I don’t use much green…….

I’m busy working on a commission for a painting. It is a larger version of the circular ring formed paintings that I have been working on for a while now. For me it is also a fairly large-scale work, measuring 120cm across and that hole in the middle being about 62cm.

The most recent smaller versions have often been essentially the bringing together of two colours, built up in numerous layers to gain an intensity of colour that causes the optical effects of the composition to work best. The initial layers being put on with acrylic paint and the later ones being oil for a better surface finish and greater depth to the colour.

For this larger work I decided to continue with the dark blues that I have been experimenting with and rely on Windsor Blue being layered on top of Cerulean Blue and just a touch of Phthalo Green. The green part though has been something of a new area for me. I’ve been working this area up with a mixture of Permanent Green Light and Cadmium Yellow.

So far so good, but then comes those final layers of glazed oil paint to bring the surface quality to where I want it to be. This has sent be deep into the bottom of box of oil paints looking for the appropriate shade of green. Like I said at the beginning, I don’t often use green. A fact that was confirmed by the discovery of the 37ml tube of Cadmium Green made by Windsor and Newton that I plan to use. The paper covering of the tube has yellowed with time, it took a while to get the cap off the tube, but inside the colour was fine. I’ve bought many tubes of paint over the years, most of which I can’t remember where and when I got them. But this one is an exception, it is a last remaining tube (along with a tube of violet, what I also rarely use) that remain from a set I was given when I started my Fine Art degree at Wimbledon School of Art in 1987.

Thirty-two years on this Cadmium Green is finally to see the light of day and edge my painting towards its own finishing line in 2019.

 

Sprezzatura – Italian painting 1860-1910

I’m reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters at the moment. It is set in Britain during the Victorian era. It’s an atmospheric and descriptive read that conjures images in the mind of the reader of life in the back streets of London, life in a country house and at points also a lunatic asylum. Waters’ writing is excellent at pulling you into these worlds, the people, the struggles of life and in the case of Fingersmith, the deceptions that could play out in these places.

I travelled to The Drendtsmuseum in the northern Dutch town of Assen to catch the last day of the Sprezzatura – fifty years of Italian painting 1860-1910 exhibition, wondering whether my insights from Waters’ book may be relevant in the way I viewed the exhibition. The seventy or so paintings from various Italian museums cover very much the Victorian period. In the end though, I have to conclude that I found only limited parallels and overlaps. Britain in the second half of the of the nineteenth century was of course a very different place in comparison to the newly established and unified country of Italy. Equally, northern Europe and southern Europe were in terms of landscape, traditions and politics also very different places.

 

The exhibition pitches in on trying to catch the diversity of artistic focuses in this period, but ultimately seems to get a little stranded in the middle ground between thematic approaches that artists took in their choice of content in the their work and technical and painterly innovations and developments.

We move from history painting to travel paintings, from gritty realism to luscious handling in idealized figure painting and from innovative painterly technical experiments to gushing symbolism. There is also space for sentimentality and tragedy. All in all, although I really quite enjoyed looking at the displayed work, it left me feeling a little confused by the switch from one sub-group of paintings to the next.

Italy must have been a country searching for an identity in this turbulent period, and in this sense the curating of the exhibition may well be an appropriate and fitting approach. But in terms of a clear direction or theme that helps the viewer work their way through an exhibition it was a difficult path to find.

In the train on the way home I’ll be returning to my book. Fingersmith certainly has an easier narrative to follow.

iPads in the art room

I might be jumping the gun a little bit in this post. But the school where I teach is considering a change in our digital device of choice. For about six years all the pupils at our school have worked with an iPad alongside their regular schoolbooks or in many cases in place of their regular schoolbooks. As a school we are on the cusp of implementing considerable changes in the way we teach our pupils and, as a result, it’s a good moment to be reflecting on the educational tools that we use. This is the reason why our choice for the iPad is up for evaluation. It could well be that in the end we choose to stay with the iPad, although I feel maybe the balance of opinion within the teaching staff is shifting. Might the future device we choose be a laptop or a Chromebook perhaps?

Within the art Department we are also reflecting and thinking about what we prefer. If I’m honest and look back to the start of our iPad experiment, in the beginning I wasn’t sure exactly how it would come to gain a place in my lessons. I too was new to the iPad and the possibilities the digital tablet may offer the creative wing of our school. Through a process of learning and experimentation the digital possibilities on offer found their way into all sorts of areas of my lessons.

I love having Internet access at every desk for researching and linking art history to practical assignments. I also love having every pupil ready with a stills or video camera to record their activities and document their work. It has offered graphics and page layout design possibilities in the classroom without having to relocate to computer classrooms to access desktops. I’ve done animation projects and photo collage assignments having simply first asked the pupils to download the appropriate app.

Possibly though, the area that I’ve grown to enjoy most, and in a way, has surprised me most, are simply the drawing and painting opportunities that the touch screen offers my pupils. Teenagers are often very cautious when it comes to putting pen or pencil to paper. Most are teachers have any number of tricks to try and loosen them up and tempt them into more expressive mark making. The instantaneous nature of a digital paper that the iPad offers brings different possibilities to this area. Yes, perhaps it is at times a bit overly disposable, but that’s exactly what helps. When I look at the decorative letter designs my 12-year-old pupils recently produced, and the freedom of mark making that they display, it is a considerable step from where I can get them to using pencils and paper. Also, when I consider the abstract designs that my slightly older 14-year-old pupils have produced using a different app. This work shows a speed of creative possibilities are so much faster than the comparable approach on paper would allow. It is not a replacement; it is simply something creatively different that allows them to cut loose and be considerably more experimental and ultimately more expressive in their work. In both cases these benefits can subsequently be drawn on and used in pieces that rely on more traditional media.

The art department enthusiasm for the iPad isn’t entirely shared by other areas within the school. Some colleagues lament the lack of a proper keyboard. Others would like to have a bigger screen. And many would like to lose the instant accessibility of the games put the pupils are so determined to play outside (and inside) their lessons.

I would certainly be interested to hear from any other art teachers and art departments that have been confronted with similar digital choices.

Using technology to make use of an analogue trick

The idea of making a panorama photograph using a modern camera, even the one on your phone, is simple. Select the panorama setting press the button and sweep round the 180 or 360 degrees that you want to capture. The teenagers I teach are only too familiar with this possibility. So when I suggest that we are going to have a go at creating composite panoramic photographic compositions using maybe up to fifty photographs, there is a certain amount of ‘unlearning’ to be done.

Talking our way through a number of David Hockney’s ‘joiner’ collages of multiple Polaroid photographs certainly helps open the teenage imagination to the possibilities on offer. Preparing the pupils to head out to take their series of photographs is an important point in the process. Young people are not to used to the idea of stopping to consider their photographic subjects too much, the instant and endlessly free nature of the digital image has changed that. Yet for this assignment finding an interesting, complex and maybe above all, spatial subject is crucial.

Once the photographs have been made, what Hockney would have done, puzzling through all the hard copies of his images spread across a large table is easily done digitally and without expensive or time consuming printing. Although, having said that, I am regularly surprised at the difficulties experienced by my digital natives in getting images off their phone and onto a desktop computer! Once that is achieved though, the photographs can be dumped into a single PowerPoint slide or MS Publisher document and resized to an appropriate format. After that the enjoyable part to putting the photographic puzzle together again can begin, experimenting with the layering and overlapping as they go. At this point I can normally sit back and wait for the final pdf documents to be made and handed in.

This year was the second time I’ve tried this assignment with the 15 year olds that I teach. Maybe I’d learnt a few things from last year, spotted and alerted pupils to potential problem areas when explaining the process perhaps, maybe they are just more creative pupils than last year’s group…..who knows! Either way, the results are, generally more ambitious and successfully worked out than the first time around.

Street art, but just outside the classroom door

img_0138It’s been a while since I’ve done this wall drawing project, but a new addition to our school year has been two dedicated ‘project weeks’. The aim of the project weeks was to try and get some of the interruptions that regularly come along during regular weeks (and disturbing the lessons) out of these weeks and into one compact session. This has worked to a degree, but has also lead to new projects being dreamt up or activities from previous years being revamped and inserted somewhere into the five days. My ‘street art/wall drawing project’ was one such example.

For the second year pupils (aged 13) that I was working with, this was an opportunity, albeit a rather short one (about two hours) to have a go at creating some large scale images, a welcome change to the A4 or A3 sheets that we seem to spend most of our time working on. The other challenges we worked on were creating three dimensional appearance in the taped objects and also plenty of overlapping. Both points were aimed at creating a more spatial illusion in the drawings.

An interesting and very useful reference point we’re the wall drawings of British artist Micheal Craig Martin.

The documentation of this project from a number of years ago can be found here.

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.

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!