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.

No comments:

Post a Comment