Saturday, 31 August 2013

Foundation cover

The foundation course starts at the beginning of August and the first few weeks are a combination of inductions into technical areas and introductions into different aspects of basic visual language. Occasionally I will get a phonecall to see if I can cover because someone is sick and yesterday was one of those days.
I find it interesting to dip back into that arena because on the one hand it’s a useful reminder of the importance of basics but on the other, the way these things are handled has changed and I get a chance to reflect on how such a large course has had to adjust teaching methods  in order to manage the numbers, as well as having to manage the fact that first interviews for degree places are much earlier than they used to be. Degree courses now starting interviews in February as opposed to Easter.

Above all it was fascinating to see that the day’s session was to be based upon an old Albers exercise.

The day was broken into two sessions and was the first day of a block of drawing. I was to work to a set exercise whereby students had to create a rectangle within an A1 sheet of paper, the dimensions of which were already given and horizontal divisions  indicated as so; two bands of 5 cm, followed by a larger band of I think 15cm then two of ten of 10 etc. Once students had very faintly set out the initial rectangle, they were to use masking tape to make sure all marks were clearly going to stop exactly at the indicated edge, and the first band was also to be taped off at its edge to ensure no marks would penetrate the band below. Students were to use an ‘F’ pencil to mark out the rectangle edges and then no other marks to indicate bands except for marks on the masking tape which could be used to help get the tape straight and in the right place, as they proceeded to draw within the confines of each band.
Then once the frame was drawn in, the drawing of lines would use pencils, either 2 or 3B.
Each band has to consist of a series of controlled vertical lines, lines that would explore various degrees of darkness, control, spacing etc.
Once the students have taped off the initial vertical A1 rectangle we look at hand and body control. The first issue is how to assess a vertical. Some students have a tendency to make marks with a handedness, either to the left or the right. We spend some time thinking through how and why this might be. Asking questions such as, "Which foot is the weight on when you start drawing", "How do you hold a pencil?" We look at how shoulder muscles support the arm and how you can lock the arm into position so that it is easier to draw a straight. I also show them what a plumb line is and point out it can be used to make sure their paper is straight and true to the vertical when attached to the wall. Students are for this session working vertically against a paper taped to a wall and many of them have always drawn resting their hands as if they are writing, so we have to also look at different ways to hold a pencil when you work at different angles or heights and how to rethink the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, body, legs relationship.
All of this is as it was, the difference is that in the past we would have asked the students to decide on the size of divisions, range of materials and the format of the rectangle. I did get a sheet to give out after dinner that actually stipulated what each line should look at. I think I was supposed to have had that right from the beginning, so I suspect my group had a little more leeway as I asked them to make their own minds up as to what they would explore in each band. For instance if lines were very close together, perhaps the next band might make the gaps between lines slightly wider. If the texture of the wall behind the paper was making the marks have a certain character, then they could insert another sheet of paper behind theirs and therefore be able to see the difference. If they had managed to make a transition between faint marks and heavy black ones using blocks of 10 lines, the in the next band to try blocks of 15, if the lines of one band were done quite quickly, perhaps the next band should be done much slower and with more thought about control, etc. The sheet I gave to them gave clear instructions such as each line in one band to be set out 1cm apart, then in the next a different control mechanism and so on.
I understand why the control has become so rigid, in the past because we wanted variation and hopefully some degree of confusion, we celebrated the unexpected, we valued the student who managed to come up with a variation none of us had thought of. However what this could mean with larger groups is that the main point would get lost. That was of course that control is vital. It is also a chance to check that students do simple things like think through how you can sharpen a pencil in different ways in order to obtain changes in mark quality. The tight framework makes sure all students have thought through the importance of careful control over everything including masking tape. We had a period of time when we just looked at the tape. Those who put it down too firmly finding they might tear the paper when it is removed. Students soon realised that masking tapes were all different, not only in slight variations of colour but in degrees of stickiness. They realised you could make it less sticky by applying it to the wall and pealing it back off before applying it to the paper. We looked very carefully at the paper and its grain and I told them that the course had had to send the first paper delivery back as the paper was not of good enough quality. Care over the small details was emphasized as being vital. I think that in comparison with a similar session from 30 years ago, we would have mentioned how important control was, we would have though assumed that it was the student responsibility to take that on board, would have done less work making sure each element was understood and would have not made each and everyone of them ‘obey the rules’.
As the drawings progressed during the morning I made several interjections. At one point getting to see how the various rhythms that were being developed could be sounded out, making various noises to different rhythms, much to their amusement but also perhaps opening out their awareness of the possibilities of ‘eye music’. At another time we looked at the similarity in structure to soldiers marching and how the beat of their own hearts lay deep below their awareness of rhythmic structures. The final part of the session consisted of reflection in their notebooks. I tried to get them to open out the reflection in order to try and grasp the possible poetry and metaphoric connections available to them. We talked body metaphor and embodied knowledge, we looked at how an awareness of the body was linked to an awareness of how concepts came into being. The importance of bi-lateral symmetry and how all objects we design look like us. This offered a way to examine control as a type of mirror, a mirror whereby we examine all things through our own lens. 

Over dinner students were asked to look for examples of things experienced in the real world that were similar to the ‘abstracted’ experience they had been involved with.
The afternoon session was again very tightly controlled.
Students would spend the session working from a section of a newspaper trying to copy its visual texture, whilst not copying the letters or the images, an old exercise in abstraction. 
A photocopy of a student exercise taken from an Albers text was given to me to hand out, together with photocopies of various pages from newspapers. The afternoon session was to start with getting students to recognize that ‘visual texture’ was a very powerful code. When they first set eyes on the photocopy of the page of marks provided it initially looked as if it was a newspaper. However on close inspection students realised that it was simply a set of marks organized in the way newspapers are set out. Each letter had been replaced by a mark and all the column spaces maintained. Their task for the afternoon was to recreate the page of the newspaper they had been given in marks. A somewhat daunting task, which demanded lots of trials and texts in their notebooks.
The students worked on this all afternoon, having to make decisions as to how to deal with photographs and large text, both of which demanded some degree of rationality as to how representation could be avoided. We looked at breaking down images into proportions of tone and banding these horizontally across the same sized rectangle, large text was harder and students had to become quite inventive as to what could stand for the letter without actually being readable as a letter. The point was I think made quite early on during the afternoon. The ridged nature of the exercise however meant that time just had to be put in, in order for the drawings to be ‘readable’ and concluded. There is a good lesson to be learnt from this and that is that careful control and crafting takes time and that once completed the effect can be quite powerful. Again in comparison to similar drawings done in the past, we would have not been so insistent on completion, once the point had been made we would have moved on to something else or asked the students to invent a similar idea for themselves. It is the predictability that has changed most. The large numbers are hard to control and as portfolios have to be ready early and as learning outcomes have to be met and evidenced, this sort of control has become essential. Personally I still find it difficult, because I keep wanting to go off on tangents or move on at differing paces, but in the way it is done it does mean that all students are democratically given equal weight. Those that did not ‘get it’ in the past, would we would think, have the ‘penny drop’ at a later date, which often meant in reality, when we were looking at their portfolios at an even later stage, jettisoning most of their first term’s work as poor, because none of their work had been seen through to a conclusion. Control v discovery an interesting issue. The one a reflection of the scientific mind the other a ghost of Romanticism. Both necessary at different times but I’m afraid I’m still tainted with the Romanticism of old and still yearn for the confusion and disorganization of earlier times, times when the space still existed for stories and oddballs flourished. Art college was then a refuge for scoundrels as well as a place for poets to find a voice, but I’m not sure it can be anymore. Patrick Oliver would be turning in his grave if he knew about the tight restrictions I gave out in yesterday’s session and would decry the session’s control as one designed to train youngsters for a life of servitude and a disgrace to the muses of poetry. Perhaps he would be right too.

I never got round to the second part of this post and found the draft the other day so have used edit mode to pop it in here.

I've been so busy covering for people off ill this week that I have had no time to think about the continuing blog. So what did I cover? Wednesday dissertations all day, one to one tutorials, (I'll get round to what is done at some time but not now) Thursday assessment cover for Foundation during the day and then teaching perspective to evening Access students till 9pm. (I'll at some point look at this too as I've taught perspective for many years and it can still be useful and when approached sensitively can be used in really interesting ways to think about the way we interact with the world) Friday was back to assessments for Foundation and helping set up studios in the afternoon for new modules in specialist areas starting on Monday. Finally managed to have enough energy left to open e mails on Saturday morning and Derek had responded to my last week's post about doing more Foundation cover. There is some synergy here because the assessments meant that I saw the whole of each student's portfolio starting from week one until now, which is the start of the specialist area. Too tired to go into this now, but things have become driven by tick boxes, large student numbers and my old hate; the need to track the learning outcomes.

Derek had e mailed me as a reminder that there was a lot of bread and butter stuff going on and that I shouldn't forget to tackle that as the blog progresses. He is of course right, but the exciting stuff is always more memorable. As the year unfolds hopefully a lot more of the nuts and bolts will be dredged from my memory. This is Derek again sending his memories….

He begins with the fact that I'm to blame for this, which I totally accept, as he states. . . . . "you are entirely to blame for this dribble of effluent, I make no apology", he has of course now inadvertently fallen into the trap of adding to this growing pool of effluent, but hopefully one day it will be filtered and strained for that crystal clear stream that lies deep down under the murky layers of fading memories.

Derek's post:
"We used to ask students to do tonal drawings on a sheet of paper that had been rubbed and dusted with charcoal to give a uniformly grey surface. This could be worked into with a rubber and chalk and onto with black to play with gradations of tone to define where forms existed in space in relation to each other. There is a demonstrable phenomenon that on white paper, dark tones of grey to black will be seen to come progressively forward and whites will recede, and on black paper the opposite is true. That way of opening up space within the frame of course the students had to find for themselves – they were simply encouraged to force things back or pull things forward as if that was the easiest thing in the world. This would also be where ‘carved’ lines came in (adjusting both edges of a line) to make lines disappear towards the back of the pictorial space, changing tone as it went. The spaces too were ‘carved’, as they were integral to the whole as much as any form that existed within the space. It was never regarded as an exercise, but a creative discovery as the elements of the drawing had to be controlled and ‘seen’ as working or not during that manipulation. Drawing always required (sometimes radical) adjustments that might involve the obliteration of several hours work, and this was always encouraged as a brave and courageous thing to do. “Controlled” may be a misleading word as the trick is to work in an instinctive, flexible way that allows accidents to happen as that often results in sublime pieces of language that in an overly self-conscious controlling approach you could never have discovered.

As a contrast to the uncertain complexity and playful nature of problems that were proposed to Foundation course students, when the idea of a uniform brief across the college was introduced, an ‘ideal model’ brief was circulated. The object of this brief was for each student to work on a cube of wood, painting one side white, another side varnished, another side wax polished and so on. Quite a few of the staff were rendered speechless.

At some time a student coming back from an H.E. interview reported being told “You can always tell a Leeds folder from the amount of charcoal in the seams”.

Creating complementary greys with oil pastel (ahhhh shriek no not that!!!!) Ah but think of the sexiness of those pinks blues greens greys!
Now this is where I have an identifiable loss of memory. I always thought in later years it had become too much of an exercise, still worth doing, still about manipulation and cognition, but I think it used to be done better with a stronger sense of imagery as a starting point.

On my Foundation year I remember spending a winter colour week in the woods in Meanwood (snow, pork pies and pickled eggs in the Myrtle) and Gavin making little vignettes of scraps of vegetation on the grey mud, greens, a tiny touch of red, hint of grey/orange or grey/purple, and he’d say “Mix an equivalent of that – it won’t be the same - it’ll be different – don’t copy it, make an equivalent - do you understand that (a.m.) d’yoounnerstantha (p.m.)? Somewhere it was about maintaining the integrity of a surface, adjusting the scale of a saturated colour so that it didn’t leap out but was kept in place by the manipulation of its size and context. But somewhere it doesn’t matter too much what was said, as just the continual encouragement for the student to keep tackling the problem could produce results.

Whatever the brief there was always the emphasis on finding solutions, inventing, making a leap of faith, lateral thinking, suspending disbelief. That emphasis on finding solutions in the inventive sense as well as the aesthetic was key in Patrick’s conundrums, whether that was visualizing a coffin for a bicycle or wiring up imaginary traffic lights, and could simply be justified with reference to Coldstream’s vision of the value of a Fine Art degree as contributing to a better quality of life, or, more realistically, answering the demand from employers for employees who could demonstrate flexibility and an ability to adapt to change. Foundation has always been a breeding ground of exactly those transferable skills".

I remember Colin Welland on the radio once talking about the fact that when he left school he went on a Pre-Diploma in Art and Design which was what Foundation courses were called then (I did my Pre-Dip at Wolverhampton). He realised when he was on the course that he was an actor not an artist, but the experiences the course gave him had stayed with him for life and he thought everyone should do a Pre-Dip as it had diagnosed him perfectly and set him off on the right direction with a sense of excitement and wonder in discovery and being lost but loving it.

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