Archives for the month of: September, 2010

Three days or six lessons of making montages with year eight. We are using Paint Shop Pro 7 which is OK, it works. It is pretty complicated but a lot simpler than Photoshop. I have taken shots of the pupils which we have trimmed out and the intention is to show them how to use layers and effects. The project has got a bit bogged down this year in Facebook browsing which I don’t remember being the case so much last year. We aren’t getting as many printed outcomes as quickly this year. Two groups have printed off.

My examples have become quite Baroque as I have fiddled about with every effect in the box and I have had some fun with the controls on the layers, blending and darkening and using duplicates and so on. The original idea came from a Max Ernst collage and there are some Ernsts in the mix on mine. I dare say I could have used a more contemporary artist. Any suggestions?

So far the Identity project has been much the same as last year but next week I intend to go off piste with some life size paintings, using the space in the old DT room and looking at work directly made on the body.


Collagraph camera

On the way to the art college this lunchtime I picked up a hitch-hiker near Beccles. We started talking about hitching, as is traditional and how no one picks anyone up any more. I said I used to hitch all over and told him about hitching across Europe and spending a winter in Israel when I was nineteen. I hitched across France, into Spain, picked grapes, went across Switzerland, the north of Italy and then across the middle of Yugoslavia to Greece, picked olives on Crete and then flew to Israel and worked on a moshav in the Negev for two months. I had then given it up and gone home, rarely leaving the UK since, deciding I wasn’t very good at it.  He asked me how I had found that I talked about the militaristic atmosphere and the Uzi on the tractor and so on. I said that I had found Jerusalem very interesting, in the way that the different religions that have disputed the city over the centuries have done this through architecture, building on top of each others sacred sites and, more subtly, in the way of each others sacred sites. This seemed to show an attention to detail and a degree of respect held for each others religious views, in a way.

I then apologised for talking about religion straight away and hoped that I hadn’t offended him in any way, as they say one shouldn’t talk about religion or politics. Oh, I am interested in people’s take on it, he said, I don’t believe, I used to be a Marxist. How do you mean, you used to be one? I said. And he told me about being ‘heavily shepherded’ in the SWP in Sheffield in the early eighties. He said the stories of the knock on the door at two in the morning to check that you hadn’t strayed from the path was probably mythical but that you were held to account and sometimes given a bad time. It had been hard work and he had got fed up with it and had decided that he was just too petite bourgeoisie for it all.

Ah, I said, that was always my problem but once I realised that I was actually petite bourgeoisie and that there wasn’t much I could do about it, that was my class background, and that people like me go to art college and do the things they do because they are petite bourgeoisie and that this is probably not a bad thing, in the great scheme of things, then I learnt to relax about it. I said that the petite bourgeoisie were a much maligned and under-rated class which was actually quite dynamic and creative as they negotiated their aspirations between the two classes they didn’t quite belong to. We agreed that the petite bourgeoisie could be quite anarchic, which was why the hard left never liked them and, as we were both teachers, where would the teaching profession be without the petite bourgeoisie.

My background is one of crafts people really. One gran was a seamstress making samples in a dress factory in Leicester and taught me to sew. My grandad was a joiner. The other gran worked in a knicker factory for fifty years. Both sets of grandparents lived in council houses all of their lives. One set lived in a prefab for forty years. My Dad was a photographer and worked in industry, as a high street wedding photographer and latterly as the chief photo technician at DeMontfort University. Fay Godwin considered him the best ‘record’ photographer she had met. Most of his cousins became teachers of various sorts.

So today’s image of a camera made as a collagraph connects to something from all of that. It is also my camera du jour, a toughened Olympus, the perfect art room camera, shrugging off drops and paint and clay. A key research tool. I was trying out some of the plastic circuit board backing we found in the DT room and I used PVA wood glue and corundum to make the image. I only had time to pull two prints and there was some tearing of the paper which we thought might have been from the PVA glue losing interest. Ernst gave me some shellac to try instead of the button polish I had used and I will try a couple more coats. I had been worried that the plastic sheet wouldn’t hold the glue so I was perhaps partly right. An interesting image though. Very dark and I liked the speckles across it which came from stray specks of corundum being moved about and trapped in the layer of varnish. So I was trialling a material for possible collagraphs with the pupils and demonstrating the technique, making an example and making a work for the still-life sequence here.


Postcard after Whiteread.

Sort of beginning to think about settling into the new term. It may take a while. The school is in its final year of operation and is in a state of being run down. We only have three year groups in now, there has been no new entry of the younger pupils into the school. They have been retained by the junior schools and are being taught in mobile classrooms on the playgrounds. It is something of a mess in many ways and the future of the new high school in Lowestoft remains problematic. I could describe in detail the process of dismantlement but really the only important things are what is pertinent to the research project.

I was working today on some bits and pieces in the classroom, playing with materials and objects discarded from the the old DT room which is being closed up at the moment. I spent some time improving a postcard found at the back of a cupboard with some hole punches in the manner of Rachel Whiteread whose drawing show I saw at the Tate a week or so ago. I liked the work a lot and I was touched by her casts of the insides of boots which are a lot like the casts of shoes and bags I have on a shelf left over from a year eight girls interest in the artist some years ago. I didn’t know Whiteread cast boots but it seemed an entry level thing for a thirteen year old to cast so I was pleased to see these casts in the display of her studio objects which are a lot like the casts of my old shoes and a handbag on my shelf.

The atmosphere of the work is a lot like the DT room though. It is being emptied out and the traces of fifty years of it being a wood-work and metal-work room and then a CDT and then Dt room are being expunged. The remains of the wood store and some of the tools will be the basis for what I have decided to call the sculpture studio for this last year. The younger children will not get the chance to have the Mr Cope year eight experience because the school will be shut so I intend to give them some taste of the fairly ambitious work I attempt with the older children. Having said that I made the big Niki De Sant Phalle figure with ten year olds last year so there is no reason why they shouldn’t be capable. With the additional storage and building space though I should be able to make more than one figure at a time. And of course I have all that stuff in the cupboards that might be interesting to use one day, collected over the years, and now only a school year to do something with it.

Whitereads on the shelf at school

An afternoon spent in the print workshop devoted to the study and meaning of the edges of etchings.

I mainly like etchings, as much as I like them at all, because they are the remnant of a natural process of acid acting on metal, resisted by some sort of ground. If one wants to get all alchemical about it all then it is possible to be with all the talk of Dutch mordant and tree resin and bitumen and so on. I don’t find that particularly attractive myself, mainly due to the health threatening nature of many of the ingredients. However, the interest lies on the making of an image through the control of a natural chemical process of acids acting on metals. For me the nature of this process needs to be seen in the image so for me the edges of the plate are left as they are after the dipping and biting. This leaves them with a nice raggedy edge. I file them down before I start the process so I don’t cut myself on the metal but once it comes out of the acid I leave them as they are. I wipe them off when I print but the prints end up with a bit of a rough frame of ink from this bitten edge. This partly arises because of the way we back the plates with parcel tape rather than painting on a backing and using an edging paint to protect the edge which we could do. Apparently the real way to finish an etching is to ground down the edge to a 45 degree angle and then polish it with 600 grade wet and dry paper.

Nobody has looked at my beautifully framed etchings and said OMG, look at the edges on that and, as I say, I have reasons for leaving them. What I don’t like about etching is that some of it is about an etiquette of making and selling prints and less about the process as a way of making an art work. I enjoy the Chapman brothers playful attitude to the making of etchings using this fairly quaint process because it is a quaint process. I realised, however that, if I am to be able to say that I have learnt to etch then I need to be able to have the choice of making a well groomed print so I asked Ernst to show me how.

The filing and sanding is tedious but my first prints were disappointingly similar to my previous efforts. I had only done half of the process it would appear and Ernst showed me how to wipe off the edges properly and use the French chalk to seal the edge. This resulted in a more conventional and acceptable result though, to my eye, not necessarily better.

I know it drives Ernst up the pole that I don’t really want to be a fine printer and seem happy to bumble about at a level of relative lack of refinement. I seem happiest for the prints to be a form of drawing more than anything else and I am interested in them at that level. In some ways though, the prints have become less of an expanded form than my work before. I used to be happiest mono-printing  and using that sort of mark making in paintings and with other media. Now these prints have shrunk to tiny eight by ten inch squares of intense combat with the process.

Well, I can do an edge properly now anyway. Whether I will or not I am not sure.


My usual edge showing the acid bitten inked edge of the plate.


The edge of the plate after clipping, filing down and then sanding. Edge wiped with a cloth and French chalk to seal the edge.

Obviously having a holiday from a PHd is unlikely but the closest I got this summer was a few wet days in Canterbury reading Cloud Atlas and drawing in the crypt of the cathedral. How much of a holiday that is, exactly, reading a different sort of book and drawing a different sort of thing I am not sure. Why draw on holiday? Do all art teachers take drawing things with them? For this trip I took watercolour paper with me and bought another pad of it in Chromos in the city. I drew with pen and a couple with pencil and I got particularly interested in the ancient and very mysterious figures on the columns down in the crypt. These were called jugglers and griffins and so on but they are very weird things. Apparently dating back to 1100. Fun to draw in the gloom and no photography allowed so the only way to get an image is to squint and draw. Will I do something with them? Is there an etching in there? I’m not sure at all and I am not sure the exercise is aimed at that, gathering material. It slows the eye down and forces concentration and looking at something closely and that is enough in itself really. I have lots of these types of drawings from all sorts of odd places. A long standing habit.

When I first got interested in drawing and realised that there was something there that I had to learn how to do, that it was a skill to practice, then I became an inveterate reader of ‘how to draw’ books. This was when I was between twelve and sixteen, when I was working my way through the books in the Anstey library. There were books called ‘How to Paint and Draw’ which showed you everything there was to know about drawing and painting. I practised how to shade and how to make things ‘three dimensional’ and so on. I was fascinated by the possibilities but, somehow, never that brilliant at them. My work always looked a bit, sort of scruffy somehow. Certainly I remember that there were some people who were much better at pencil rendering than I could ever be. I couldn’t really see the point in copying a photograph in graphite. I never really got the fascination with photographic realisation with art materials. This may have been because my Dad is a photographer so my other obsession was getting the f-stops right on my Lubitel 2 (real photographers just use an exposure meter to check they’ve got it right, Paul). Why draw photographically when you can put a roll of Tri-X in your camera?

Probably my favourite ‘How to..’ books were two by the artist and illustrator Paul Hogarth, Creative Ink Drawing (1968 Studio Vista) and Creative Pencil Drawing (1964 Studio Vista). Not only did he have a nice line, a nice loose line, and a very un-photographic manner, he also had a great Romantic back story about fighting in the International Brigades and knocking about Europe after the war and drawing the ruins in Germany. Every drawing had a story to go with it. I even wrote the guy a letter and he was good enough to reply.

Amongst all this ‘advice’ everyone insisted that one should carry a sketchbook at all times. This all coincided with ‘O’ levels and being expected to have a sketchbook. I was thrilled with the A3 spiral bound book I had when I started the ‘O’ level course at Quorn Rawlins. It is a habit that has stuck, on the whole, ever since. My sketchbooks were adored on Foundation and fascinated other students on the degree. And since then I have generally had one knocking about. There are a row of them behind me, A5 Winsor and Newtons.

More recently the habit petered out. I chatted to friends who did not keep books as a matter of course and I started to feel that the books were too closed down and shuttered up, that a lot of energy went into them which could be more productively spent making things that were more out there and exhibitable. I would buy a book and it would not get used, a few drawings at the beginning and a few clippings and then nothing. There seemed less point in keeping a book to have ideas in that I didn’t have time to realise.

Looking at the show in NUCA though, that wall of pictures, I realised where the sketchbook had gone. I had just made it a lot bigger and on lots of bits of paper. The impulse to make work like that, in the way it had been in the old books, when I had a sketchbook habit, was there in the wall of work. With something else as well though, more public and confident.

The sketchbook is now a ‘learning journal’ which is sort of working alongside this blog and a written notebook and a little sketchbook and bits of card and watercolour paper and the etchings and two paintings.

Drawing on holiday seems to have something of that lad carrying a sketchbook all the time, like the books say you should, about it. I resist the temptation to ‘draw interesting characters you might see in the street or cafe’ these days so I might have moved on a bit. Of course, one of the things I am doing is sort of demonstrating to pupils that you should carry a sketchbook with you at all times and that a holiday can provide you with new and interesting drawing opportunities. Whilst I am extremely unlikely to ever deploy these Canterbury drawings in the classroom I am, at some level, perpetuating the same drawing habits that got me going when I was a lad.

Whilst I can see that in some ways this is a good thing I can also see it as being really quite naff. It is part of the half life of the picturesque, clicking away behind notions of how to draw.