This series of lessons was designed to introduce year seven pupils to the way in which an artist uses the sketch pad to record information and prepare for final work (in this case a series of large graphite landscape drawings). Using teacher resourced images, already defined into a composition, the lessons look at the methods of creating different tones to achieve distance, depth and pattern, using pencils, graphite sticks, graphite powder and a rubber.
The Art Lesson
‘Come in Year 7!’ A group of nine girls and nine boys file in to the Art room. They are quick to take up their places on the stools around the big rectangular work table which is the centrepiece of the room. They are keen to get started – they have been here before and know that good things happen in their Art lessons! They like this room, a pottery first and foremost, but used as a general-purpose Art room too. There’s plenty to look at: plants, animal skulls and bones, interesting bits of machinery, pieces of textiles, and above all the art work done by other children: ‘That picture looks amazing. Can I pick out a name? Yes, I know her, she’s in Year 10. She must be so good at Art!’
Today is a little different from the usual lesson. The teacher is here, but she’s accompanied by a visitor, – someone they’ve seen around the Art department, but who hasn’t really come onto their ‘radar’ yet. Who is this gentleman with a benign smile, a relaxed stance, an almost grandfatherly look about him? The teacher explains. ‘Our visitor is the school’s artist-in-residence. He’s here to show us some of his own art work, and to talk about how it was made, and help us plan some work of our own. I’ll be around to help, but now I want you to listen to Mr. Mann…….’
There’s an expectant hush. They’re used to their Art lessons being interesting, why should today be any exception? The gentleman speaks: quietly, unhurried, with confidence, putting the class at their ease. Here is an old hand who knows how to settle the class and grab their attention, but there are no fireworks, no whizz-bang technology. He has just a sketchbook, its heavy paper pages rather battered and well-used, full of his landscape pencil drawings. They show pictures of Hadrian’s Wall – a few minutes are well spent in explaining where that is, and how it got there – then we are off on the story. The car journey to the wall, the long walk in the rain looking for the right location, about carrying his sketchbook in his pocket, the drawings made on the spot using graphite sticks, the time it takes to draw and record (an aside about his wife getting fed up of waiting and returning to the car to read her book adds to the colour of the story!). The drawings are explained – the techniques, the effects, the landscape features. Year 7 are gripped because this work links with their own experience. ‘We’ve done lots of drawing ourselves in our sketchbooks – our teacher has shown us how, and we like it – so we can see how brilliant these drawings really are. Now here’s the guy who made them talking to us!’
The artist shows other sketches: rugged Cornwall landscape the subject this time, but the approach is the same, with atmospheric graphite techniques to show rocks, bushes, clouds….the grey, stormy landscapes rise through the dense graphite marks and float off the heavy paper pages. The artist shows how the style and the content of the sketches re-surface within more finished work – the same locations , but with shapes edited and moved around , leaving things in, taking things out, and techniques developed, adding colours and textures. Now the artist’s answering questions from the group -and taking them seriously. ‘Why didn’t you use colour in the original sketches?’ ‘When I draw with pencils and graphite sticks I can show different tones. It’s an under-rated technique….’
They like the relaxed style of Q and A that develops; their questions get a little bolder: ‘why did you start art?’ ‘It was my best subject at school, and I thought I would train as an architect, but I switched and trained as an art teacher’. Then back to the drawings: ‘How do you get the clouds to be so clear?’ Cue for a demonstration. They gather round the big table and the artist shows them the practical techniques of using graphite sticks, graphite powder, pencils, and putty erasers. They watch intently – all are close enough to see in detail as he creates a rocky foreground. Another question: ‘How do you create the grass?’ – A quick demonstration explains. ‘I’m setting the scene’ he says. ‘How long do the drawings take?’ ‘About two hours…..but sometimes less’. This is leading up to them taking a shot at a drawing for themselves. They are gearing up – they can see the materials are out ready for them, those graphite sticks and paper look interesting, but what if they fail? Let’s ask the artist. ‘This is an example of one that didn’t work, and it showed me how to get it better next time.’ ‘Oh, so it’s OK for artists to get it wrong sometimes, they can learn from that’.
A girl asks the artist ‘Which drawing are you most proud of?’ He talks about his likes and dislikes and about one he didn’t finish. ‘Oh, so artists don’t always have to finish absolutely everything …..mmm…‘.
A bit more demonstration, now very specific, this time the precise method of using the graphite stick to create the effect of foliage. Then before their attention flags the teacher joins the artists at the table, ready to move them back to their work places. The materials are there, together with a selection of small, contrasty black and white photographs of moorland places: rocks, walls, scudding clouds, distant trees. These look a lot like the landscapes in the artist’s sketchbook. Each choosing just one of the photos, they start to draw on long, fairly narrow strips of heavy cartridge paper. There’s a challenge here: ‘We’ll take just quarter of an hour to get the basic outline down’ says the teacher.
They work with a will, editing their image just like the artist told them he did, moving things round, leaving bits out. ‘You’re not a camera, so you can make decisions about what’s in your picture’ says the artist. That’s reassuring, and it gives them confidence to be bold and decisive. Quite quickly, from the blank sheets, like landscapes showing up as a mist clears, the images appear. The pencil and graphite techniques are used with gusto, the rocks come out of nowhere, and the walls grow up the page. All are focused – no negative attitudes here (‘we know we can do good Art, we’ve done it before…’.) ’Good artists work hard!’ says Mr Mann. The class agree, ‘Look, we’re really concentrating!’ And the results?
The results are good, in some cases remarkable. They’ve listened, watched and worked hard, just as they usually do in Art. The drawings have qualities that reflect their past experience in handling pencil techniques, the confidence the artist has given them and an artistic curiosity that the Art department has hardwired into them. It’s over quickly, and now they’re off to P.E. But they’ll be back next week and pick it up where they left off, with the artist and the teacher to reset the scene! They enjoy Art, and they work hard at it. At this school, that’s expected, it’s a given!
Context of the lesson
This was lesson one of a series of three or four lessons where the teacher and artist in residence worked together to extend students understanding of tone and mark making through drawing. The image size was 140mm x 420mm and the materials used were heavyweight toothy cartridge paper, pencils (4B, 2B and B) graphite sticks (4B and 8B) hard rubbers, graphite powder and small pieces of cloth for rubbing in. Resources included black and white landscape photocopies, enlarged to match the student’s paper size, the artist’s sketchpad and three of his finished A1 drawings.
The school is an 11-18 rural comprehensive of 1100 students. Art classes at key stage 3 are mixed ability groups of 22-24, and art is taught for one hour per week throughout the year with the same teacher. Sketchpads and homework are an integral aspect of the learning with approximately 45 minutes per week expected to be completed at home. Projects involve drawing, painting, textiles, printmaking and 3D, usually clay work.
Peter Jones. Retired HM Inspector of Schools (England), former national Specialist Advisor for Art.
John Childs. Artist Educator Consultant. Past President NSEAD. Retired Art College Director Chenderit School.