  But the truth is of course, these drawings are not made by the pupils concerned.

Now there is nothing new in parents or older siblings helping with homework.  Generally, a parent who helps and explains with a difficult piece of maths should be applauded.  It is also true to say that the same parent who goes that little bit further and fully solves that especially tricky equation for their child will generally pass by unnoticed. But with art homework it is all rather easier to see.  The question to those who have helped here is simple, do they really think that I can’t see this?  I feel a comparable drawing assignment that we will work on in class may be the way to resolve this, maybe there will be a third pair of drawings added to this post later……….

 

Daytime watch, by Rembrandt

There is no intention to intimidate, but I do kind of like having Rembrandt keeping watch from the back of the classroom.  Better still that these are the very pupils who painted the portrait.

rembrandtclassroom

Click on the link below to read more about how the painting was made.

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2019/04/01/sworn-to-secrecy-in-rembrandt-year/

Sworn to secrecy in Rembrandt year

Sometimes the strangest things at the strangest time simply happen…..and in this case might result in a rather unique experience for some of the art department pupils at my school. An interesting story to tell? Well maybe, although at this moment I am rather bound by a kind of pact of secrecy. But I feel I can share just a little of the story and will do in a moment.

IMG_6623

First though a bit more about the Rembrandt celebration that are rather sweeping through the Dutch cultural scene this year. It is 350 years since the artist’s death. The Rijksmuseum has taken the lead and have mounted an extensive exhibition of the Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and prints. There is a tv show where amateur artists are competing against each other to produce the most accomplished Rembrandt inspired paintings and there is a planned exhibition of Rembrandt related work made by artists (amateur and professional) from across the globe.

If you are interested in art and living in the Netherlands, it really is quite difficult not to be swept along a little in the hype.

I have also made a slight adjustment to my usual planning to make space for Rembrandt. He has provided the content for a group transcription project that I often do with my first year (aged 12-13) pupils. So, this year it was 45 pupils, 48 squares of card and only black and white paint (to draw extra attention to Rembrandt’s use of tone). Our starting point was a close-up image of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which once dissected into smaller, provided some pretty abstract looking details for each pupil to tackle. The question was, would this image have enough structure to hold the overall portrait together in the hands of my pupils, and could they be precise enough in their mixing of greys?

As things turned out, I didn’t have to worry. Once all the white of the paper had been painted away, the pupils themselves were able to see areas that needed extra attention generally, and once the total image could be seen from a distance for the first time there was undoubtedly a sense of pride from the group. Maybe it’s not the most creative assignment that I do with the groups involved. But it certainly has benefits in the areas of mixing different tones and the effect of light and dark. Coupled with that comes the positives of producing a team work, and the challenge for everyone to up their painting performance to avoid their piece of the puzzle standing out for the wrong reasons!

The artwork has subsequently been entered at the last minute for the Rijksmuseum’s open exhibition. You must ‘be in to win’ of course, but with well over 8000 other entrants we won’t be expecting too much!

Which brings me back to that other project involving the pupils studying art as an exam subject at the school I teach at. They too have been involved in an art project that also has a Rembrandt and a Rijksmuseum connection, I hope to be able to tell a little more about that later in the summer.

Apps that meet my art room needs (12-15 year olds)

 

I’ve been making use of iPads in my art lessons for a number of years.  Together with my pupils I have experimented quite a bit, discovered some very bad apps and some very good ones. I’ve enjoyed having a camera always close to hand, easy and rapid access to the internet and discovered that an iPad also works really well as a tray for carrying cups of coffee through the corridor! 

There are still things that I am searching for. For instance I am yet to find an app that works well enough and fine enough to give satisfying results for modelling and designing for a 3d printer. But maybe someone out there has a suggestion for me. 

So what are my favourites when it comes to combining the digital possibilities of the iPad with the more conventional materials in the art room?  First of all let me explain a couple of criteria I have (or are forced to have): 

·         Due to department and school restrictions the app must be free to use 

·         It mustn’t be overly and unnecessarily complex 

·         It must be reliable, no crashes or freezing screens 

·         It must offer truly creative possibilities, not just readymade routes to polished results (this is a particularly important criteria, there are way too many apps that simply do too much for you) 

Below are a few of my favourites at the moment and examples of pupil work that has been produced using them. 

PHOTO EDITING 

Photoshop mix (Difficulty level: initially seems quite complex, but really isn’t) 

Cutting out, rearranging and editing photos on the iPad in the first instance looks like it is going to be difficult with a relatively small screen and complex to do without a mouse.  Photoshop Mix from Adobe though makes this remarkably easy to carry out quite fine work and even the younger pupils grasp the principles of the app rapidly and are soon able to manipulate images made up of multiple parts on numerous layers. 

blogipadletters

DRAWING AND PAINTING 

Bamboo Paper (Difficulty level: easy) 

The free version of Bamboo Paper comes with only two drawing tools and a limited collection of colours.  Despite these apparently enormous restrictions I use it every year with my youngest pupils.  It’s easy to use and has the by-product of forcing the pupils to be creative in discovering just what is possible with so few things to work with. 

Brushes Redux (Difficulty level: easy) 

Like Bamboo Paper, Brushes Redux doesn’t go overboard on the tools that it offers.  There are unlimited colours and a large collection of possible brushes but not a great deal more.  It is also a lot less graphic in the quality of the images that you make. It brings you closer to a painting or drawing with pastels sort of experience. The sampling of colours by touching a colour on the image on which you are working is useful, as is the possibility to import an image and work over the top of it is a facility that I have used in class.  Also the app allows you to reply i high speed animation of the drawing that you have been working on, a feature that is always popular with my pupils. 

Medibang Paint (Difficulty level: more complex, but offers so much) 

Medibang Paint (with its truly awful name) is a very complete, free, drawing app with a huge amount going for it.  Yes the screen space is often very crowded with the controls that are on offer, but get used to that and you start to ese the potential.  There is a huge selection of brushes on offer that can be modified,  photos can be imported and worked on and it has and interesting control feature that lets you manipulate the ways and directions in which your brushes work.  My older classes love it. 

GRAPHIC PAGE DESIGN AND POSTER LAYOUTS  

DesignPad (Difficulty level: more complex, but works well, even on the iPad’s relatively small screen) 

I use DesignPad with all age groups that I teach, beginning with a simple book cover design assignment with twelve year olds as a sort of orientation challenge.  After that comes poster design before progressing onto using it to plan the entire layout of a self-made book with my groups of fifteen year olds.  It requires a certain amount of getting your head around how it all works, but after that it is possible to use it for quite complex design challenges without ever having to leave the classroom to go and search out the desktop computers. 

Well-being and the arts (part two)

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the significance of the arts and their general contribution towards our sense of well-being. I’ve had various pieces of feedback in response to it and I’d just like to share a couple that seem to connect so well.

blueart

Firstly, a quote from Brian Thorne, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

I count it essential that I visit the sea frequently, that I train my eye to observe the intricate design of trees and plants, and that I make friends with animals.  What is more, I am horrified if I discover I have let a whole week pass without having read a poem, listened to music, visited a beautiful building or feasted my eyes on a work of art.  I know that I need to do these if I am to cultivate a sense of deep connectedness to all that is, and, more importantly, if I am to retain a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, whether natural or human.

Secondly, a short film that relates more specifically to my work to encourage pupils to choose creative subjects to study whilst at school. The Tate Gallery in London has produced a film that addresses many of the points I try to make, plus a few more.

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the significance of the arts and their general contribution towards our sense of well-being. I’ve had various pieces of feedback in response to it and I’d just like to share a couple that seem to connect so well.

Firstly, a quote from Brian Thorne, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

I count it essential that I visit the sea frequently, that I train my eye to observe the intricate design of trees and plants, and that I make friends with animals.  What is more, I am horrified if I discover I have let a whole week pass without having read a poem, listened to music, visited a beautiful building or feasted my eyes on a work of art.  I know that I need to do these if I am to cultivate a sense of deep connectedness to all that is, and, more importantly, if I am to retain a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, whether natural or human.

Secondly, a short film that relates more specifically to my work to encourage pupils to choose creative subjects to study whilst at school. The Tate Gallery in London has produced a film that addresses many of the points I try to make, plus a few more.