An Artistic Odyssey….

I don’t often post a complete article written by someone else, but Edith Pritchett’s prize winning short story did make me laugh. The link below takes you to the Guardian article about the competition.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/04/edith-pritchett-an-artistic-odyssey-jonathan-cape-observer-comica-graphic-short-story-prize-2018

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The teenage photographic challenge

We live in a world where more photographs are made than ever before.  The teenagers that I teach are part of a generation who are barely able to live without their ever-present phone and photographic device in their hand. They are totally comfortable it would to record all around them and themselves for digital sharing on one of the many social media platforms.  It is all so easy and immediate.

As an art teacher it is fantastic to have the possibility to make use of the photographic medium so easily.  Yet experience shows that successfully getting worthwhile pupil work is surprisingly difficult to achieve.  Indeed, one of the problems I feel I face is the very casualness of the way many teenagers approach photographic documentation.  It is all so easy, point and shoot, endless quantities of images can be taken at no cost at all and the device of choice (the phone camera) always being with us in a pocket or bag. This same casualness brings also a sort of complacency or at less a much-weakened critical judgement.  Few teenagers ever look at their photographs on a screen bigger than that of their phone, fewer still bother to stop and evaluate the successes or failures of a composition.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of photographic assignments. Some have produced the results I hoped for such as a photographic exchange project and photographic art work reconstructions, others haven’t though and have resulted in mediocre or simply disappointing results.

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By David Hockney

This year’s photographic variation is a project based on the collages made by the British artist David Hockney during the 1970s and 80s. Hockney’s work used extensive sets of photographs that he had taken of various subjects, people, interiors and landscapes. These were reassembled in an overlapping fashion to document the view and made active use of distortions, disruptions and twisted perspectives that the process produced.

The resulting works are fascinating to see.  I showed my two classes of fifteen year olds a selection of Hockney’s work. I explained. They looked. Were they actually seeing and understanding what they were looking at and grasping the process? To be honest, in education I have that feeling more often. For most of them is was a completely unfamiliar way of working with a camera, but to be honest, I didn’t think that it was so complex or difficult!

 

A week later the pupils arrive with their own set of photographs at school. In most cases, still on their phones. There is a misconception that teenagers are technological able and literate.  In some areas maybe, but occasionally a surprise comes along…..in this case it seemed like more than half of the class had little idea how to get photographs off their phones and onto a desktop computer.  It seems a little symptomatic of a development I’ve noticed over last couple of years.  At the school where I teach all pupils have an iPad.  I’ve written before about how we in the art department make use of it.  There are new tools and new possibilities, but with it has undoubtedly also come a diminishing capability and familiarity with using a laptop or desktop computer.

I am digressing a little……. eventually the photographs the pupils have made are onto the computer and the creative process begins.  The room quietens, and the pupils gain that fixed gaze that comes when a computer-based activity engages them.

It is a puzzle, but a fascinating one to do.  In the end, the work is relatively quickly done.  The results in some cases are quite complex.  As always, you learn during the process, what are the extra directions that you need to give to guarantee a suitable set of photographs or maybe spend just a few more minutes looking at and analyzing Hockney’s collages in order to make sure the pupils have some insight in choosing appropriate subjects.  But overall the results are good, certainly interesting enough to have another go at it next year.

 

An educational luxury…..a little extra time

Twice in two weeks I’ve had the chance to work with groups in a workshop situation. There’s nothing so unusual about that, but in both cases the workshops have been for unusually long sessions.  Last week I worked with a group of twenty 12 year olds for a seven hour long art, language and creativity workshop (yes, with a couple of breaks!). Today I have had four hours with colleagues to try and use an afternoon to create new lesson material that combines lesson content and language learning challenges in imaginative ways.

The length of both workshop sessions are relatively unusual in educational contexts,  where so much is cut up into small pieces to fit a timetable or simply to make sure all subjects get their allotted amount of time.  Both children and staff are constantly switching, readjusting and having to start again. It is a system that generates a lot of wasted time and a great deal of disruption.  Breaks are of course important to refresh and clear the mind a little, but the normal school day (or the average conference day for that matter) it does at times feel like overkill. These are the reasons why these more extended workshop sessions feel so different and offer other possibilities.

For the children last week we were able to extensively play a series of language games, combine them with practical art activities and written assignments. The pupils got completely involved and spent the day consistently speaking English (their second language) after only having had a couple of weeks of bilingual education. The workshop had something of a pressure cooker effect, intensive input, active involvement and language rich output. Yes, we were all exhausted at the end of the day, but there is nothing wrong with that once in a while!

Today’s workshop with colleagues was rather different. Four hours together essentially with the aim of producing teaching material that can be put into use in the forthcoming weeks and months. This too, like last week, required energy and focus. But the unusual difference today is that we have been able to have time to work together. The more usual format being a workshop that presents a collection of ideas, the workshop ends, everyone goes home and you may (or may not) get a chance to return to workshop content a few weeks later when you get a moment, and that moment is very unlikely to be with your colleagues. Again, as so often in education the the breaks and disruption get in the way and potentially constructive work is lost as a result.

school-bellInterestingly, the school where I teach, are currently looking at the merits of personalized learning. It is a bit too early to say whether this will ultimately help in this area.  But it certainly will be interesting to see if it might be possible, in a readjusted school day, to see a timetable that might help in this area.  Could it result in more scope for pupils to work on particular subjects in more extended ways when it is possible to do so and perhaps be a little the slaves to the school bell?

Climbing at altitude with thirteen year olds and a teacher with altitude sickness….well sort of

It is nice to get out of the classroom with the pupils, the dynamics change, but whether I am always comfortable with it, that is a very different question.

Each year near the start of the first term we have a day without lessons and there are any number of activities to develop the relationships within the class in new ways and for teachers to a build different sort of contact with their groups.  All sorts of things are done, swimming, canoeing, bowling, team-building games and so on.  I joined a class of second years (13 year olds) that I teach art to. Our outing was to head into the local town to climb (with a guide) the 55 metre tall church tower. (Using the steps on the inside, unlike the picture below!)  Along the way we would hear a bit of the history of the building.

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Maybe I’m overly cautious about safety matters, but as we started our accent on a fairly well-worn wooden staircase (that looked to have been constructed rather a long while) my eye catches the sign that says, ‘climbing the tower is done so at your own risk’.  What must I do with such a notice?  We’re already there, the kids are already climbing the steps ahead of me.  Should I be worried?  Is there something I should know?  Yes, we’re climbing a fifty-five metre tower with a group of maybe overly excited 13 year olds.  I know enough about their classroom behaviour to know that they can sometimes simply do unpredictable and unexpected things. You project that sort of behaviour onto the current situation, climbing narrow, winding, wooden staircases round the edges of a series of nine metre high spaces.  At the back of my mind are also those occasions when  I have biked with a comparable class observing the way that they themselves seem oblivious to risk or danger!

We climb higher, the kids do seem to be enjoying it, chattering and shouting to each other.  Just about calming down enough to hear the historical nuggets of information that our guide provides.  We pause 18 metres up, in a large room.  A couple of the pupils don’t want to go higher, the height issue being a bit too much for them.  I feel a bit like a Sherpa, leaving a couple of climbers at base camp two.

We take a side door and suddenly we’re walking in the space between the roof of the church and the ceiling of the main body of the building.  For this part we are on a narrow wooden walkway, at times with no barrier to the side.  A mountain ridge springs to mind as the pupils must swing themselves round beams that are awkwardly placed for the walkway.

Then we are climbing again, past the bells and onward and upwards.  The last staircase is little more than a ladder.  And finally, we’re out on the fifty-five metre high roof.  It is a big view, I glance briefly at it, take a photo, but as so often with pupils outside of the school I find myself focussing on my charges excitedly shouting and jumping.

There is no doubt, the children have enjoyed this, it is good to see.  The question is, have I also enjoyed it? Well, yes, a bit.  But I find myself thinking about my brother who teaches in the British educational system.  Before he does anything outside of school he has to fill in a risk assessment form.  I’ve never seen such a form in the Dutch system.  Generally, the Dutch approach is much more open and free-wheeling.  Too open for me?  Well at times, maybe.  But then again, perhaps this approach by educationalists (and parents too) also has a part to play in the success in ‘happiness’ surveys that Dutch children seem to score so well in.  The have an independence and openness that stands them in good stead for their future.

For today though, we’ve reached a conclusion, we reached the summit, enjoyed the view and descended safely. The children are on their way home for the weekend.  For some that means a 16 km (ten mile) bike ride through towns, villages and countryside which they may well do completely alone.  This may well in itself say something about the Dutch approach to risk.

Class sizes, it’s a numbers game…..and being lucky, for this year at least

Its the start of another school year.  Everyone returns rested after an unusually warm summer holiday.  This year though, for me at least , something has changed a bit and it is leaving me feeling a little more positive than this time last year.

The reason for this optimism is simple, It lies in the way that the pupil numbers cookie has crumbled this year for me, I have been fortunate.  Across the seven classes that I teach the average number of pupils in the classes has dropped by five.  Last year my biggest class was a whopping 32 and the smallest one of 24.  This year that has become a biggest of 27 and the smallest a tiny group of 17.  (All my classes fall in the 12-16 year age group)

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Wow, what an improvement you might say! And this year it certainly is. But I did have the experience of last year first and I have been doing this long enough to know that next year will almost certainly spring back to more normal levels.

Class sizes are, in most cases, simply a numbers game.  There are ‘good’ numbers and numbers that are less desirable. If, in a given cluster or year layer within the school there are 90 children, that means three classes of 30 will be made.  However, if there are 75 in the cluster the result will be a much more attractive three groups of 25.  A disaster number for most of my colleagues would be 96, as I work at a school where we have been known to create classes of 32 on occasions. My mini class of 17 this year is the product of a particular cluster counting 34 children…..too many (just!) for one class to be created, but seemingly extremely generous when two of seventeen are the result.

Like I said, it is a numbers game of balancing the class sizes as much as possible, but then there is the other numbers game of the financial consequences (extra teaching hours and other resources) of having to create an extra or unexpected class also playing a significant part.

There is research that suggests that class sizes has little impact on pupils’ learning.  If I’m honest, when I’m up the front explaining something to the whole group it makes little difference if the class is 17 or 32.  Maybe it could even be more than 32.  Equally if everyone is simply getting on with an assignment quietly and I’m marking or preparing the next activity, then the group size is of little significance.

However, and it is a big however, this doesn’t explain why the class sizes that I have got this year have left me with a feeling of relief. Let me list a few positives of smaller class sizes. Some are general to most teachers, some are more specific to me as a teacher whose work involves a significant amount of practical activities:

Classroom individual contact time

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As an art teacher a significant amount of my teaching is done one on one, walking around the classroom helping, assisting, guiding and encouraging individual pupils. Smaller classes means more opportunity for this sort of teaching. More personal contact can only be good for the quality of the education.

Materials practicalities and limitations

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Most art teachers work without technician to support them. The smaller the class means that more complex practical variations can be offered. You can move away from the tendency towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The teacher becomes less of the technician shuffling and preparing materials at the expense of the actual content and teaching that they should be involved with.  Choices and differentiation within the lesson and the materials on offer are increased.

More effective lesson time

The start-up and clear-up phases of lessons with a smaller class are reduced and invade on the lesson time less. The result is simply more effective education time at the core of the lesson.

Admin and marking reductions

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If I am honest, it is here that my smaller classes this year give me the best feeling.  One of the subjects I teach has particular benefits in this area.  In this subject the pupils have to produce written reports of cultural activities that they have completed. Think film reports, theatre reports, exhibition reports and so on.  If I ask 80 pupils (like I had last year) to produce a 1000 word report…..yes, do the maths, that’s 80000 words……and giving eighty times written feedback on top.  46 (like this year) is obviously a significant saving in the time that I will be ploughing through the work my classes produce.  This freeing up of time obviously also opens the chance to maybe do other things that benefit my pupils further.

For me these are four pretty convincing reasons why class sizes are a serious issue in the eyes of so many who work in education.  It results in conflict and disagreements within schools, where leadership groups are asked to balance budgets using the resources that have been allocated.  Their hands are often tied by the financial restraints imposed on them.

There are many things that can be done to improve the quality of education.  Class sizes is certainly one of them.  But national educational budgets are generally failing to recognize this.

Fine tuning and improving – a creative language and art assignment (clil)

You learn a lot from trying something for the first time with a class. An idea that was so clear in your head seems to create confusion or uncertainty in those of your pupils. Or something that you planned to fill just a couple of lessons takes three times as long to complete. This was one such assignment, one that has many good aspects to it, but when I experimented with it for the first time two years ago, I knew afterwards refinements had to be made.

The project is a really nice blend of language and imagery that comes together to produce a final piece of work that has considerable space for the pupil’s own ideas, has strong compositional challenges and can be completed with figurative and/or abstract elements. A full description of the working process can be found here.

The problem I had with the results last time was the language element. I remember at the time perhaps being in a little bit of a hurry to get onto the practical work. As a result, the language part (that comes first) didn’t get enough time and, dare I say it, a not critical enough push from me. The results were in the end reasonable, but the language output simply wasn’t as poetic, imaginative or grammatically fine-tuned as I had hoped. So this time, these were the areas for focus.

It’s an interesting challenge for my groups of fifteen year olds learning in English (their second language). I delivered them each a page of Wuthering Heights ask them to create something new with a selection of the words that are on the page that they have been given and obliterate the rest, or at least cover them over with their design work. It could result in a new and very concise new narrative, it could be a collection of phrases that read like a poem or the lyrics of a song, it could even result in a series of profound statements. But whichever direction they choose the text should be clear, make sense and be grammatically correct.

I did hammer on a bit about the grammatical criteria, but it did pay off. The results this year are definitely stronger in this area. Emily Brontë’s pages have been turned into something really quite different. The visual design is eye-catching, but the textual puzzle of sentence creation using limited means has produced some intriguing results.

 

I used to love him I cried heartbroken. 

I guess he would rather have her arms round his neck. 

I know he will never like me. 

Will I miss him? I asked myself half angrily. 

 

She, a woman, our mistress had said, it was nothing less than murder in her eyes, she kept aloof, and avoided any alliance with him.

Three years subsequent to my inclination, I was persuaded to leave, but tears were more powerful when I refused to go.

He wanted no women he said, no mistress.

I kissed good bye and, since then a stranger I’ve no doubt.

 

Those you term weak shall fight to the death. 

Have faith I advised her, value him more, melting into tears and delighted she replied. 

I wondered what he had been doing, how he had been living. 

He is too reckless, doesn’t trouble himself to reflect on the causes. 

 

Enough complaining, look at the evenings spent.

See the good.

Talk about anything, amuse me.

Talk is agitation.

Express feelings beautiful and sweet.

Pronounce words softer.

 

The accursed boy’d never know a dark absence would lavish the whole place in words of silence. 

As it persisted he cried, oh friends run away from me.

The photos I couldn’t possibly post….

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To be honest I felt that these photos were photos that I couldn’t even take, and so decided not to……Why? Well that will perhaps become clear.

It was a school excursion to a museum, the pupils were having at this particular photographic opportunity, a lot of fun, they were laughing hysterically in fact. I suspect it is going to be an excursion that hangs in the memory for quite some time.

It was an excursion day for a relatively small group of sixteen year olds. Twenty four pupils in all. The whole group were pupils who have chosen art as an exam subject. As part of the course my colleague organizes a couple of times a year museum visits as an extension, and enrichment, of the classroom program.

Last Friday we were visiting Rotterdam, first a session in the Kunsthal and after that the Boijmans van Beuningen museum.

In the Kunsthal we saw the Hyperrealist sculpture exhibition. It was an exhibition with a wow factor, certainly for our pupils. They had never seen anything like it. Duane Hanson, John deAndrea, Ron Mueck and many others. The strange confrontation that these life like sculptures bring, the permission that they give to stare at the human body without embarrassment and the slightly alienating effect of it all had our class transfixed.  They were focused in a quite different way than I think I have ever seen pupils in a museum before.  It was a good start to the day, the pupils left the museum for lunch talking about what they had just seen, which as a teacher is exactly where you want them to be.

But then there was still the afternoon part of our city visit still to come…..

We regathered on the steps of the Boijmans museum ready for our second cultural dose.  We were principally there for the museum’s permanent collection and had arranged two guides to lead our pupils through some of its high points.  As we had hoped, particular attention was given to the museum’s collection of Surrealist art. Although, my group also had a really nice discussion with our excellent guide about performance art.  Time was nearly up when our guides brought our two groups pretty much simultaneously to one last work, a piece by the Vienna based artists’ collective Gelatin.

They explained that it was an art work that invited a form of participation, although it was entirely up to visitors as to whether they actually did.  There was no pressure to do so if you didn’t want to.

We entered a first space with what at first glance looked like racks of clothes.  Well, they kind of were, but kind of weren’t!  But they were garments of sorts, designed to be pulled on over your normal clothes.  Rather than describe the rest at length, maybe it’s easier to just add a link to Gelatin’s own website showing photographs from the opening of the exhibition in Rotterdam just a few days ago.

Link to Gelatin site 

I have to admit to being a little surprised, partly by the artwork itself, but more so by the reaction of a significant number of our group.  They just couldn’t wait to get involved and pull some of the outfits on! Thereafter there really was little to be done to control the hysterical laughter. This really is going to be an excursion that is going to be discussed for years!

The artists themselves clearly want their work to have a sharp element of humour. But it is also about dissolving hierarchies by, in a way, equalizing physical appearances, through imposing a sort of artificial nakedness.  Most of the girls couldn’t wait to try on the male outfits to huge comic effect. They were happy enough to take photos of themselves and each other, but somehow it just didn’t feel the right thing to do myself. Restraint seemed appropriate.

It also felt extremely appropriate not to join in with the artwork myself…..I feel absolutely sure that my pupils wouldn’t have been able to show the same restraint had I pulled on one of the skin coloured overalls. It would certainly have been a photo that would have been shared throughout the school and that would have subsequently followed me round forever!

The frustrations of an art teacher…seeing it for real

You hear it often enough, ‘You have to see the real thing, it so different’. As an art teacher you know this well, the days of scratchy slides in a half darkened room may be long gone, replaced now by large scale digital screens at the front of the classroom.  The possibilities on offer to an art teachers (and all teachers of course) have improved enormously during the last decade. But still, the chance to see art, design, architecture, theatre, dance, music and other cultural forms for real, first hand, offers so much more.

A fabulous case in point is an exhibition of the Dutch fashion designer Jan Taminiau that I have visited today.  I’ve referred to his work in my lessons at school in the context of a fashion design assignment that I use with my groups of 15-16 year olds. Examples and cultural references are important in my work as a teacher. Not in the sense of showing pupils what I expect them to do. It is more a question of firing the imagination and showing them the possibilities; possibilities that often go way beyond their wildest imagination. There is so much that I’d like to show and share with them.

But the limitations of the classroom, even with its generous display screen at the front and pupils with tablet, laptop or phone screens available to them, can’t match seeing the real thing.  What it would mean to be able to bring my groups of budding fashion designers to the Centraalmuseum in Utrecht to see Taminiau’s exhibition?

The exhibition oozes qualities that grab your attention. The elegant silhouette’s that he creates, the rich use of colour and the, quite literally, dazzling textures and structures of the surface of the fabrics. This would have been the most amazing teaching aid to the above mentioned assignment.

I have photographically documented as much of the work as I can.  I’ll be using it next school year I’m sure.  Teaching fashion design is just a little outside of my comfort zone, but I do like to do it once in a while.  But oh, how I would like to let the pupils see such an exhibition. But then the same is true of so many of the shows that I see.  The museum world in the big cities, certainly in Europe, is booming. The challenge is finding a way to be able to get pupils to visit them in the context of the educational programs that they are following.  More often it seems to  happen in a rather detached sort of day out to the city that often seems to have rather vague educational aims……the fully focused and contextualized field trip is a sadly underused and rather squeezed out aspect of contemporary education. But the detail of that is a post for another day.

Parallel Worlds

There was a strange symmetry to today. I was sitting in a hall with about one hundred of our eighteen year old pupils taking their final English exam. Meanwhile, about twenty miles north of where I teach, my daughter was sitting down simultaneously to take the very same exam.

Such a parallel activity inevitably makes you stop and reconsider the pupils in front of you. They sit there ploughing their way through the selection of texts and trying to answer the questions that are designed to split the narrow gaps in possible interpretations. It’s an intensive business, especially on warm afternoon.

Today’s exam was two and a half hours long. Most of the other exams during this two and a bit weeks long test period are three hours long. The sheer length of the sessions all seems rather extreme.

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Still Life on corner of exam candidate’s table, May 2018

Many of the pupils present this afternoon are ones that I have taught in the past. And, if I’m honest, have had to work hard at times to keep them focused and motivated during a sixty-minute lesson.  It does kind of beg the question ‘what are we doing sitting them down for such a massive test of concentration?’ Yes, I know it is also a test of knowledge and insight, but make no mistake here, this is a level of concentration that is rarely, if at all, practiced for.

It is certainly not easy for a school to clear sufficient space in timetables to spend too much time giving them three-hour dry runs.  But these are young people who are used to having their days broken up into mostly forty-five or sixty-minute chunks.  Most people simply find sitting still for 180 minutes pretty challenging.

Imagine if you had a driving test that went on for three hours!  Its perhaps not any entirely fair comparison, but it does seem that footballers run into trouble as soon as a match goes beyond the regular ninety minutes that they train for and are used to.

Maybe I’m just seeing the world through my daughters eyes this year a bit too much. Could we not be constructing slightly shorter test? Could we simply cut them into two smaller pieces?  Maybe we should actually be looking at different ways of test altogether….I guess in my heart of hearts that’s really what I think.  But one thing that I feel sure about three-hour exam sessions and sometimes two in a day does seem rather like some form of punishment as a last experience in a child’s secondary school career.

 

 

The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

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.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.