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

Once in a while something special comes along…..

Most art teachers are constantly changing, adjusting and refining their lesson material and the projects that they do with their classes. I for one am rarely completely satisfied and am constantly looking to push the various assignments that I do with my pupils into new areas. This approach keeps things interesting for me and also keeps in the possibility of being surprised by the results that the pupils make.

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Sometimes it’s quite difficult to predict what will work and capture the imagination of the classes and produce really memorable work. When this happens though you can often sense the excitement running through the whole class as they realize that the things that they are designing or making are indeed something a bit special.

This happened recently whilst working on a project based around abstraction.  I’ve written on my blog before about dealing with abstract art with the third year classes I teach (14-15 year olds).

Abstraction – They’re too young to understand it

Lipstick, Powder and Paint….and abstraction

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Abstract art is a theme I enjoy exploring with them. The module starts with some drawing assignments that relate mark making to sound and music followed by some collage preparation work. This year I decided that I wanted to include in this module also a element about how illusionistic and real space can be combined in an art work. I wanted to make abstract work with them that lurked in the middle ground between two dimensional and three dimensional abstract form. There is maybe no other artist that has explored this middle ground so thoroughly than Frank Stella.

stella6Using Stella’s Cones and Pillars series as a touch stone the pupils set to work using a 30×30 cm piece of plywood, a hand saw, acrylic paint and wood glue, each pupil produced their own abstract work based on a quarter circle base form with a number of two-dimensional painted forms set in three dimensional space.

At a certain point the pupils started to see what was going to be possible and spurred on by the complexities of Stella’s work began to become more and more creative in looking for their own solutions. The end results across the fifty pupils in the two classes of this age that I teach was consistently good with a number of exceptionally well worked out pieces of work.

All of a sudden I had boxes full of rather fragile, but really interesting pieces of work that the pupils were actually very proud of. It was work that had to be exhibited around school. A few pieces will find their way into a glass case at school. But thanks to a little extra budget being made available by the finance department I’ve been able to photograph all fifty and had them printed onto a plastic canvas to hang up as an eleven meter long artwork in the school hall.

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“Oh….. he was my old art teacher!”

I was reminded this week of something one of my tutors at art school once said to me. It was nothing too profound, but for one reason or another it did lodge itself in my memory.  It went something like this, “I like being the artist in the village where I live because I can go down the pub, have a few drinks and on the way back home fall in the ditch and nobody thinks much of it”, thanks Mike for those words of wisdom!

I suppose one of the reasons the comment stuck in my mind was that I didn’t really fully understand what he was getting at. On reflection I see now that he was placing himself in a kind of slightly romantic context of the artist living on the edge of regular society, someone who is expected to do slightly odd things from time to time.

I’ve never really seen myself as being someone on the edge of society, but I do accept fully that as both an artist and art teacher you do sometimes find yourself doing slightly odd things.

plastic-bag-kite1The reason this all came back to me this week was that for the second year in succession I found myself doing a little preparation work for a school trip we make with our first years (12-13 year olds). It’s a trip to a science museum of the human body made in the context of a cross curricular project week about sport and physical activity. My part as art teacher is to make kites with the pupils so that we can have a mass kite flying session on the nearby beach.

It all sounds great so far, but as any parent who’s flown kites with children will be able to relate, kites that don’t fly, aren’t fun. So both this year and last, I’ve found myself on a windy afternoon during the school holiday week in February trying to build easy to make, cheap and flyable kites from a few sticks and plastic bags.

I don’t mind doing this too much, I quite like the challenge, but I do feel pretty self conscious doing it. Remember these are not glamorous ‘power kites’, no, these are small kites made from plastic shopping bags, which at times have struggled to fly. Flying kites when alone can look a bit of a lonely affair at the best of times, and when you’re an adult and it looks like you are flying a plastic bag on a string, as indeed you are, it looks well…….maybe a bit weird!

Last year, when I was doing this I chose the quietest corner of the university campus in the town where I live and set to work, kind of hoping no one much would see me. Eventually my shopping bag with its stylish tale of more shopping bags was fluttering in a rather unstable wind on about twenty meters of string, maybe I could start thinking of heading for home.

Just at that moment I noticed a young woman biking towards me on a bike with a second one perched on the back of the same bike. I continued to concentrate on my plastic bags, feeling slightly embarrassed, hoping that they wouldn’t pay me too much attention. They got closer and suddenly came the call,

“Hey! Mr Sansom!”

It was Laura, one of my old pupils from the secondary school (in another town) where I teach who was now studying at the University. The funny thing was, she didn’t stop to talk, just biked on by, but as she did I heard her say to the other girl on the back of the bike as they passed,

“Oh….. he was my old art teacher” as if to excuse or explain my behaviour to her companion. I think I might have imagined her offering a shrug of her shoulders and rolling her eyes too, but I certainly had a better grasp about what Mike had meant about falling in the ditch and people kind of expecting you to do it.

Senna…..gripped to the end

A short follow up to my earlier post about my doubts related to the showing of the Senna movie to my group of fifteen year olds. We completed the film yesterday in class. The second half of the movie builds to the weekend in early May 1994 at the Imola racetrack when in practice on the Saturday a driver suffered a fatal accident and then the following day during the race Ayrton Senna also collided with a wall and died only minutes later. Both events are documented in the film, using the original race day footage. The imagery is not grotesquely close, but none the less both incidents are shown.

This was the point that I was obviously uncertain about. The classroom of 32 pupils went absolutely still. I’m so used to wise cracks from pupils in class, even when we are being serious, but on this occasion there was simply a hugely respectful silence. The titles rolled, still a quite classroom. I turned the lights on and gently started a discussion, a discussion that we will be continuing next week. My impression of their reaction?..well, they almost seemed grateful to have seen the film. They certainly seemed to have absolutely got the measure of the seriousness of it, which as a teacher is very satisfying to see.

The real feedback will come in a couple of weeks when they hand in the reports that they will be writing. But as things stand I am very pleased to have taken the chance and feel rewarded by the response.

Photographic frames of reference

Establishing clearly defined areas of creativity when working with young people is something I’ve posted about before, it is something that, as an art educator I feel quite strongly about. This week I’m being reminded about again through an assignment that I have set.

The assignment is part of a photography module that I am working on with my fourth year class (15-16 year olds in the Dutch system of education). We’ve spent time in the lessons looking at examples of good portrait photography, the pupils have compared photographs and written about them.

But ultimately the core of the whole project is getting the pupils to take their own photographs and trying to insure that the photographs are more that the bulk of the photographs these teenagers take in the average week.

This is a generation that take so many photographs. This is fantastic in so many ways, the freedom to experiment, the minimal cost involved and the ease with which they can share their creative discoveries. The big down side though is that they rarely stop to think about what it is that they are doing, everything is a snap shot, instantaneous and so often just for amusement purposes.

With this in the background, it is actually often quite difficult to get the sorts of photographic results that you might hope for. The assignment that I have been experimenting with is essentially a portrait assignment, not so much about ensuring that the portrait photograph discloses something about the subject, it is simply more about encouraging the pupils to look carefully and critically at there’s on that they are photographing, consider how they are framing them up and how that they are controlling light.

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The assignment is based on an idea that I came across on the www.booooooom.com website although I have also seen work by other photographer doing similar things, such as the Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens.

For the project I gave the pupils a selection of five Vermeer and five Rembrandt portraits to use as a basis. They simply had to create their own photographic versions of the portraits. It was not so much about dressing up or gathering attributes to fill the picture, but more about creating the ‘look’ of the painting, simulating the glance, creating a comparable composition.

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By allowing the pupils to play the role that the original offered seems to have removed a lot of the self-consciousness that might otherwise get in the way. They step in front of the camera knowing what they have to do. The endless possibilities that the camera normally offers is framed within some limitations, but these limitations allow the chance to focus on the issues I want them to focus on. This is the strength of the project I feel.

Is this the most difficult art assignment of the year?

I can’t speak for everyone of course, but for my pupils this is the most challenging assignment I get them to attempt. The challenge comes not in the technical skill, knowledge of materials or pure facility to draw but because it requires a sharp combination of text and image, maybe humour and above all a good idea.

 Essentially it is an advertising assignment, but an assignment that I also relate to surrealism and tend to focus on examples from advertising that could be said to have a surreal quality to them. The assignment I set is to design an advertisement for one product from a list that I provide and that could be used in a magazine, on a billboard or in a newspaper. Alternatively it could be a storyboard for a TV, cinema or internet advertising film.

 I start by showing them a whole series of examples. One or two or the examples are quite complex and might need a bit of an explanation, but by and large these groups of mostly fifteen year old are well able to follow the line of thought in the advert, make connections to the product, or see the joke if there is a joke to be seen. More broadly, they are perfectly able to spot the really good adverts and explain why they are so successful.

 But then comes the hard bit. Try coming up with your own idea. Be original, think outside of the box, take an oblique angle. Ask yourself what your product is all about, what are its characteristics, what can you focus on and start to build an idea around?

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It can all be so simple. An example like the one above makes use of an existing image or situation and by careful placement of the product name and slogan the image and text come together to form a delightful whole, with a real feeling for humour. The pupils see this, they understand it, they laugh. But trying to get them to think beyond the “Buy our chili sauce because, well, it’s very hot…” level is so difficult.

I tell them they have to turn every idea and product over in their minds, look at it from different angles, bounce ideas off each other. But this is so different to most other school work, where you are generally rewarded to grinding away at assignments or preparations for tests. It is about being open and ready for that idea to come.

 It’s still early days with this assignment, if anything memorable, the good, the bad or the ugly comes up, I’ll post for feedback. 

War and conflict project

As a follow up to my previous post I thought perhaps a little more documentation of the There they stood…. project would be good. Firstly the the installation of the work as it is at school at the moment. Trapped behind the glass at eye level does seem to work well for it.

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Discussions with the local museum are ongoing and hopefully with time it will be exhibited there I would fantastic for the pupils involved to see their work displayed alongside the work of others in such a professional context.

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The close up work shows a little of the process involved in the project and in particular the poems written by the pupils about the likes of Picasso and Goya, whose work we have studied during the course of the project. It is worth remembering that the poems are being written by fifteen year old Dutch pupils who are writing in their second language.

If you haven’t watched the video documentation in my previous post, do take a moment to do so.

War and conflict in a school art project

There they stood, there they were…. is the name of a group artwork that I have been working on with three groups of 14-15 year olds that I teach, sixty-five pupils in total. It has been made within the framework of a cross-curricular project that we run at school. During these projects we take one global theme and explore it in various ways in the context of a variety of timetabled lessons. For our third years the theme is War and Peace. For my part, as an art teacher I use the project to take a look at how the war has been presented in the visual arts through the centuries and how the media deal with it today.

It provides a good opportunity to show the pupils how art can tackle the most serious of topics, how it can be quite shocking at times and how artists can use their artistic practice as a form of protest. After such a project there can be little doubt in the minds of the pupils that art offers important communicative possibilities even with the heaviest of subject matter.

Having said all that, I have been quite taken aback by the impact of the practical artwork that the pupils have just finished working on. The starting point for the whole project are the piles of shoes (and indeed other objects) that can still be seen at the site of the Auschwitz prison camp in southern Poland. A couple of months ago I spent time showing pupils these heaps of ‘left overs’ from the victims of the camp. I showed them photographs of the piles of shoes, suitcases, glasses, artificial limbs and even hair that is still displayed there. The images were greeted by a attentive silence. I visited Auschwitz a number of years ago, everything about the place is in many ways quite overwhelming, but it was without a doubt these traces of actual victims that left the greatest impression on me.
The reaction of the pupils left me in no doubt, the work form that I had in mind was going to be the right one. Each pupil worked on and over an old shoe, first covering it with paper and paint and then a layer of imagery, text and paint. Each shoe became a three dimensional collage that documented one of the many conflicts and it’s victims from war zones around the world in the post-Auschwitz period of 1945 up until the present day. Vietnam, Korea, the Arab Israeli conflict, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and others all featured in the work. Photographs, artworks, newspaper articles, maps and details of the destruction of each conflict featured on the shoe.
On the sole of each shoe a poem was added that the pupil had written about one of the artworks or photographs that we had discussed in the lessons. Images such as Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May or the Eddie Adams street execution photograph from Vietnam.

I have been able to display the resulting heap of shoes in a glass case at school that is, in its way, not unlike the glass cases in the actual prison camp, although the pupils’ version obviously being of a much smaller scale. The shoes trapped there, behind glass, and in the film shown here have gained a weight, a charge, that I had hoped for, but if I am honest has been more powerful than I had expected. Watch the film, judge for yourself, the music helps of course, but it is a charge that the pupils themselves can identify and relate to once past the initial excitement of seeing their own particular shoe in the documentation.

Larger than the sum of the parts….in the classroom

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Most of the classes that I teach are relatively large. Mostly they are between twenty five and thirty pupils, more often than not, closer to the thirty.  That presents plenty of problems at times, mostly relating to the basic practicalities of working with large groups and messy materials or difficult to use tools. Also, simply getting around a class of thirty a offering some individual guidance in a lesson of sixty minutes is challenging to say the least.

There are however also advantages, and as far as I’m concerned, working on large scale group works are one of the them. There are so many good reasons for doing it once in a while with any class or group of people you might be working with. Consider the following points:

  • The strength of building on the group identity, a team working together as a number of ‘social’ advantages
  • The lower achievers share a chance to participate and have a place in a greater whole, my experience is that this works particularly well
  • Pupils like to help and support each other for the benefit of the group work
  • Large artworks do simply have a ‘wow’ factor. In the first instance that can be fantastic in the classroom as pupils realize that something a bit special is coming together, there can be a quite tangible buzz of success. Outside of the classroom larger works do tend to put the activities of the art department very much in public view, and that can only be a good thing!
  • It can also have the positive spin off that the more able pupils realize for themselves that they too might actually be able to try some more ambitious scale work.

Distorted faces group projects

Group work certainly isn’t something to use very week, but it does offer some great possibilities. I once watched a Tim Rollins workshop with some art students, it was one of the key moments that moved me towards working in art education and at the same time was a fantastic demonstration of what can be achieved in group work in the arts.

The film below is pretty old but for any one interested in art or education it is certainly an interesting watch.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

 

 

High heels and creativity

High heels and creativityThe kunsthal in Rotterdam has been experimenting with audience participation in its exhibition planning. What would you like to see as a theme for a future exhibition? That was the first question. Shoes, Victor Vasarely and dinosaurs were the options on offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, shoes came back as the popular choice, although I dare say that the under twelves voted differently!

Subsequently, further choices were offered that related to the presentation of the shoes, pr and advertising issues were also open to a degree of consultation. It is not so very different to an assignment I might offer the older pupils I teach (16 year olds) in their cultural education lessons. Choose a theme for an exhibition, research the artworks that you want to include, plan a layout for the exhibition and design the advertising campaign with a poster or a information folder.
The end result in Rotterdam is very good. In dimly lit spaces created in the basement hall of the Kunsthal close on five-hundred shoes are displayed. Exclusively women’s shoes, and as my wife pointed out, almost exclusively high-heeled. There is huge variety, from the familiar and practical, to eccentric and surely unwearable.
Though I am unlikely to be able to take my own pupils to see the exhibition, the costs involved and the cancellation of too many lessons, stand in the way of that. It is the sort of display I would like them to see. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons such as:

  • The familiarity of the objects on display. We all buy and wear shoes and are used to the selection criteria we impose on them when choosing.
  • The shear quantity on display, it’s a chance to see an impressive variety.
  • The pupils are perhaps more ready to come with their own opinions and evaluation than with some other areas of the arts where they perhaps feel confused or pressured by the opinions of others to like or value something they struggle to understand.
  • But perhaps the nicest aspect of hundreds of shoes placed side by side is insight into creativity it gives when working within a restricted frame of reference, in this case a pair of shoes.

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Let me expand on this last point a little more.
We all like to have choices and it is not different in education. Teachers are encouraged to built elements of choice and differentiation into their lessons. As an art teacher we can offer choices of two-dimensional or three-dimensional, traditional materials or digital media, painting or drawing, collage or printmaking techniques, large or small, the list goes on and on. The choice of how exactly, and with which material, to develop an idea can definitely be an integral part of the creative process. But it can at times be an awkward distraction as a pupil struggles to choose and maybe struggles also to fully explore the numerous creative possibilities a material or process offers.
We want our pupils to be creative and we want to give them the chance to be creative. The shoes exhibition provides an excellent contained frame of reference of creativity. Everything in the exhibition is a shoe, to be worn on a woman’s foot. That’s the frame of reference, but within that frame there is huge variety and examples or designers stretching the creative possibilities. Just how far can you in being creative with a sole, a heel and upper of the shoe. Some of the results border on the sculptural while others seem quite conventional, but the interesting dimension here is the range.
Back in the classroom, by offering pupils endless diversity in the choices on offer you don’t necessarily extend the creativity in the work they attempt. My experience is often quite the opposite, they become restricted by the choices.
We hear often enough that children and young people like to know where the permitted borders lie. The challenge for the art teacher, and maybe others too, is to set the frame of reference wide enough to offer challenges and choices in finding creative solutions, but not so wide that it ultimately inhibits the very creativity that you what to stimulate.
It’s a long while since I did a shoe design assignment with one of my classes, maybe it’s time to have a go at it again.