Friday, 28 September 2012

Morning Drawing

'Morning drawing' evolved out of wake-up activities that were used to try and break through that feeling of tiredness and inertia that bodies of students tend to have first thing in the day. Initially all sorts of activities were used to sharpen senses and open minds to the fact that we were engaged in some sort of collective research into what it was to be a creative thinker. We had organised hymn singing, focusing on breathing and the sound of collective voices (always led by Patrick), games of catch, (the idea being to encourage the instinctive gesture, you can't think about catching a ball, you just know where it will be), humming exercises, whereby different groups would develop harmonies in response to a first hummed sound (focus was on our instinctive ability to build harmonic structure), physical exercise, jumping up and down as in some left over National Service activity, (to get the body attuned to a day's work), games like musical chairs but played with easels (we never had enough of these, so getting one usually meant arriving early), making paper aeroplanes out of any drawings left over from previous days (another way of thinking about the space of the room and the fact that paper was not just something to draw on) etc etc. 
At some point, i can't remember when it was decided, we began to formalise these beginning of the day activities, and to use them to focus on aspects of drawing. Sessions would be short and sharp, each activity designed to make a particular point as to how drawing could be used as a tool for invention. Each member of staff had to come up with ideas and a different person would lead off each morning. 

Here are a few I remember:

'Draw the angle of perceived pain'. That was it, no elaboration was given, students had to set out to draw it. They were to check each one they had drawn against others, change the quality of each angle as it was drawn, eliminate some and sharpen others until all that was left was one angle, the "Angle of perceived pain". Pages dense with rubbings out, removals etc. would finally have within them this angle, sometimes heavily drawn in charcoal, using a wooden ruler, sometimes faintly drawn by hand in pencil, sometimes one side of the angle would be sharp and black, the other side soft and grey. Lines would bend, be perfectly straight, be annotated by numbers as students attempted to think through whether or not this was at 33.7 degrees or 33.9, crossed out annotations as to what failed angles represented etc etc. The key text was Kandinsky's concerning the Spiritual in Art.  In particular Kandinsky's assertion that the subjective effect produced by a line depended on its orientation was critical: "a horizontal line corresponds with the ground on which man rests and moves; it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar to black or blue. A vertical line corresponds with height, and offers no support; it possesses a luminous, warm tonality close to white and yellow. A diagonal possesses a more-or-less warm (or cold) tonality, according to its inclination toward the horizontal or the vertical". Students would be told to read this, the important issue being that they had now experienced drawing in a way that would allow them entry into Kandinsky's writings and not the other way round, as this could lead them into simply illustrating Kandinsky's ideas.

'Greek myths in a moment'. This was one I used to enjoy doing. You would tell a Greek myth, let the story grow with its images and narrative weaving towards what was often a tragic denouement. A favourite was 'Europa and the Bull' a story that has of course been visualised by many artists, not least Titian, but which it could be argued was now redundant as a story with meaning for 1980s students as they were then. (This was partly the point, reminding students that myths were forever and not just about the past) Listening to a story is in many ways soporific, by its end many students would be half asleep or if it was told well, slightly lost in the world of Zeus and the ancient Greeks. After a moment of quiet, hands would be clapped loudly, and energetic language would be used to tell students that they had 5 minutes to capture what the story had been about and that in that 5 minutes they had to make full use of an A1 sheet of paper and could use colour as well as the normal drawing materials. A whistle would signal the end of the period. After frantic drawing students would stop on signal and then all the students would put the work up on the walls and the staff would pick out images that worked. This is quite a big one to unpick. By 'worked' some staff meant one thing and others another. I used to find this confusing at first and I'm sure many students did, but if you were sensitive to what was happening, you started to realise that it was in some ways a game, a game of articulation and conviction.  For instance debates in relation to de-centralised or centralised images would emerge. The 'frozen' image as opposed to one that articulated the 'nowness of now'. Finish v becoming, gesture v articulation, economy v energy, simplicity v complexity, staff would engage in a game of attention change. It could be an image was picked out that one member of staff decided had summed up everything in two lines, but this was then contrasted with an image perhaps composed of a myriad of twisting marks and lines by another member of staff who had been looking closely at work on the other side of the room. This meant lots of head turning and movement round the room as staff wondered about finding hidden gems and looking for things that illustrated one or another point they wanted to make. These staff critiques were a very important part of the sessions and a short summery of points raised would be given before we set off on the main activity of the day. Morning drawings were meant to be all over by 10am, which was when the next sessions were timetabled to start.  

'Energy converters'. Students would be asked to convert reciprocating motion into rotational motion, rotational motion to vertical motion, vertical linear motion to circular motion, rotary motion into linear motion. They were allowed to cut and shape paper and card and were given drawing pins, elastic bands and string and could construct directly onto their drawing boards. All sorts of weird and wacky 'W. Heath Robinson' machines would result, some of course relying on an inventive understanding of mechanics and others simply playing with the imagery. This was regarded as one of the clearly 'diagnostic' morning drawings. By not telling students what it was about, it was more likely that their natural abilities would come to the fore and then staff would point out how different skills lay behind different solutions and how these related to different possible art or design professions.  
'A coffin for a bicycle'. This would start with a reading, again by Patrick, from the Third Policeman, it would focus on sergeant Pluck and the atomic theory of the bicycle. "People who spend most of their lives riding iron bicycles . . . get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of the bicycle as a result of interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles". De Selby's theories were a favourite, in particular his invention of D.M.P. which amongst many other attributes could affect he sequentiality of the experience of time. (This was the starting point for another morning drawing). Students would be left with some wonderful imagery and then instead of illustrating the story were asked to design a coffin for a bicycle.  Sometimes a bicycle would be wheeled into the studio as visual reference and sometimes not, the issue being to think about how a coffin very effectively simplifies the human body, so what degree of three dimensional simplification would be needed for a bike? Of course once constructed there was a neat metaphor for the humanisation of all things mechanical to be pondered upon and opened out during the crit. 
I'll return to these morning drawing sessions over and over again as they formed a vitally important element in not only opening out possibilities but in helping students and staff develop a dialogue around what it was individual students should eventually have to specialise in, the foundation course was at its core diagnostic. 

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