“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”


“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”. This was pretty much the advice I was given by one particular teacher when I was doing my art teacher training. I was rather shocked at the time and it has been a comment that I have often thought about since. I have always been drawn towards art with a strong abstract qualities and it is also important in my own studio work. The point this lecturer was trying to make was that in terms of art interpretation it was undoubtedly easier to give a fifteen year old a figurative image with a strong sense of narrative. It gives them simpler things to work with. The entry level is easier.  I get all that, but does it mean we should avoid abstraction? Of course not, that would be crazy, we would be neglecting way too much of art history that way.

Abstraction is difficult for many teenagers, why just paint lines, shapes, colours and textures when you could paint objects, people, places and stories? It does need some careful explanation. And so this week I will begin a short series of lessons that I often do with my groups of fifteen year olds that focus on trying to show why and how some artists set about making largely abstract work.

There are various ways in which this can be done. Some teachers, like my own teacher when I was at school was amongst them, choosing to make use of figurative art that has been reduced and reduced until little that is recognizable remains. I choose though to try a route that hopefully is more recognizable to a teenager. Drawing links to music (instrumental in order to avoid confusion with narrative lyrics) or contemporary architecture. I try to show pupils how non-representational sounds in the case of music or forms in architecture can work to produce, expressive, engaging and complex results.

abstract sculpture

They are used to becoming emotionally engaged in a favourite piece of music or enjoying the wow factor of the gleaming metal lines and reflective surfaces of a modern building.  It is still something of an intellectual leap to discover some of the parallels that a visual artist might be trying to explore. But is it too difficult to make it worth trying to explore it? Certainly not, in fact I would say quite the opposite. When it comes to working with pupils on practical work on the theme it offers creative possibilities to pupils who with many other sorts of art assignment may struggle.

I don’t remember this bit at teacher training

As a parent of teenage children I am only too familiar with that feeling you get when they want to go into town without you for the first time or they are going to go on a school trip to Amsterdam and are going to be given a hour of free time to explore. You are kind of excited for them, but at the same time anxious.

That’s the parent’s experience with their own children. A teacher’s experience (with someone else’s children) can at times be somewhat different.

Teacher training teaches you about your subject, about didactics and, if you are lucky, about classroom organization. It doesn’t teach you much about the burden of responsibility you sometimes feel for other peoples’ children and the finer points of crowd control. The importance of these last two points was brought home to me recently on a five day school trip I went on.

In short, we were travelling from the Netherlands to Oxford in the UK by bus and boat. Staying in a sports an education complex and on one day making a trip into Oxford for a tour, a boat trip and some shopping.  It all sounds quite nice so far, until I mention that our party of children was 135 twelve year olds…..yes you read it right! I should point out that I was one of a team of ten staff members, but that is still an awful lot of little faces to count!


Looking back, the trip went very well, mostly only minor problems of homesick children to deal with. But there is always in the background that weight of responsibility I mentioned at the start, coupled with skills in crowd control. On no day did I feel these factors more than on our day in Oxford.

135 excited twelve year olds in the busy Oxford city centre for the day.  I word be lying if I didn’t say that I felt a bit stressed by the responsibility at times. At the end of the day we amassed the whole group again before heading for the bus park, head counted again and then once more, just to be sure, before making our way through the packed streets in the drizzle just as it got dark. Our sprawling crocodile of children of children being shepherded by myself and my colleagues.  If you have ever watched one of those films of huge clouds of birds swopping through the air together, the overall mass of the flock constantly changing…..well yes it was kind of like that, except perhaps the birds are a little more in control of their situation than it felt we were.


You know you are doing something exceptional, or possibly crazy,  when you notice people stopping in the street to watch.  On their faces a mixture of disbelief and pity.  One couple stopped to watch and as I passed simply said “how many?”,  “135” I said, the lady said nothing, simply stared with mouth open, and the man laughed and “good luck!”.  When we got back to the buses, it was time for the umpteenth head count of the day, 135 onto the bus, on more count once they were all sitting down, 135 again. We could leave with the whole flock.