Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed. Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants. A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts. The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.
They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week. The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.
The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.
The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.
I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.
This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers. The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image. For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.
A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.
Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.
I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.
Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position. It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group. My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.
But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:
It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them. The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work. These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends. But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.
With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill. In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result. The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.
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.
There 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.