Drawing my work place

I draw quite a bit.  Whenever I travel one of my drawing books travels with me. In my studio work I plan and prepare using drawings (on paper or digitally) to plot the way ahead.  Yet in we’ll over twenty years working in education I have never turned my attention towards my working environment in the form of drawing it.

A while back I decided it might be an interesting challenge to pick up, and so a series of drawings began.  I’m still working on the series.  I don’t think they are ever going to become more than a series of drawings; I’m not expecting to take them into a series of paintings.  But they are starting to become something of a ‘complete set’ in my view.

In many ways they are fairly detached from the paintings I make.  Although they do share a certain geometric quality.  The architecture of the buildings l work in have plenty of interesting angles and lines.  Maybe that’s what kept me interested while I have been drawing.

A full display of the series, online, and quite possibly within the school is likely to follow quite soon, but while I’m finishing things off, let me put this first on of the series out there as a taster

Vermeer and me

The biggest exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings ever opens this week at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Twenty-eight pieces are being brought in from all over the world to present the most complete retrospective of the Dutchman’s work ever.  Like many others, I already have my tickets to visit the Rijksmuseum in early March.

For me though, this is more than just a chance to submerge myself in the quiet, stillness of the artist’s views of seventeenth century domesticity.  It is a chance to revisit the art that I was making when I first moved to the Netherlands.  At the time, Vermeer’s work was hugely important to me, and I was engaged with a visual and conceptual exploration of these icons of art history.

I was exploring the nature of the art object, the painting as it is found in the museum, the role of the reproduction of images in our experience of art and indeed the place that the re-presentation of art has in Vermeer’s work itself.

I made paintings, drawings, collages, constructions and even installation work.  It was, for me, a rich vein of work that seems on reflection a strangely perfectly fitting body of work for my own arrival in the country.

So, in the light of all the fanfare around the Rijksmuseum exhibition, my own modest online Vermeer display.  A small collection here.  A more extensive collection on my other site that can be found here: Vermeer series

Why didn’t I think of this earlier? – The graphic novel, language and creativity combined

I have to mark a lot of reports.  I teach a unique Dutch cultural subject which translates as Cultural and Artistic education. It potentially touches on all sorts of cultural themes, visual art, architecture, film, theatre, fashion, photography, street art and design in all its forms.  A large part of the subject is giving the pupils (aged 15-16] a kind of cultural orientation.  As teachers we provide the class with cultural input, experiences and excursions and the pupils reflect on what they have seen or done.

It’s a subject that I love teaching alongside my more practical orientated art lessons.  However, with quite large classes, and multiple groups to teach, the reflection part does often mean that a significant number of reports are written and in turn, must be read and marked.

Recently I watched movies in class with three different groups, around seventy pupils in total and the plan was for them each to produce a 1000-word report.  I decided to offer an alternative, partly because pupils generally like have a choice, partly because I know I have creative spirits in all my classes who love to draw when they can, and yes, partly for myself to break the boredom of having to read so many reports.  The new approach was to make a more concise report (and in terms of text much shorter) in the form of a two A4 page graphic novel inspired design.

I gave those who chose this more creative route an extended deadline that stretched over the Christmas holiday, hoping that they would respond well to a less rushed time frame.  Did it work as I would have liked?  Yes absolutely, both in terms of content and design.  And oh, so more enjoyable to grade and give feedback on.

Educational aims

The purpose of the assignment is to require the pupils to think carefully about the film we watched and to reflect on how the skills and approaches used by the film makers have been applied.  Ultimately, they are required to explain their own opinions of the film involved, its strengths and its weaknesses.  Having looked through the resulting pieces of work I think I would say that by having to think about which images from the film to recreate the pupils have taken an extra reflective step before beginning on the creative work.

A second, and for me significant extra aim, is for the pupils to combine the use of language with image making and creativity.  My lessons are taught in English, which for these Dutch pupils, is their second language.  The graphic novel form forces a lean and to the point use of language in the text. This is certainly a skill worth learning alongside considering how image and text can be integrated and support one another.

I’ll certainly be using this graphic novel inspired work form again.  I find myself wondering if it could be applied in other areas, a book review perhaps?  Or could it go further?  A diary of a school exchange to another country as a graphic novel, a report on a biology dissection lesson as one?

Anni and Josef Albers – Kunstmuseum The Hague

When you visit a show that features Josef Albers you can feel fairly sure that the twenty year long Hommage to the square is going to feature. But the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague that is nearing its end now, offers a whole lot more.  Yes there is the room that features fifteen variations of the long running series, including a mesmerizing and large yellow composition. 

But Mr Albers is very much only half the story. There is Mrs Albers too. Anni, 11 years the junior of her husband is every bit as important in the display. Her textiles, graphics and drawings are every bit as eye-catching with their rhythmic repetitions and wandering lines that remind me of so many artists that were still to make there artistic mark in the second half of the twentieth century.

The work of both artists has a modest scale, you are drawn in to stand close and look carefully. A scale that is not dissimilar to my own paintings and drawings. I wondered beforehand if I would discover anything during my visit that may find its way into my own studio, and yes, I think I have. I’ve been folding landscape spaces in recent paintings and drawings, maybe there is something I will be able to do with Josef Albers Steps from 1935.

Steps, Josef Albers, 1935

Contrasts in art – Labour of Love, By Wim Delvoye

Contrast is important in art.  An intense black and white drawing by Seurat, rice colour contrasts in a Van Gogh painting or a lonely or an isolated Anthony Gormley figure in the vastness of the Thames and London skyline.  But I have rarely visited an exhibition where contrasts of content have collided with such directness as the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye that is currently at the Noordbrabantsmuseum in ‘s Hertogenbosch. 

There are sparkling laser-cut steel used to rebuild Gothic cathedral architecture into the form of cement mixers and dumper trucks. Heraldic crests are displayed on ironing boards and gas cylinders decorated to make them look like they are constructed from Delftsblauw ceramics, and that is just in the first room of the exhibition. 

Throughout the show the work displayed is playful, at times mischievous but always immaculately made.  The collisions of content that Delvoye manipulates are carefully considered and combined visually is a way that captures the attention, draws you in to look closer and in doing so encourage you to give the work the time it deserves.  The intricately carved forms cut into heavy duty tires, tattooed and flayed pigs’ skin or the bent, reformed and twisted crucifixion sculptures, there is a great deal to see and think about. 

While I’m not sure that Delvoye’s work will find its way directly into my own creative practice, but I have previously used a little of his work in my lessons and I can certainly see myself extending that.  A series of lessons I give on surrealism and surreal combinations of two objects really seems to be crying out for his input and influence! 

Are these the best paintings I’ve ever made?

Yes, I’ve thought that before.  In fact, almost always the most recent work feels like it’s the best.  You are most in tune with the newest creative processes and the ideas attached to them.  But having said all that, these recent pieces to feel like particularly good ones.

I seem to be finding potential of the ideas and approaches that started to take an initial form back in January.  They paintings are slow and labour intensive to make, but the results are good.  Bringing together visually interesting compositions, with landscape, seascape, weather, and the disrupted effect we are having on our environment.

The result……elements of beauty and elements of fragmentation.

A treasure hunt, art history and language (CLIL assignment)

When you make an artwork, I’ve always felt that you need to create some sort of hook of fascination in the work that the viewer latches onto quickly and that will hold them long enough to take a proper, more considered view.  Good lesson material is similar, in that you need to catch the learner’s attention, once you have that you then take them to the content that you want them to encounter and understand.  Below is an example of such an approach.

Over the years I have written a large amount of lesson material, my OneDrive and the various websites that I have created are full of it.  One of the problems that arises with this is that you sometimes forget or overlook something that you made at some point that was good material and worked well.  I rediscovered this week exactly such an example.

With the twelve-year-olds that I teach I include a series of lessons that are centred around Renaissance and Northern Renaissance themes.  For our practical lessons we look at one-point perspective and we make a clay monster inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.  The “forgotten” lesson material though was a little art history lesson based around the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563.  I´m not required to teach anything about this particular painting, it certainly isn’t in a fixed curriculum.  This is simply about encouraging pupils to look and to think carefully about pieces of art, trying to show them that art history doesn’t have to be a dry and stuffy place.

The Tower of Babel is great for this.  It has a simple story that is not difficult to understand, it is painted in a very realistic way, but above all, it is packed full of action and detail.  It is this level of detail that is the vehicle for this simple language and art history assignment.

Basically, my aim is threefold:

  • Get the pupils to look carefully and in detail at the artwork
  • Ask them to create language output inspired by the discoveries they make in the artwork
  • Create a fun and playful way of learning that has a gentle form of competition to it using a sort of scavenger-hunt principle

The whole lesson is hung up around the availability of extremely high-resolution photographs of artworks that can be found at various online locations.

Tower of Babel high/resolution image

I ask the pupils to get this image open on their laptop screen and first have a good look round the picture, zooming in and zooming out, taking a good look at everything that is going on.

Then I start my PowerPoint up at the front of the class.  Each slide shows a very zoomed in piece of detail from the painting, along with an arrow pointing above, below or to a side of the detail.  There is also a word, maybe `climbing` for example.  The idea is simply to±

  1. Find the detail in Bruegel´s original work
  2. Look just beyond the detail in the direction of the arrow
  3. Describe or explain what is going on in this `beyond` area, but the sentence that you form MUST include the given word in exactly the form it is given

Returning to this assignment for the first time in a few years it was great to see the pleasure that was had by this particular group of twelve-year-olds, They were searching around a nearly 500 year old painting, laughing at some of the more quirky discoveries they made.  They were enjoying looking at and exploring for themselves a jewel from art history.  Added to this they were also constructing often quite complex English sentences in what is their second language.

I´ll be doing my best not to overlook this half hour activity again next year!

For anyone interested in trying the assignment, my PowerPoint can be found below.

A flying start – migrating into the new school year

It might not actually quite be the start of the school year anymore, but it is in its way a flying start. 

The end of school clear out inevitably means empty display spaces come the start of the new school.  This year I decided to make an immediate splash in the biggest space in the school with rapidly made charcoal drawings of birds made by the fourteen-year-olds I teach.

Now as we head into the autumn season of migration in the bird world, it seems appropriate to share the result online.  It’s not an easy display to photograph well, but in real life the transparency of the paper and the darkness of the images combine for ever changing results throughout the day as the light outside changes.

Good things come to those who wait….

It has been slow, but finally this relatively small painting is finished. Started earlier in the summer with a month-long trip that involved considerable staring out to the horizon on the north Atlantic seas around Orkney, and finished on our return.

Although the idea for the work was essentially in place before the journey north a number of combinations of ideas and occurrences are playing their part in this painting and the steps on to the subsequent pieces now being developed. The countless watercolours made of the Orcadian landscape and coast, the ever-present geometry of the horizon so present around the sea and a treeless landscape. Then there was the visit to an exhibition of Laura Drever’s work at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Whilst her work is considerably less geometric than mine, we share landscape interests and a surprisingly similar way of layering imagery up.

For me the work hints and opens the door further on the series of pieces I’ve been developing since the start of the year. More subtle and sensitive that the brasher and brighter paintings from the spring. More to follow……

Getting twelve year olds to look carefully at Renaissance art and architecture…..at the end of the school year

Written at the end of last school year, but a nice post to start the year with……

The weeks are ticking away until the end of the school year.  Three lessons to go with the group of twelve and thirteen year olds that I teach. The temptation is to go for something passive and comfortably time filling.  But I want to give them one last push, but also engage them with a little fun.

The solution…..

The content

Renaissance art, and in particular architecture as it is found in the paintings of the period

The skills needed

Looking carefully

Some creativity

A little digital knowhow on at least one of the platforms we were using

The technical bit…..

Using, or learning to use one of the following digital design possibilities

  • Tinkercad.com
  • SketchUp online
  • Minecraft
  • The Sims (A new one for me in an educational context…I wondered if it would be a bit too restrictive in its possibilities. In the end I feel I was generally proved correct)

The class had heard a while back that I have been known to use Minecraft as a creative tool for building assignments.  They’d been nagging me a little bit to do something similar with them.  These last few lessons of the year were an ideal opportunity.

The assignment was a very simple one.  I had a PowerPoint of a selection of images or renaissance paintings, and in particular images that showed examples of Renaissance architecture.  The pupils simply had to choose one of the buildings and try and recreate it on their favoring design platform, and perhaps add to it a little in an appropriate way.

For SketchUp and Tinkercad I had to start with a short demonstration into how the software worked and what a few of the possibilities were. But with Minecraft and the Sims no assistance was needed. Within thirty minutes of the start of the first lesson the room settled down and we were off! Focused looks on the faces, mouse hand moving in its familiar erratic jumps.  And this point it was quite easy to leave the room to go and get myself a cup of coffee, on my return I could see the start of their Renaissance inspired worlds starting to take shape.

Minecraft is a favourite amongst the pupils. It is familiar and the idea that you are actually allowed to use it for a school assignment does have something of a special attraction.  But it is the work done on SketchUp and Tinkercad that I enjoy watching unfold the most. In both cases you create your own building elements, the software has more flexibility for refined work, and the icing on the cake as far as Tinkercad is concerned, we can make the final step of 3d printing the results.