Abstraction for teenagers

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.

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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.

 

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Remember this…the reverse perspective?

 

I’ve had a lot of interest in my previous post about reverse perspective. I’ve promised a number of people that I’d try and post some more detailed instructions, so here they are:

Firstly a few basic facts about how I worked……

  • I was working with classes of twelve year olds (of higher than average academic ability)
  • All in all it took about three hour long lessons to complete

Materials:

  • A4 paper, 120-160g drawing paper (it needs to be thick enough to hold its shape once folded, but at the same time not so thick that accurate folding of the paper becomes a problem)
  • Pencils, erasers, rulers
  • Coloured pencils…..as always, the better the quality, the better the colours and results!

reverse perspective diagram

Click on the link below to download this file as a .pdf that is suitable for printing

Reverse perspective diagram

I have included an A4 printout diagram here, I didn’t give my pupils anything that was printed out, I preferred to draw it all on the board at the front, step by step and explain as I went along.

The printable has all the lines that play a part in this assignment on it all at once, the PowerPoint that I have added shows a step by step series of photographs of the order that I carried out the various steps. Click on the link below for the PowerPoint.

Reverse perspective

I’ll be interested to hear how you get on if you give it a try.  Incidentally, the illusionistic effect works better with:

  • Strong colours in the drawing work
  • When multiple ‘rooms’ are lined up together

Good luck!

Peter

A tale of two sketchbooks

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:

Georges Suerat         Richard Diebenkorn

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.

Studio Day

The fact that I’m sharing the progress of these paintings is an indication that I’m feeling pretty content with the progress.  In the photograph it does all look very graphic, a quality that comes over a little less in the actual work. Inevitably the smaller scale works on paper progress at a higher tempo.

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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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A simple exercise in tonal/value work

Teaching the basics of drawing and what a simple pencil is capable of is one of the first things I like to get to grips with my first years (aged 12) at the start of the year. They are familiar with the idea of line, the setting up of an arrangement, but tonal work is often limited to shading an area in gently with a shade of grey. I want to deal with the extremes of shading, going from the whitest white to the darkest grey and everything in between that a 3B or 4B pencil can offer. I want to cover the gradations in shading and how you can achieve sensitivity in your results. Building on this I like to lead onto the modelling of form that can be achieved.

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fullsizerender-7There are numerous ways of doing this, from shading in boxes, drawing cylinders and imaginary balls. The ‘how to draw’ books are full of such exercises. Technically they cover the same ground, but they hardly catch a twelve year old’s imagination and leave them with a feeling of ‘wow’ as they leave the art room.

Yesterday I had the chance to cover some of this ground when I visited a neighbouring school to lead two, two hour workshops. I decided to cover these same areas with the two classes of 23 twelve year olds.

Working with a gridded up version of one of my favourite subjects, Chuck Close I was also able to bring in a little art historical context that was completely new to the pupils. After discussing his work for a while I was able to set them loose on trying to produce high contrast fragments of a large scale group drawing.

Four hours later I had a reworking of the first Close self-portrait and his image of a young looking Philip Glass and a classes full of children wanting to photograph the result to share what they had achieved as a class working together. In terms of creativity the assignment might not be the most experimental. But as an exercise in an important technical skill it does lay a basis that can be built on later.

For a more challenging variation see:

Tonal drawing and a favourite resourch

Grabbing the attention…..and making a point

It is great to immediately grab the attention of your pupils at the start of a new year, to make them sit up, have a memorable first lesson experience and, if possible, deal with an important content related issue.

I have something of a favourite way of doing this with my third year classes (aged 15) at the start of the school year. The point that I want to make, apart from perhaps shaking them out of their summer holiday slumber, is that art doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful or skillfully made. It can also be simply about an idea, a point that the creator is trying to make, be that incredibly serious, humouress or thought provoking.

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The way I do this is you ask the pupils to set up a small still life of objects from their school bag or pencil case. We talk a little about what a still life is and how they should approach making a pencil drawing of their own arrangement. I subsequently then give them half an hour to make the best possible drawing they can produce. I then ask them to sign their own drawing in the bottom right corner.

All very regular art lesson stuff up until now, but then comes the twist. I ask the pupils to switch drawings with the person sitting next to them. I think initially I think they expect to carry on drawing on someone else’s picture. But instead I ask them first you rub out their friend’s name and replace it with their own name! Some are very happy to do this, others less so, but I insist!

But then comes the moment that causes the most uproar in the class. “Rub the whole drawing out , remove as much of it as you possibly can”, is the following instruction. The whole room bursts into discussion, laughter, one or two sometimes initially refuse, but in the end, after some frantic work with a rubber the drawings are removed.

We then compare the new versions on the drawing and talk about points such as:

  • What the difference is between the ‘drawing’ and a brand new and clean piece of paper
  • What the ‘drawing’ actually records….it is after all a sort of document of the first half of our lesson
  • The importance or not of beauty in art
  • The value or such a rubbed out drawing

rauschenberg_eraseddekooning1Those who know their art history well will perhaps have guessed where this is going. I then recount the connection of what they have just done with the incident from 1953 when Robert Rauschenberg rubbed out one of Willem de Kooning’s valuable drawings in order to create his own new artwork entitled Erased de Kooning drawing.

Use the link below for a bit more historical detail:

Erased de Kooning drawing

The pupils are old enough to appreciate the element of humour in the work, but I think with a little explanation they are also able to understand that here is an artwork that has little to do with creating an aesthetic object. It is about the idea, the performance or an action and the curious way that the artwork has become a document of that action. It poses a question to these fifteen year olds about what can be considered art.

All in all it’s a great lesson to start the year with. You get engaged pupils, you get drawing activity, you a little art history, you get a serious ‘what is art’ issue into the discussion and….you get laughter and a lesson that they’ll talk about when they get home.

 

Tonal drawing and a favourite non-Internet resource

We live in a digital age. For teachers the Internet is awash with ideas, lesson plans, didactic advice and useful resources. I also contribute to this chaotic library of material by posting to this blog. The challenge is often simply keeping some sort of order to it all, the sites, the Facebook posts, Twitter links and so on.

It is sometimes with some relief that, sitting at home, I can reach for book from my bookshelf and flick through the pages looking for the germ of an idea that could be used in one of my lessons. It was just this sort of occasion that lead me recently to pick up one of my all-time favourite books on the subject of drawing, Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis.  It is a fantastic book. It’s not aimed at any particular age group or situation but supplies a wealth of ideas that can be turned and manipulated for a variety of situations.  On page 106 is a particular favourite of mine, it involves making a tonal drawing of a face that has been distorted through the use of an irregular grid being applied to an original portrait image.

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I’ve used it recently with two classes of fourteen and fifteen year olds that I teach. As far as I was concerned, the main technical aim of the assignment was to get the pupils experimenting with the full range of tones that a 2B pencil offers. They enjoy the idea of working with a portrait, although it should also be said that they are slightly intimidated by it as well. This is where Kaupelis’ idea of distortion is a bonus. It offers a degree of freedom and a step away from their own drawing having to ‘look’ like the original.

experimentaldrawingThe initial challenge of stretching and compressing the face looks initially to be quite complex. The face element that is originally framed neatly in a square box has to be stretched and distorted in order for it to occupy maybe a thin rhomboid form. I think it is fair to say that the more mathematically minded in the class seem to relish the challenge. Maybe it’s less intuitive, but perhaps that is what they often find difficult in the art room.

Once he basic deformation is in place, with particular attention paid to those crucial zones containing the eyes, nose and mouth it’s then over to the shading and tonal work. For me it is all about pushing the pupils to work to extremes of contrast, they are often reluctant to use the full range in their drawings from the darkest a pencil allows right up to the pure white of the paper.

The results of working in this way can be fantastic and it is great to observe a class at the end of a couple of lessons standing back and glowing amongst themselves in the level of achievement that they feel that they have reached! Documented here is a set of drawings produced by one of my classes this month. The following challenge is to take the same degree of accuracy and tonal work into an assignment where they work from life, instead of a two-dimensional source.

5e2540a66fbeI have in the past also used the same construction to produce a class group project where everyone produces a section of the deformed image before they are finally reassembled for a larger scale face.

Link to group project work

Incidentally, the face images that I used for both the small and the large versions are all those of Chuck Close’s ‘heads’, which offer a readymade chance to dip into a little art historical lesson element, and indeed how artists (an others) can deal with the challenges of physical disability.

Christmas holiday, art teacher, iPad

christmasTime to do what I’ve been encouraging my pupils to do all term, experiment and play a bit with their iPads.  A bit of pure iPad drawing.

For those interested in the technical details, it is made with Bamboo Paper to start with and then Brushes Redux.

Happy Christmas!

 

 

Do you trust your device in a classroom?

I’ve been working for a year and a half with an iPad in classrooms of children all similarly equipped.  It’s been eighteen months of leaps forward, steps backwards and occasionally periods where I’ve pondered hard as to how best to implement the device into my art lessons.

I should say that I have approached the digital developments with considerable openness, I’ve been part of the steering group at school and I’m quite digitally literate. Added to this the background of my own
arts education taught me always to look and think broadly about methods, tools and materials that may be on offer. A kind of ‘consider everything and use what works for you’ approach.

Now a year and a half in I feel I am starting to feel the experimentation with the tablet and its apps are perhaps starting to become a little more embedded in my lessons and teaching materials. Whilst many of my colleagues have encountered problems with materials and apps provided by educational publishers, in the art department we have always been used to developing our own material and deciding exactly which route to take independently. In this way I’ve discovered apps that are useful and of an appropriate level for the twelve and thirteen year olds that are working in iPad classes up until now. Up until now that’s Brushes Redux and Bamboo Paper for digital drawing activities, iMovie for a film and the extremely versatile Photoshop Mix for digital collage.

This last one, Photoshop Mix, raises an interesting point. I could see that this undoubtedly was a fantastic app that suited FullSizeRender (40)my needs perfectly. However I was rather worried that the complexity of how it worked and the technical opportunities on offer were simply too great and my class of twelve year olds would struggle to get it to do what they wanted. But as it turned out the lesson was a fantastic example of peer to peer driven teaching and learning. Each new technical discovery made by me or any pupil seemed to spread rapidly around the class. By the time it came to hand in the work it was clear that everyone had grasped the content of the assignment and the technical possibilities offered by the app. A note to self, be careful not to underestimate the abilities of the pupils!

If there is one area of concern in all my iPad activities it is undoubtedly a question of how far I can go in saying that I have full confidence in the device to fully function in the way intend it to when leading a lesson.  Lesson situations have adversely been affected by issues such as linking my own iPad to the screen at the front of the room, pupils not being connected correctly to the cloud to allow full use of some apps, Internet connection issues and so on.

On the surface many of these sorts of problems are relatively small and definitely solvable. However, when you encounter them unexpectedly, even if the problem only effects a couple of the pupils in the class the disruption to the main task of the lesson can be extremely significant. It is also all too evident that bad experiences count and weigh heavily on the mind. If you don’t feel confident that your device (an iPad in this case) is going to allow you to simply get on with what you intended to do, is it not better and safer simply to fall back on what you know and have always done and put the tablet back in your bag?

It is a phase that a digital school has to go through perhaps, kind of painful and frustrating at times, but something that has to be experienced a worked through. To do this you obviously need the right technical support, but you also need enthusiasts willing to take chances and experiment, you need leadership prepared to lead by example and to commit to broad digitalization projects and who can take their whole team with them. But maybe above all you need time and patience to develop that all important trust in device and its role in the new classroom possibilities that it offers.