Saturday, 31 December 2016

Art, Love and Beauty

Throughout The Symposium Plato argues that 'love requires beauty and thus doesn't possess it.' As I re read this dialogue for the first time in many years, I was moved to consider what possible dilemmas this proposition might create for aesthetics.

A traditional understanding of art is that it must be beautiful. In a previous post I discussed ideas of the Kantian Sublime and suggested that an experience that brings forth psychological movement could be a possible expansion of the concept, adapting it into something that is both transcendent and pragmatic. Taking this further, one might delve deeper into the proposition that 'art is beautiful' and perhaps find common ground with my 'therapeutic' re-interpretation of Kant's concept of the Sublime,

Plato's argument throughout The Symposium states that love requires beauty to exist and thus love is not inherently beautiful. In Plato's reasoning, love relies on a separate concept of 'beauty' and thus must lack beauty in itself. A similar line of argument could be applied to the proposition 'art must be beautiful.' If art requires beauty in order to define itself, it surely follows that beauty is not an innate component of art.

What, then, of the Sublime? If art is not beautiful in itself, then the rapturous, transcendent experience that it might engender can not lie dormant within the artwork. The old adage that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is of relevance here. The psychological movement that the experience of the Sublime allows fo must reside within the spectator. In this model, the perceiver holds transformative potential with them, and just needs to wait for the right image to bring it forth.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Let The Materials do the Talking

Working with a new medium for the first time can be intimidating. Just as we tend to create 'comfort zones' of rendering particular types of imagery, it's very easy to fall into relying heavily on the same materials. It's certainly no bad thing to endeavour to master one medium, and many artists build successful careers on doing just that, but I think there's a definite case to be made for doing as much material experimentation as possible.

Whenever we use an art medium, we form a relationship with it. As we use a particular material, we begin to discover its potential and limitations. A teacher might show you a particular technique, or you might discover it for yourself. Either way, it's important to allow the physical properties of the medium to influence the work you create. If you can open up to the potential of your materials in this way, you'll start to find that different media will tell different stories. Knowing when to consciously guide the creative act and when to allow the characteristics of the medium to take control is key, and this is an intuitive process learnt through time and patience.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Illustration, Therapy and the Sublime

Illustration has, historically, been kept separate from the world of fine art and attributed a lower cultural value. This is largely due to its functional nature; illustration exists to convey and communicate ideas and thus finds its home in "low brow" forms of media such as picture books, advertising, comics and political propaganda. This perception of illustration comes from a Kantian understanding of aesthetics; as this art form serves a practical purpose it can only be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Thus illustration cannot be 'sublime' in the Kantian sense as it does not overwhelm the viewer's ability to comprehend it. Rather it relies on the viewer's ability to quickly interpret the image's meaning.

I certainly agree with the above position; illustration certainly does have practical purpose. I take issue, however, with Kant's notion that images and artefacts deemed to be 'fine art' do not serve a utilitarian function. It can certainly be argued that all art works serve a historical purpose in that they document the cultural, social and political milieu of a certain time and place. For me, however, this is only one practical application of art works.

As regular readers of this blog will know, my professional life revolves around the inter-connection between art and emotional well-being. I was recently greatly inspired by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong's book Art as Therapy, which posits that the act of viewing great works of art enables the spectator to engage with and resolve issues in their personal lives. This challenges the above described Kantian notion of sublimity as it suggests that all works - 'fine art' or other can serve the utilitarian purpose of facilitating psychological change.

In my previous post, I argued that movement and potential were central to the practice of visual story telling. I regularly teach illustration to a wide variety of different client groups and, in doing so, I often see the artform's great power to bring about emotional healing. In my view, this is achieved in two ways. Firstly, it can be brought about through spectatorship as de Botton and Armstrong argue (and perhaps Kant too - could it be possible that this is what he meant when he talked of the sublime?). Secondly, the creation of illustrative images allows one to interact with - and control - a sequence of  moments in time. The transformative power of this practice should not be underestimated.

I've skirted around two different debates here; the purpose (if there is one) of art work and the ever-blurring line between fine art and illustration. For those interested in digging deeper into these ideas I'd suggest the aforementioned Art as Therapy (de Botton and Armstrong, 2013) and Critique of Judgement (Kant, 1790).

If you're local to the Norwich area and are interested in illustration, narrative and the connection between art and well-being, I'll be leading an 8 week course on 'Illustration and Creative Drawing' for The Public House from January 9th, 2017.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

What I Mean By Visual Storytelling...

I realise I often throw the term 'visual storytelling' around without ever offering much explanation of what those words might mean. Over the past year of teaching and blogging, I've used the phrase any number of times and it's high time I unpacked that particular bit of jargon. As it's the end of a year, and as such times tend to make me come over all introspective and reflective, I'll expound on what I mean by 'visual storytelling' with reference to my own past history.

I can remember being in Italy when I was around three or four. Actually, that's not quite true. I don't really remember where I was, but I remember being given a Spiderman comic printed in a language that I didn't understand. As I was so young, and couldn't read much English, let alone any other languages, my parents' thought I'd be perfectly happy with an Italian edition of Spiderman. And they were right! The image on the cover is still fresh in my mind three decades later.

This Italian language Spiderman comic is still my first reference point when I think about the power of the picture. My inability to read the words didn't matter because the four colour image on the front of the comic told me everything I needed to know. The striking black lines, dynamic composition and powerful colour scheme conveyed a world of information.

When I was a few years older, Quentin Blake's ilustrations for Roald Dahl had a similarly powerful impact. These drawings were different to the Spiderman one - they were messy-looking and imprecise rather than tightly designed and constructed. But they too had a dynamism to them, this time one achieved through quick, spontaneous line work. I can remember looking at Blake's covers to Matilda and The Witches and them seeming to almost move on the page.

For me, this notion of life, of movement, is central to illustration. Story emerges from the passage of one moment to another. An illustrative image can never be fixed - it needs to suggest action and progress. It needs to hold within it the potential for another later image - one that might appear on the next page, in the next comic panel or in the reader's mind.

When I teach illustration for The Public House, this ability to imbue an image with potential is the main skill I try to get across. I encourage my students to view the work they create as being part of a larger narrative or context. I ask that they consider ways in which their drawings might flow into the next moment, how they might have emerged from a previous moment. I think this is vitally important in effective illustration.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Illustration Course Week 8

This was the final class of the illustration course I've been teaching for The Public House, at least until it starts again in January. The theme for this session was 'working with what's there' and I introduced various exercises that allowed the students to adapt and modify what they found on the page in front of them. These included activities like the 'prepared ground' technique in which students started with a heavily shaded area and then made marks into the pencil tone with an eraser. At the end of the session, the group reflected on all the work that had been done since week one and discussed what they'd found challenging and where they might take their work in future.

It's been a lot of fun to teach this course - the students have been receptive and have always taken on whatever prompt I've given them. Teaching this course has really made me reflect on my own artistic practice too, which is something I didn't expect. I'm really looking forward to January!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Illustration Course Week 7

It's the penultimate week of the adult education illustration course and I decided the focus should stay on creating illustrations based on prompts from classic literature. This week the students were given the task of drawing from selected excerpts from HG Wells' The Time Machine.

The whole group discussed each of the excerpts, making suggestions about the key pieces of descriptive information given by Wells. The students then set about making drawings that suitably conveyed the images suggested by the author's words.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Illustration Course Week 6

The theme for this workshop was 'drawing from literature' and I'd previously selected some excerpts from Mervyn Peake's gothic fantasy Gormenghast. This book (actually part of a trilogy) is rife with vivid descriptive language, so it seemed like a good pick for my illustration group to work from.

As a warm up exercise, I asked my students to work in chalk and create a medieval cityscape with a foreground, middleground and background. I also set my students the challenge of working onto black paper rather than white, so they could see the different kind of effect this creates.

We then spent the rest of the session considering how to create illustrations of some of the characters from the novel. Here's the student's interpretations of the Duchess.

Next week we'll continue to take our inspiration from classic literature, using HG Wells' The Time Machine as our prompt.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Roman Mythology Project Preparation Part 2

I had a free period today so I created some more illustrations for the Roman mythology workbook that I blogged about yesterday. I used oil and chalk pastels on black and brown cardboard to create depictions of Pan, the god or nature, wild mountains and shepherds. I also made some illustrations of Fauna, a feminine deity that has a strong association with Pan.

Finally, I sketched a suitably rustic dwelling for them to live in!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Roman Mythology Project Preparation

I'm planning out a unit on Roman mythology for my younger students and I've been busy creating a series of illustrations for a workbook. The first deities from the Roman pantheon I want to introduce the young people to will be Apollo and Diana. Apollo has associations with the sun, healing, light and poetry and Diana (his twin sister) is linked with the moon, wild animals and woodland. I picked these two characters as I thought they'd provide some suitably rich and evocative themes to work from.

Students will initially progress through their illustrated workbook, researching each deity and identifying their place in the Roman pantheon. After this they will choose one particular deity to provide inspiration for an independent piece, for which they will have a choice of media.

As I said, this project is still in development, but here's some of my illustration ideas!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Illustration Course Week 5

It's already week five of the eight week illustration course I'm doing for The Public House! This course is going by so quickly. I'm really pleased to say I'll be repeating the course again in January next year.

This week the group set about creating sequential narratives based on some of the character-based imagery they'd made a few weeks previously. Students wrote simple narratives based on a completed picture and then broke their writing down into its four most essential story points. They then created a simple thumbnail of a four panel comic strip grid before presenting their work to the group. After discussing each other's thumbnail sketches, each student set about taking their four panel comic strip to second draft phase.

Here's some pictures of the four panel comic strips!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Forest Dwellings

In our busy 21st Century lives, it can often be helpful to take a step back and enjoy a quiet moment. With this in mind, I often ask my students to depict their ideal forest cabin where they might find peace and sanctuary. This idea of a rustic dwelling resonates with a great many people and often leads to beautifully rendered images. These watercolour pieces show a variety of cabins and some associated details. I'm going to include this activity as part of a longer unit on nature, and combine it with these other lesson plans, organic forms and leaf prints 

Friday, 28 October 2016

Talitha Creative Arts

I recently had the pleasure of conversing with Amanda Root, the founder of a therapeutic arts organisation called Talitha. I'd recently become aware of the Talitha approach and, as a fellow advocate of the healing potential in creative activity, I was eager to find out more about Talitha, its history, aims and methods.

Amanda told me that the first project Talitha was involved in was in India, where her group had worked with a number of women who had suffered traumatic experiences related to human trafficking, I got the sense that, as these women worked through a series of creative workshops (involving various disciplines - Amanda's background is in acting), they'd found the means to express, analyse and - in some cases - begin to move beyond their difficult experiences.

I sensed Amanda's obvious commitment to the therapeutic potential inherent to artistic practice. I was intrigued to hear how Talitha had broadened its original scope, recognising the beneficial impact that expressive arts can have on people's lives. Amanda noted her organisation's involvement with Pret a Manger's Foundation Trust, explaining how Talitha had taken its practice to where it might be needed. A great number of clients from different backgrounds have found purpose, agency and an enriched sense of identity from working with the creative arts in a warm, supportive environment.

The Talitha approach places great emphasis on group activity where clients can explore the virtues of communication. discussion and leadership. My own work with Red Balloon has often shown me the importance of group activity; I've written on this subject here and here.

As Amanda and I chatted, she made mention of a number of activities Talitha practitioners use. In one activity, clients might be given the prompt to depict themselves as a garden. This they might do through application of a range of art media. In another activity, clients could be asked to construct a tableaux representing courage - and the physical movements involved in the creation may well become a part of the artwork.

I was greatly inspired by my conversation with Amanda and keen to further investigate her organisation and the projects it gets involved in. If you'd like to find out more about Talitha and their upcoming training courses, they can be contacted here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Illustration Course Week 4

It's half term week at Red Balloon, and the young people are having a well-earned rest. The only teaching I've had to do this week was my adult learner group, who now are up to week four of their illustration course. I've noticed huge progression from them all over the past couple of weeks and I'm really excited to see what their work will be like by the end of the eight week course.

This week's workshop was particularly focussed on drafting and re-drafting, which I think is especially important for illustration as you want your image to communicate its message clearly. I think it's quite a discipline to re-draw the same image more than once, so I was really pleased to see how keen the group were to continue to develop the same picture.

I'm still bringing different media to each session, and this week the students' were provided with some Neo Colour water soluble crayons to work with. These are a favourite of mine and it was a pleasure to demonstrate them for the students.

Here's some pictures from last night. The black and white pencil/pen drawings are examples of the students' work from their individual themes and the coloured pieces are experiments with the water soluble crayons.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Personal Mythology

All cultures of the world have a rich tradition of mythology. The themes of courage, honour, loyalty and treachery continue to resonate deeply within us and often find their way into modern movies, novels and video games.

I've been planning and delivering a lengthy unit on identity this term, and this seemed like a good place for students to create some artwork inspired by their own personal understanding of mythology. Other lessons that have formed part of this unit are secret diary sculpture and reverse collage.

These pieces were created by working in watercolour on pre-dampened paper. Students should be encouraged to let the colours flow with the water, allowing the spontaneous creation of shapes and lines to suggest imagery.

In the early stages of the work, students should let the physical act of creation take precedence and try not to bring too much conscious decision making to the process. As an image begins to form, students can turn their minds towards their own personal understanding of mythology. At this point they can begin to create resonant scenes incorporating their own archetypal figures.