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.

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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.

It’s about the idea – a start-up lesson with thanks to Rauschenberg!

Regularly I use a start-up lesson with my third years (age 14-15) that I know leaves them actually discussing the content of the lesson beyond the moment that they have left the room.

I’ve used the lesson twice this week and it has already served its purpose. I suppose that purpose breaks down into a number of parts:

  • To leave them curious about the future content of the lessons and hopefully feeling that they can expect the unexpected
  • To counter the feeling in most young teenagers minds that art has to always be beautiful or skilfully made
  • To introduce the fact that the ‘idea’ behind the work might actually be the most important thing
  • To open the door on a little art history

pencil stilllifeThe lesson plan could hardly be simpler.  Hand out a piece of paper to each pupil and make sure that everyone has got a pencil and a rubber. Next, ask the pupils to take a collection of small items out of their bags or pencil cases and arrange a still life on the table in front of them.

We then spend the next thirty minutes producing first a line drawing and then adding shading on and around the objects, I encourage them to try and make it the ‘best drawing that they have ever made’!

After thirty minutes I ask them to switch drawings with the person sitting next to them. I think most of them expect to be asked to carry on working on their partner’s drawing. But then comes the twist, I ask them to rub out the drawing, completely erase it, or at least as much as is possible.

It’s so interesting to watch how different classes react to this. Occasionally I get one where they just shrug their shoulders and get on with it. With most though it is a mixture disbelief and uproar, with some it almost becomes disobedience with some of them refusing to be so destructive! But in the end I persuade them to all pick up the eraser and get on with it.

In order to explain this rather unusual practical lesson at the start of the year and link up with the learning targets listed above I explain how this all connects up with what Robert Rauschenberg did to a Willem de Kooning drawing back in 1953. Rauschenberg spent two months gradually erasing the valuable de Kooning drawing before framing it and exhibiting it as his own work with the title ‘Erased Willem de Kooning Drawing’.

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For a more extensive explanation to the story click here.

Below you can see one of my pupil’s pieces of work.

rubbed out

As I said at the start, this is a fantastic way to grab everyone’s attention during that first lesson back after the holiday, but more importantly it shows that:

  • An artwork can be a kind of documentation of a performance or occurrence, indeed the performance itself can also become the artwork
  • An artwork can be humorous and aimed at making us rethink our preconceptions
  • An artwork can be more about an idea and less about how it looks

Added to this I can underline the fact that artworks don’t necessarily have to

  • Look aesthetically beautiful
  • Be skilfully made

In the end it is quite a lot to take in, but a series of themes have been established that can be returned to during other lessons and lesson modules.

I normally end with a promise never to ask them to erase their work again!

iPad education and looking for Creativity

A year into the experiment of digital enriched education at the school where I work and I am becoming increasingly interested by the place creativity has in this new form of teaching. As a device the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, offers so much. Each pupil has on the desk in front of them a camera, a video camera, a microphone and countless apps that seem to open so many doors. The creative possibilities would seem to be so extensive, more than I could have ever dreamed of just a few years ago. And yet I have a niggling doubt, a dissatisfaction at the back of my mind.

ipad creativity

Many friends and colleagues are enthusiastic at the new possibilities on offer in their lessons. But maybe it is the duty of the art teacher to look and ask questions about creativity and whether we are getting the most out of these digital devices. Are we actually developing in ourselves as teachers and in our pupils a creative and critical edge in our judgement of what we are doing and making?

If we focus for a moment on the use of the camera, both video and still. These tools are so immediate and easy for our pupils to use, just point and shoot. Equally easy on their phones too, this is the generation that has grown up totally used to documenting everything in their lives, and why take one photograph or one fragment of film when you can shoot ten or twenty or thirty?

This sort of costless freedom is fantastic, but at least in the hands of the teenagers I teach there does seem to be a creative trade off. Do I observe them making critical and formal judgements in the images they are capturing? Well, no not really.  And this fact is often exacerbated by the apps that are then used to present or rework the visual material. In no time the pupils throw the images and film fragments into iMovie or some other app, make use of the ready-made formats, themes and stencils on offer and have in no time a slick final product. But the question the art teacher must surely ask is, “are they actually being creative?” It is equally true when you ask them to present their photographs, a few filters may be applied to make the image more eye catching in some way, but they don’t even stop to think if cropping the image in some way could actually improve it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not against working digitally. I am a great fan of working with Photoshop or other similar software. The wealth of choices on offer provide fantastic creative options. And there in that word options or decisions perhaps you have an important distinction. Creativity is about decision making and a critical evaluation. Does too much of the app market rely or a quick fix within a too restricted range of choices? It certainly does seem to encourage and invite an over reliance on essentially ready-made solutions.

There are undoubtedly apps that allow an extensive range of creative possibilities, I have made use of a number in the last year, and seen some good results. There is also nothing to stop a young photographer or film-maker setting about using their camera in an incredibly creative way. There lies perhaps the new challenge for the art departments in schools to stop and consider how they can instruct and encourage the use of the tablet computer or other device to extend creative possibilities. This would seem both desirable and necessary. My observations of my pupils up to now certainly don’t give me the feeling that this will take care of itself.

So in conclusion, a note to self for this coming school year; start to work out strategies and places in the educational material for more creative use of the chances on offer.

If anyone has particular favourite apps that seem to encourage the sorts of options that I am talking about here I would be only too glad to hear about them.