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!

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The homework issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How did this happen?

I rounded off my attempt at language learning at school with an O level English (GCSE) grade C. I always enjoyed my English lessons, it’s just that I never felt very good at them. I was a slow learner, didn’t read a novel until I was nineteen and often muddled up words. With that in mind, that grade C perhaps wasn’t too bad.

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Yet, through the course of the years I have ended up becoming a language teacher through the back door as it were. First and foremost, I consider myself an artist and art teacher, but increasingly I realize that my engagement through language, via the artistic route in a playful and creative way has rather become my thing. Could it be that my earlier struggles with English at school, followed by my struggles to learn Dutch when I moved to the Netherlands has actually made me a better language instructor? Maybe, it certainly gives me an empathy and understanding of how my pupils must, at times, feel.

But perhaps more significant is the robustness and self-belief that it has built…..a kind of ‘the things that don’t kill you make you stronger’ philosophy. I notice it in my pupils. Teaching them through immersion in the target language, especially at the phase when they are struggling to keep up with the language being used, isn’t a comfortable feeling.  At times it is well outside of the comfort zone. But it is getting past this and the feeling of achievement that accompanies it that is, the not insignificant by-product of learning language through immersion. With it comes a new found confidence and belief.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I presented a workshop about innovative approaches in content and language integrated learning (CLIL) situations. Much is said in education about the search for teaching methods and practices that challenge our pupils. The argument being that challenge the pupils and they will respond with an increased motivation to learn. It is a compelling argument, especially when you see just how much of a language a 12 year can master in the course of a year of bilingual education.

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Maybe, just maybe, if I had had the luxury of a bilingual education in my teenage years, I might be a little less surprised about having become, rather accidentally, a language teacher of sorts myself.

Cartoons: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

An app as a serious story-telling device

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 07.01.31Today, for the first time ever in one of my lessons I had a whole class active on their phones, headphones on and experiencing a piece of serious thematic lesson material. We were using an app that connected strongly with our current lessons based around how artists and other creative people tackle subjects such as immigration and refugees in their work.

For more than half an hour there was silence in the room and eyes were fixed on the small screens as the pupils were challenged to make decisions for an imaginary refugee fleeing persecution in Malaysia.

The app that we were using was ‘Finding Home’ made by the UNHCR a couple of years ago to give users insights into how the life of such a refugee is and their dependence on the communication opportunities offered by a smartphone.

It is an interesting approach and engaged the pupil’s attention fantastically well.  The app, in effect, takes over the phone of the user and makes it work like the phone of the refugee in the story.  The app presents a story in which there are choices to be made by the user that will alter what happens and the course of events.  In a sense it is not unlike some forms of literature that offer the reader the chance to make decisions and choices as the story progresses.

The app goes a step further though in that it also offers access to the photos, video and phone calls of the user, thus making it a much more immersive experience, one that continually engages you with choices, new developments and lurking in the background a constant feeling of danger.

The reaction of the pupils at the end of the lesson was positive.  The narrative that drives the storyline that the app develops was engaging and held their attention. There was even a suggestion I feel that they would actually have liked the app to have had even greater complexity and length, a positive, I think.  It will be a while yet before I ask the class to make a comparison between the various cultural media used to deal with these sensitive political issues.  It will be then that truly find out what the whole class thought of the way we spent the lesson and how the experience weighs in against immigration narratives developed by filmmakers, writers and visual artists in the other examples that we will be looking at.

 

Sworn to secrecy in Rembrandt year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

·         It mustn’t be overly and unnecessarily complex 

·         It must be reliable, no crashes or freezing screens 

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

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

PHOTO EDITING 

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

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

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DRAWING AND PAINTING 

Bamboo Paper (Difficulty level: easy) 

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

Brushes Redux (Difficulty level: easy) 

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

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

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

GRAPHIC PAGE DESIGN AND POSTER LAYOUTS  

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

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

Well-being and the arts (part two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well-being and the arts

Around this time of the year, and every year, I am involved in an advertising campaign.  My third-year pupils (aged 14-15) are busy pondering their exam programme choices.  It is the point where pupils have to choose which subjects they will continue to study to exam level at the end of their Dutch secondary education.  Pupils in the Netherlands take a still very broad collection of subjects through to the age of 18, so you would think that there would be plenty of scope to choose an arts subject.  This is indeed the case, virtually every student could find the space for art in their timetable.  So why the need for an advertising campaign to push my subject forward and encourage it to be chosen?

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It is an effort to win hearts and minds of those in the classroom (the children themselves) and those beyond (parents and colleagues).  It is, broadly speaking, a two-pronged attack.  Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, there are the children would have particularly strong and well-developed abilities where just maybe the studying of an arts related subject may help them in their route into further education and ultimately a career.  In these cases, I don’t have to do too much, they enjoy the subject, they want to extend themselves and they want to see just how far that they can push themselves.

The second group however, potentially a much larger group, is a much harder sell.  They too may well have a high level of artistic ability and interest.  However, somewhere, even at the age of fifteen a decision has already been made that an arts subject is a wasted and unnecessary choice on the railroad to their future and prestigious career.  The idea that everything has to be in the service of their future university study and career is a deep-seated one.  It is a perspective that is undoubtedly pushed by over cautious parents wanting the ‘best’ for their children.  But it is also reinforced all too often by the general advice that is consciously or unconsciously given at school.  This is the playing-field for the art department’s advertising campaign.

To this group of pupils my message is normally pretty straight forward to deliver; it is perfectly acceptable to choose a subject to follow for three years simply because you like and enjoy it.It might give you a good feeling, it offers a different perspectives and activities to many other subjects on the timetable, it broadens you view of the world, it combines theory, practical, creativity, design, social issues, history and so much more.

Would I dare to add to this that it can increase your sense of well-being? Well maybe, and I wouldn’t be alone in doing this:

British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

It is ironic that the views that are presented in this article (that I whole-heartedly support) run counter to the difficulties experienced in the arts, be that the pressures creative subjects are under within educational institutions or funding towards our broader arts organisations across society.

The arts as a wide field of creativity offers so much to those directly involved as artistic practitioners, but infinitely more to the broader public.  Those of us involved at all levels of the cultural world shouldn’t be shy in pushing our agenda, it is a constructive and at fulfilling one. 

Two further articles exploring this area:

The arts and medicine

Medical schools and art classes

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.

 

Pupils and their accessories – the ‘coffee’ cup

Is it just me, or do the pupils at my school seem to have a new accessory in their hands in the corridors and outside the classrooms?  Is it a new status symbol, a sign of who you are?

A few years ago, this would doubtless have been their mobile phone, but now everyone has one of those.  No, it’s rather more lo-tech than that.  I am seeing twelve and thirteen-year olds standing around waiting to go into lessons holding a disposable drink beaker from the coffee machine.

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We’ve had such a machine at school for ages.  Pupils have often sat around in the breaks drinking a warm beverage.  But something a little different seems to be going on.  I can’t say I’ve ever noticed them nonchalantly standing outside the classroom still holding (an often seemingly empty beaker). It might be my imagination, but it does kind of feel like this is some sort of performance. Are they trying to emulate or simulate something than they have seen elsewhere?

On my way to school each morning I am used to seeing the commuters grasping their first coffee shot of the day.  But my pupils won’t have made the same observation on their bike ride to school. Could it be that they want to be like their (incredibly cool) teachers who are regularly seen walking the corridors with a tea or coffee on the way to the next lesson?  I have to say, that also seems rather unlikely!

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I can’t draw many other conclusions other than to think that it is a somehow linked to all those informal celebrity photos of this star or that star snapped walking down the street clasping their own personal favourite brew.  A flat white or a macchiato for our pupils? No, I know for sure that the machine doesn’t dish out anything so exotic.  In fact, I would go further and say that it is still the age old favourite sugar shot of hot chocolate that they are buying.