Friday, 28 June 2013


Over the last month or so I have been looking at how Twitter can be used as a pedagogic tool. Because it is so specific, 140 characters maximum, it has been hard to develop a clear use for it, however I have been trying this format to write ‘Aphorisms for Young Artists’, short snappy thoughts on the business of art that may or may not spark a thought or begin a debate. The feedback has been good and as an investigation as to how new technology can be used it is fascinating. Follow @GarryBarker3 if you are interested.  I’m doing this in conjunction with the college library @libraryartleeds as a way of promoting the fact that the library is also now using Twitter.
I’m putting on a small exhibition in September as part of a ‘Library Interventions’ series of shows, this is to help raise the profile of the library and to get students to see it as a less stuffy environment and one that can foster and support the making of art.
I’m also doing some research this summer into how CNC machinery can be used to further students’ ideas. We are moving towards pathways within fine art and next semester I will be working in the drawing pathway and I would like to introduce ways of ‘realising’ drawings as 3D objects using this machinery. I am starting by making small objects from drawings, which can then be photographed from several angles, then digitized and turned into vitual objects. At this point the images can be re-manipulated within a computer environment and eventually outputted as ‘real’ objects via this machinery. As a process it will be the glitches and areas at the edge of possibility that will reveal its potential.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

From 2D to 3D

I mentioned in the previous post about 3D colour illusions that the colour forms might be built over the remains of a previous set of structures, such as 3D forms made from the synthesis of two different materials and their structural possibilities. The development of ongoing projects designed to flow from one to another was another central feature of first term Foundation work. These could be quite complex as they were engineered to generate a wide ranging set of experiences, experiences designed on the one hand to help students diagnose their abilities and on the other to introduce essential issues such as how to work with materials, control colour or use drawing to develop ideas.
Because we tried to develop different ways of doing this each year, what we came up with tends to blur in my mind into an ever changing set of morphing projects. However I will try and single a few out and perhaps more importantly, explain how one would lead to another so that an idea of what we were doing emerges. Above all it was important to get over to the students the idea of how different processes could be used to drive ideas forward, in particular how the setting of limitations to work within could generate invention and create new forms.
Typically an initial drawing set-up would gradually evolve to include making and colour experiences. Each set of experiences would generate work that could be then processed to produce another body of work. Sometimes a stand-alone experience might be introduced in parallel to something ongoing and then fed into the mix. For instance students might be asked to select a small part of an existing line drawing. They are to then visualise this element as if it is extended or extruded into 3D space. They might be given a simple isometric or perspective box structure to visualise this within. Because the initial drawing is a plan view with no indication as to whether one side is higher or lower than another, students are asked to explore the various possibilities and to come up with several images, some looking at the possibilities as if the object is a solid, others as if it has walls and an empty interior. These drawings might then be left pinned to the walls and a variety of building materials introduced into the studio (these were typically large rolls and piles of cardboard, bags of lollypop sticks, balls of string, bags of clean matchsticks, rolls of sellotape, masking tape and coloured tapes, boxes of paperclips, drawing pins and other office equipment such as rubber bands etc), or a collection of multiple units that students had been asked to collect over the previous couple of weeks. (Typically students would bring in piles of egg boxes, cardboard boxes, lots of old books, piles of old cassette tapes, cans or boxes of matches). Students would then be asked to explore the possibilities inherent in the materials either given to them or which they had themselves sourced. (From what I remember, we tended to provide materials the more student numbers grew because we didn’t have the time to deal with the serendipity of odd and strange materials). Structural integrity and truth to materials were buzz terms and students were encouraged to engineer solutions to problems such as how tall can your object grow or how wide a span can it achieve? As students became more confident with the materials, secondary factors such as surface treatment and jointing became more important. For instance a student making a joint between two pieces of cardboard using paperclips might be asked to explore how the holes needed to accept the paperclips could become a surface texture, or how the metal of the paperclip could be twisted in a regular manner so that if lots of these were used in a regular and controlled manner, a joint could become a rhythmic seam. We tended to supply ‘office’ materials to make the point that every material had potential and that all materials carried with them a set of signifiers or associations that would affect the final read of something. Gradually the original materials would be transformed, sellotape now being used to create systematically laid down flat layers that are put together like plywood and jointed with rolled edges fixed with rows of tightly compacted elastic bands, or sheets of cardboard, sanded back to reveal their internal structure, perforated by regular holes  and jointed with string ties, piles of egg boxes sawn and sanded to reveal their internal structure with joints studded with drawing pins etc etc.
Once these objects had been constructed and of course critiqued then students would be asked to re-introduce their drawings into the situation and to see what would happen if the building principles they had invented could be used to construct the images they had previously drawn. What would happen of course would be that the limitations of the materials would change the forms yet again. Students were asked to think through the scale implications of the materials, matchsticks for instance, were unlikely to result in huge constructions. As these new forms started to arrive we would get students to ‘push’ the implications, how far could any particular quality be taken? This could be surface appearance, scale, internal structure etc.
The next stage in the transformation, would often involve team working, students using different materials typically being paired together and asked to create new forms from a synthesis between their two languages. At this point we often encouraged a more architectural or environmental approach, asking students to have an ambition for the work and allowing it to grow across the floor and over a wall. Considerations as to how one material met another was vital, a joint might perhaps start being made of regular hinges of twisted paperclips and then gradually become interspersed with elastic band ties, which would gradually take precedence until the joint was composed entirely of these ties. The same effect might be happening across the surfaces, a plane of drawing pins in cardboard perhaps gradually thinning out and being replaced by sellotape sheets. As constructions grew they would start to meet others and as they did so we asked the students to continue the structures using the same rules of engagement. (These structures might well be the ones that in a next transformation would become cut through with colour shapes, see previous post )
Again a whole raft of issues were embedded in these sessions. Process was of course key, draw something, make from it, change the materials, make it again, work with someone else, combine two different ways of working etc. Students would also realise that every situation is a source for materials, the office is of course very handy as a supply, but at some point this could be the factory, the garden, the farmyard or a dentist or domestic house interior. Students also learn that materials themselves also only gradually reveal their potential, sellotape doesn’t at first sight appear to be a good building material, but when you start to build with it you learn how it can be worked and how as a material it has huge possibilities. One key thing we wanted students to understand was that jointing and the ‘ending’ of forms are both vital. In crits we would point to how everything is jointed, for instance, the cuffs of shirts are stitched in a particular way and the material folded to take that stitch, you can then turn the shirt inside out and see how the same seam is very different in appearance on the inside. The cuff makes a natural visual ‘end’ to the form of the shirt sleeve and we would then perhaps look at other examples of this in the real world. How the sole of a shoe meets the sides, how a table leg is fitted to the table surface, how it meets the ground etc. etc. would be pointed to and we would point out how the visual ‘rightness’ of that moment often came with a change in the form. This could be as simple as a rubber stopper in the end of a metal tube or the frame around a door.
Critiques as always were vital and changes in meaning as each construction was examined were highlighted, especially when the unpredictable was happening, such as very ‘domestic’ materials being transformed to give intimations of a rocky landscape or a field being swept up in a windstorm.
The deeper issue was that by working through something and paying attention to every detail whatever was produced would have a certain authenticity and rightness. By using a process you didn’t have to have a preconceived idea, you just had to work through each problem as it arrived. The bringing together one set of issues (2D drawing) with another (3D thinking) was also opened out further in critiques, students being reminded that this was a fundamental tool for invention, and no different to the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.
I shall return to this type of session again, because there were many variations of this idea and each year we tried to ring the changes in order to stop things getting predictable for ourselves. However as the course got bigger and bigger gradually some of these processes became embedded as core themes, especially if they could be handled by a wide range of staff all ‘singing from the same hymn tune’.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Anamorphic Colour Illusions

One of the most fascinating first term studio builds for Foundation was one influenced by the work of artists such as Georges Rousse and Felice Varini. We had for a couple of years been looking at colour in space and in order to do this in one session we had students making small boxes within which they would insert different tints and tones of primary or secondary colours, and adjust their spatial positions so that they created the illusion that they sat in the same plane.  At some point (this must have been around 1994/5) someone decided that it would be better to have students working towards an architectural scale in groups to solve this problem. In order to introduce more precision and control it was further decided that they could create large scale anamorphic illusions in a similar fashion to Varini or Rousse’s work.
Working in teams students would initially be asked to share their collections of colour. I have mentioned before that students were often split into groups to collect primary and secondary colours. A large scale illusion of a simple geometric shape would be decided on, a square, circle, triangle etc. and then this would be plotted out over whatever structures were around, often these structures would be left over from the last project. So these might be anything from giant cardboard tools to 3D forms made from the synthesis of two different materials and their structural possibilities. (Another project that I will at some point look at). It was important that these forms could be seen as ‘intact’ geometric wholes from one unique point of view and that they could be constructed over a complex space that would usually include at least two walls, some floor and over several inventions. It’s easier to explain by looking at one of Varini’s pieces.
This is how the final installation looks, seen from a unique fixed point of view.

However if you are anywhere but at the unique viewpoint you can see the forms for what they really are, as in the images below and also walk amongst them.

The students’ would often make far more complicated pieces that the one above, their colours being made of paper, textiles, objects and whatever else they had managed to collect and the forms riding over a far wider range of surfaces. However the final result was similar. There was also an attempt to deal with atmospheric perspective, sharper more intense colours being kept for parts of the images furthest away from the viewer and less saturated colours placed in areas closer to the viewer. Hopefully if it was going to work correctly these differences in colour saturation would optically even themselves out as the eye adjusted its atmospheric spatial colour read.
The best of these images were totally convincing and of course photographed really well; eventually staff and students would then walk into the middle of the constructions to break the illusion. The photographs of course needed to be taken in such a way that these convincing illusions were surprisingly broken. Part of the yellow base of a triangle perhaps revealed to be a yellow bath-duck sitting on the floor, its left hand point a yellow duster pinned to a wall fifteen feet further back. The patches of colour could spread out quite some way into the studio spaces and they were far more broken up than the images of Varini’s above.
These constructions could take a full five days, but it was worth it because of the amount of learning involved. First of all, point of view was vital, and this was a great way for students to get their head around how important this was. The project was often their first ever site specific installation. They would usually use a camera set on a tripod for this, taking it in turns to check that everything worked correctly. The next issue was teamwork; someone always had to be directing others, it was impossible to do this on your own. The next issue was that an audience was vital to the ‘realisation’ of the piece, people needed to walk into the environment and experience it. For those who would eventually work with installations, be these design or fine art based, it was a powerful lesson, not least of course being how important it was to work with ambition on an architectural scale.  Precision was of course vital and any piece of colour out of key would pop forward or backwards and destroy the illusion, and because of the team working mentality we had a much better quality control system, each student checking on the work of others, so that the project maintained high levels of integrity. Finally the importance of documentation was raised. The work only made sense to others who had not experienced it photographically; the camera and its one eye, being part of the message of the work.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Heroes and Villains

The struggle to draw what was perceived had its heroes and villains. Coldstream and Uglow were villains because what they had done was to drain the life out of looking by nailing everything to a flat grid.

This image above of Uglow's work, (one of his best) demonstrates the point. The small measuring points punctuate the painting's surface and attempt to define the three dimensional geometry of the model's body, in particular reducing the legs to interlocking planes. The clarity that ensues 'freezes' the moment, the model is not about to make that step, she never will, she is placed here forever. The interesting thing with this image however is that a second layer of visual language is starting to unfreeze the image. The yellow violet polarity creating a colour 'tick' and the flattened shadow image across the door starting to squeeze the space into a shallow pocket, punctuated by the door itself and the two rectangles that break into its geometry.  These elements start to make the painting's heart beat. So Uglow wasn't all bad, but it was felt he was all the more dangerous because superficially his approach seemed as if he was engaged with the same struggle as Cezanne.

Conversely a hero of perceptual drawing was Giacometti, who's approach was seen as a 'proper' struggle.

The flicker of movement that takes you both across the space and creates the space was keeping the image 'alive' and recreating the moments of looking. 

You can see the left sided back edge of the sideboard starting to lift as Giacometti discovers that the space it emerges into is part of a moving perceptual sphere. Visually this image is superficially quite close to some of Uglow's work, but a world away in reality. Uglow is searching for the frozen moment, trying to establish 'rightness', Giacometti is looking to recreate the experience of the phenomenology of looking. He represents a European Existentialist position, as opposed to Uglow's British Logical Positivism. 

The 'Fess' Point

One of the hardest things to grasp when undertaking the drawing of a complex situation was the use of ‘fess’ points. These were used as measurement points but ones that constantly readjusted themselves as the surrounding percepts came in and out of focus. I’ll try and explain. The traditional use of measurement as taught and used by such as William Coldstream and later Euan Uglow was to develop a drawn grid or framework of marks based on taking measurements of relationships such as the end of a knee coming directly underneath the chin, or the elbow being at right angles to the corner of a chair.  Gradually more and more measurements are taken, each additional measurement acting as a check and balance for the older measurements, the process gradually moving towards an idea of accuracy. You can never actually reach total accuracy, but it is presumed that the longer you struggle the better the drawing will approximate reality. Tiny points or dots are used to indicate the measuring point and lines radiating off at right-angles and subdivisions of angles from these points gradually reveal a map like set of points that will eventually make up a drawing of a coherent object located in space. The search is on for a better ‘fix’. The more checks you have put into the drawing the better and more accurate it will be. The ‘invisible grid’ is obtained by the use of your hand holding a 'straight', pencil or ruler as an angle measuring tool and your thumb being used to count off distances and equivalents, such as one head height (chin to forehead), being a distance that can go exactly 7 times into perhaps the distance from the corner of the door to the chin. Angles between things are checked over and over again and distances checked for accuracy, the more of course this type of drawing was done the better students got at using their thumb as a measure and the better they were at keeping steady and holding their arms straight and assessing whether or not a pencil was at right angles. The main trajectory of the drawing was towards the production of a grid. If the grid was very accurate it may even be a curved one, related to the type of curve produced when drawing a straight line. (See earlier posts)
However the eyes don’t work quite like this. As you scan across a situation attention moves in and out of focus, the eyes collecting information about the forwards and backwards nature of the eye’s grasp of complex spaces; because they are operating in tandem, one eye is always seeing a slightly different view to the other, the changes between views being used by the brain to calculate distance. It is this constant refocusing that the fess point attempts to reflect.
So that students did not get locked onto a particular point, we would sometimes walk into the situation to be drawn and ‘pinch’ a point in the air, a point that we would refer to as being a significant position within the space. This point could then be identified as a starting point within a drawing that would initially be an exploration of faint radiating searching lines (girons) looking for other measuring points (usually associated with edges of objects or relationships between things). However as these other points were established, each set of marks, for instance those identifying the back of a chair, would start to imply an area of spatial interest, which would result in a ‘pulling’ of the space like some form of invisible gravity attractor and therefore shifting the fess-point which could be re-established as the drawing evolved. New girons could then be sent out on a second voyage of discovery and so on. This was a way of acknowledging Cezanne’s ‘petit sensations’ small aggregations of seen moments, coming together to record a compacted series of perceptions, in such a way that instead of having a record of a gradual move towards a ‘rightness’ we have the capture of the oscillating ghost of spatial discovery.  All the decisions are of course left, some may be slightly emphasised to indicate awareness of the push and pull of gravity, and instead of moving gradually towards a ‘rightness’ the drawing heads towards a re-creation of the flicker of life.
This can only be taught if students have been initially taught to measure the invisible grid of seeing accurately, as in Coldstream or Uglow influenced situations or in the case of Leeds students from that time, drawing a straight line. If not the rigor needed to see the slight movements induced by attention change will not be there. In the same way that you need to start with a musician of a certain level of ability before introducing an awareness of certain types of tonal changes, of not they wont be able to ‘hear’ them. In the case of this sort of drawing, students without a solid experience of objective drawing, literally cant ‘see’ what you are getting at.
Of course what you develop is a heightened awareness of the act of seeing; an awareness that starts to include psychological factors of attention and interest, as well as the simply mechanical observations of scan and record. As an experience it helps with many things, not least in the design of physical objects and spaces, because you have a much more heightened awareness of how working with reality is perceived and how a body will react to changes in perception as it interacts with the world.

See also post of: Wednesday, 26 September 2012 where I have another attempt to get to grips with what these terms meant.

Monday, 17 June 2013

More thoughts on drawing a straight line

There are a few other things that were important to the drawing a straight line session. One of the most important was the ‘realisation’ moment. We used to keep a couple of long ‘straights’ at the back of the studio; these might be a 6 feet long piece of 2” x 2” timber or a sweeping brush handle. At some point during a drawing session we would pick one of these up and holding one above our heads horizontally, would stand behind individual students and slowly lower this horizontal down, so that it came down into their space from a point approximately one or two feet above their eyes. The student would be asked to keep their attention on peripheral vision and tell us the exact moment they became aware of the ‘straight’ coming into view.  We would then raise and lower the ‘straight’ into this field of vision, and usually, because there were no anchor points with which to benchmark the object’s form, and the fact that the straight was coming into the field of vision from an unexpected position, the students would suddenly ‘see’ the straight as a curve.   This would lead to long discussions as to how and why the brain might override what was actually seen because of a conceptual framework based on right-angles.
Students would then bring up the fact that this was simply curved perspective and we would try and illustrate the difference by getting them to image how the perceptual struggle of Cezanne could be understood within a perceptually spherical context.
Curved perspective


The problem with perspective being that it relied on the predictive geometry of mathematical precision, but perception was something made of millions of frozen moments aggregating together to form a composite.
Students would by the end of this session be ready to undertake ‘giron’ and ‘fesspoint’ drawing. (See post Giron and Fess-point Drawing 26/09/12)
Terry Hammill pointed out that the morning drawing session whereby we asked students to look down at themselves and draw everything they see, was one of the things he came up with. (See end of post 11/03/13) He also reminded me that many of the morning drawing sessions were invented in a spirit of play and that their meaning was something that wasn’t that important at the time. Perhaps because I was still young and wanting to know myself why, I tended to put too much weight on why I thought we were doing things. But I was very excited by everything then and believed that it was a terrific adventure. Patrick used to say that I was an interpreter and perhaps he was right, but without good interpreters languages become lost and incomprehensible, so I shall continue with my interpretations.
I saw Terry and George Hainsworth at a dinner yesterday afternoon that was part of a celebration of the work of Tom Hudson and the Leicester Group. There is an exhibition of the Leicester Group work in the Garden Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and a related presentation in the National Art Education Archive there.  The exhibition focuses on the radical interaction of art and education in the 1960s, Tom’s son Mark had invited me along when I met him at the Basic Design presentation at Tate Briton a couple of weeks ago.  The dinner was a clear illustration of how small the art world is, lots of connections were embodied and I could at last put some faces to names. At our table for dinner were, George, Terry and myself, with Doug Sandle and his brother Michael who besides being a world renowned sculptor had been a member of the Leicester Group, Susan Tebby who had been Mary and Kenneth Martin’s technician (interestingly she is writing a history of Goldsmiths and Terry was a student there in the early 1960s), Terry Setch the painter, another member of the Leicester Group, who I had met with Tom Gilhespy in Cardiff in 1969 when I was a student at Newport and who I have admired as a painter for years and his wife who unfortunately was directly opposite and I didn’t get to see her name card.
The 1960s Leicester Group was a spinoff from Leeds in the 1950s; Harry Thubron and Tom Hudson moving to Leicester from Leeds and bringing in people like Michael Chilton, Victor Newsome and Laurie Burt. Victor Newsome wasn’t there but several of his pieces are in the exhibition. I knew his work well from those long past years of going round to Patrick’s house. He had a large Newsome over the fireplace, (two volcanoes in hessian) and at least one unfinished fibre-glass piece in the cellar. At some point I might start looking at all the connections, but not yet.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

How to draw a line

One of the key Foundation course sessions in relation to perceptual drawing was drawing a straight line. I have alluded to this several times, so I suppose I ought to explain in detail how this was done.
Students would first of all have to position themselves in relation to a straight. This was most commonly a set of studio floorboards or if space was restricted, the edge of a table. The relationship between the student and the straight had to be initially at right angles and there had to be enough length to the straight for students to have to shift their gaze left and right in order to be able to look at the entire length of the line. Typically this meant that the angle of vision between a student and the straight had to be wider than 60%. This could mean a student sitting 10 feet away from the centre of a floorboard running at right angles to their eyes, if asked to draw a floorboard 30 feet long; or a student being 2 feet away from a table’s edge, is asked to draw an edge 6 feet long. In plan view the situation is like a T with an extremely long top bar in relation to the vertical. The floorboard situation meant that a student’s eyes were automatically situated above the plane of the line, however in the case of a table edge it was important to have a student standing at an easel rather than sitting, as there could possibly be a situation whereby the student was looking directly at a table edge at the same height as his or her eyes. Although this would not make the drawing impossible, it would make it much harder.
Once situated properly the student is asked to check that they are at a right angle to the floorboard or table edge. They can then mark this central point off with a piece of chalk, using a T square if possible to check the accuracy. Using a plumb line they then recheck this drawn angle. They are then asked to look to the left or right and carefully measure the angle made by the conjunction of their plumb line and the straight at the point furthest away from them. If working in pairs, they can then get the other person in the pair to chalk in the new angle in relation to the straight. This new chalkline should sit exactly on the vertical of the student’s plumbline, the angle it makes with the floorboard can then be measured. If the student has turned to the right to make this first measured angle, what they should find is that it is no longer a rightangle, the angle to the left of the chalk line will be less than 90% and that to the right of course more than 90%.
No actual drawing has been done yet and time is spent getting students used to the amount of head turn that is needed to get into a position to accurately measure the difference between the central point on the straight and points to the left and right. Finally before starting out drawing, students are asked to measure the difference in length between them (where their eyes are) and the floorboard's central point and its far points. In some cases, especially if we were doing this in the very large studio the distance between a student and the closest and furthest points on a floorboard could be considerable, but even if we were restricted to table edges, it was expected you could get at least double the distance.
Students might be working on a donkey or at an easel, they would usually have an A1 drawing board and A1 white cartridge of a medium weight to work on. Once set up they would be asked to make a vertical line in pencil that was to be used as their key measuring line. This was to be placed centrally within a sheet of paper of landscape format. They would then check their position. In order to be able to see the line the easel or donkey had to be positioned slightly to the left or right of the situation to be drawn, this of course meant that even to check the central vertical, the student would have to move their head between the moment of measurement and the moment of transfer onto the paper. They would therefore spend some time getting comfortable with this. They would check the vertical, move back to the drawing board and when ready make a mark at right angles to the first vertical that would at the point of crossing represent their perceptual understanding of where the central point of the perceived straight was.
The next step was more difficult to understand. Students would be asked to chose another point further along the line, check the angle made between their plumbline and the floorboard or table edge, then attempt to draw this angle. They would also using a vertical, measure how far away this point was and compare this distance to the first point. If they were using a pencil to measure with, they would check their pencil was vertical and slide their thumb up and down taking sight-sized measurements. They would also hold this pencil horizontally checking that it was lying exactly on the horizontal at the central point of the line and carefully rotate their body, holding the pencil without wavering, until the other second angle came into view. This angle would if the hand was steady come into view slightly above the pencil. This distance could then be measured and checked against the measurements already taken. Once movement to the left or right were measured a few times and checked, and this distance slightly above the horizontal again checked, students could make a second set of marks on their paper. One would be a vertical that would represent the verticality of the measuring device, (pencil, plumb-line etc) the other would be a short line at an angle that corresponded to the one observed. Again if working in pairs students could ask their partner to chalk a vertical through the straight at the point of measurement. Some students would use a chalk line running from their drawing position so that they eventually ended up with a floor plan that looked like a fan of lines coming from the centre of a giant protractor, the radiating lines meeting on a straight rather than at the edge of a circle.
As drawings evolved, the floor-plans evolved. Students would get up from their easels, measure distances and angles, chalk these in and return to the easels checking over and over again that they were right. As each measurement re-check was made, adjustments to the drawing would be made by rubbing out marks and replacing them with new ones.
Eventually a gentle curve would be implied by the relationship that was being built up by the marks. The bottom of the curve being in the centre of a line that was slowly rising to both the left and right. The more measurements made the more an implied line came into view, each measurement point being stabilized by a short vertical which was crossed by a gradually changing angle as the measurements moved away from the central point. Gradually other factors could be brought into play. If a measurement point was close to the student perhaps this could be intimated by a slight increase in mark weight. Small subtle adjustments could be made to more finely ‘realise’ the situation, until the perceived line ‘vibrated’ with hundreds of adjusted and erased marks, it’s image a compacted ‘memory’ of adjustment and perceptual struggle.
These drawings could take all day, sometimes longer, the point being that to really grasp the problem and practice the skills of measurement required if you were to establish the fact that you were at the centre of a sphere of perception, you needed a lot of practice. In particular carrying the information between the moment of measurement and the moment of recording was a time for much subjectivity; lots of guesses tending to be made as to what students thought these lines should look like. In addition some students were often tempted to ‘draw the line in’ and they had to be held back until their eyes did that for them.
At the end of this session it was to be hoped a lot of lessons had being learnt, the simplest of which were to do with taking visual measurements with a moving thumb and a vertical, the more complex being to be with how difficult it is to record any complex of visual perceptions.

One further point of course being that words complicate matters and that most of what we were doing was done by demonstration. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Drawing as initiation and mind check

I’m slap bang in the middle of marking fine art final major projects and as always struggling to make sense of the learning outcomes and their relative weightings. Just for the record these are the six learning outcomes and their relative weightings that I’m supposed to score against.
Demonstrate an investigative, imaginative, experimental and reflexive attitude to their creative practice: 25%
Articulate contextual and professional location in their work :20%
Synthesise ongoing experimentation and critical approaches to techniques, processes, materials and media: 10%
Demonstrate appropriate craft skill/s in the production of artwork: 20%
Present themselves as emerging professional artists at exhibition: 15%
Successfully project manage an exhibition: 10%
This final module is worth 60 credits, 50% of a year’s total. I suspect read at some point in the future learning outcomes will appear to be as mysterious and arcane as any other sub-group pre-occupational  fad when seen in hindsight, but as it is I have to deal with them and as objectively as possible. I’ve just spent the last two days marking and re-marking, and will be spending considerably more time on this over the week, so I don’t really want to spend any more time unpicking something I find fundamentally flawed. So it’s an ideal opportunity to revisit the past again and open out one of the key elements of my many years on foundation studies; the Foundation course introductory drawing programme.
During each summer recess there would be a time when all of the staff started to debate what the start of the next year should consist of. There was a tacit assumption amongst everyone that the initial experience would be one of drawing, but each year, (well at least for the first ten years I taught on the programme) it was felt there should be a slightly different approach and this would depend on who was going to take responsibility for the conceptual weight of this experience. This was very important as it was felt that the approach taken could colour a student’s whole understanding of what the year was about. If we started with drawing as an approach to perceptual understanding, this would inevitably lead towards an Existential dialogue about the problematics of existence. If we started with drawing as an expressive tool, we would at some point start having to deal with the nature of expression and visual languages of psychological intent. Drawing as image making on the other hand would result in centralised, uncompromising activities that it was felt could become ‘illustrational’ in intent. Drawing as observational tool could become more to do with technical control and cliché and drawing as discovery could slip too easily from play into childishness. Each approach had its values and its problems, the trick was to use one approach as an anchor point and use the others to develop a wider understanding of how that initial position worked in relation to others.
Perhaps the key issue that was a reminder from the days of Harry Thubron was that nothing should be taken as being accepted or clearly understood. If the course was setting out to do something that could possibly result in predictable outcomes something was wrong. What we never did was show students old work, the ‘that’s the way to do it’ syndrome, was pointed to with derision, these words usually said with a squeaky puppet voice, to heighten awareness of how the anti-life equation started. As a result of this we never used to photograph what went on, why should we it was all simply part of an ongoing process. However, little were we to realise that at some point in the future, as Patrick used to say, he or she who had the box of slides would be king. 
It is hopefully pretty obvious as to why I now find the idea of learning outcomes so hard to take. If the experience of art college education should be designed to make you able to cope with the unpredictable, structured to take you into new and unfathomable experiences, provided to break you away from thinking you know and understand what’s happening , then you simply can’t have any predictable learning outcomes, except of course the one that states that the student can now deal with the serendipitous nature of life.
Because the studios were always cleared after the end of year shows, they became a carte blanche for the staff to play with, but we never had much money, so the set-ups also related to what was affordable and available at the time.
Building situations: The key tool when starting to build drawing situations was the chalk-line. We would spend quite a lot of time pacing backwards and forwards across the studio trying to get a feel for the dynamics of the space and trying to work out how and where students could go and how they would move through the spaces. Eventually a decision would have to be made and this would come out of the conversations happening and depend on who started to take the initiative. If it was Colin Cain grids would be important, but grids of a certain size, ones that could be seen within certain angles of vision, ideally between 30° and 60°. Perspective images, especially architectural in scale, are designed to be viewed from a distance of not less than their major dimension, thus giving a viewing angle of about 60°. The point here being that he would want to be able to teach students how to use a pencil, plumb bob and straight edge to measure and if you move your head too much in order to scan what’s out there, measurement doesn’t work.
I think this translates as, 'Proof that it is not possible to draw or paint as the eye sees'.

Conversely Patrick also liked grids but of the wider sort, he liked it when students had to move their heads to see, as he could get them to use the same measurement tools to prove that measurement was impossible. Gavin didn’t seem to approve of either way, for him these were both artificial situations and students would be much better off drawing in response to the real world. If Gavin had anything to do with these early drawing sessions he would take people out, get them to respond to somewhere exciting and real, not a constructed studio situation.
However back to the studio. Once grids had been chalked out and spaces for students indicated, then it was the ‘with or without’ easels debate. For accurate technical measurement they were vital, students would have to chalk their feet in as well as their easel’s feet, so that they were aware of how sighting points worked and of how to minimalise distortion and the mistakes of measuring from two different points in space. However if perceptual questioning was to be done, immersion in the space was asked for and students would usually work on the floor. Colin would often build a situation composed of geometric forms on top of the grid, using objects that could easily be reduced to solid geometry, the situation I remember best was one of a field of umbrellas, another one (not a Colin situation but someone whose name I can’t remember) was of a room full of short planks of wood, each one with a tethered white balloon attached. Patrick’s approach was to have lines stretching right across the studio; stringing the space was vital, as you could then punctuate the line at any point, often by simply using a clothes peg. These points in space could then be invisible reference points but not fixed points; students building them into a scanning diagram of constantly shifting points that were designed to advance spatial awareness rather than being locatable fixtures for measurement. There were lots of variations around these types of situations, sometimes models would be involved walking through and invading the students’ spaces, while they were furiously working at speed with their paper on the floor. At other times students would bring in large cardboard models they had built at home over the holidays and these would be used to activate the spaces and to introduce mass to punctuate them. Without student additions we would have to make our own, I well remember one year making organic solids out of old newspapers by tightly bundling them up and tying them into lumpy caterpillar shapes and then hanging them from a string grid so that they made a regular pattern running right from the front to the back of the large studio.
Students would perhaps start by drawing one line over and over again, using measurement to get it right and measurement to question it. They would go on to draw more and more complexity, eventually having to feel for how each surface moved and how spaces could become an integral part of the overall construction in conjunction with solids.
The paper edges of these A1 sheets of cartridge would become very important, either used to indicate measurement points or to assess where and how vanishing points could be found to indicate to others the veracity of a chosen perspective.  The paper as object would be considered and its case argued against the concept of ‘window on the world’. 
As drawings evolved they would go up on the wall. They were not talked about as to their accuracy or veracity; they would be examined as to their image potential. Large crosses might suddenly become a motif, black might yin yang with white, surfaces might open out to perceptual struggle, all of which were simply part of the process. Crits would end everyday and each member of staff would be invited to engage with these images as sources of new life, images of possibilities and never as answers to the task set. As the days progressed students would themselves begin building situations to draw from and would begin to make decisions as to which aspect of language would be appropriate, always though there were new possibilities to explore and then at some point students would begin making seriously, the objects as they were made were then added to the construction to create a still life, new drawings were made and new objects made from the new drawings, a process was now in place that could engage and challenge all the students. Further selections in relation to composition, creating really deep atmospheric perspective, mark-making with surface direction, changing surface speed of read  etc etc would then be undertaken, this first session being designed to not only ask questions of what you see but of how to evidence that seeing. The initial drawings would be done in charcoal, but very quickly we would encourage other materials and applicators and these after a while would start another set of factors moving, in particular rhythm and texture. At one point one year we decided to rebuild the constructions and in response to Gavin’s insistence on the city’s reality decided to build the city of Leeds into the the space of the studio constructions. Vast amounts of cardboard boxes were sourced and shops and other buildings in the locality were recreated from notebook sketches and memory and as they were built they were joined to each other, just like a jerry built town, the decisions that had to be made about organic joining or street direction were ones based on what was 'right’ rather than what had been seen and gradually the students disappeared under the cardboard city as it grew. Once completely encased, they started to draw again. These new drawing were more to do with image and gradually as the process evolved students were able to get a feel for the process, reality and perception being a questioning process that had no real answer, but did have competing issues and different models of the world were at stake. The worlds of 2D and 3D moved between each other and mass might be translated as line as much as line translated as mass. The constant shifting of states and positions taken reflecting life and its shifting patterns, and the one key factor being that what they were doing was entering into re-creation and that entailed having to become aware of when life existed and when it didn’t.
These were great sessions to work on and the experience used to really gee people up, (or sometimes frighten them) but for the best students you could see them coming out of themselves and engaging in what was play and experiment as well as sheer enjoyment. Best of all the sessions hopefully got rid of all those dusty approaches to drawing that had sometimes been learnt during a previous experience, they were at art college now, time for change, time for a new approach.