The Art Class Time Tunnel

Before half term I’d reached the point in the term where I generally cover cross hatching and other ink drawing techniques.  It’s generally good fun, particularly where there are a lot of retired or semi-retired folks in the audience. As the standard dip pen nib hasn’t really changed a lot from the days when they were at school there are usually plenty of amusing anecdotes/ recollections of having been the ink monitor at school and so on. It did make me think though of how school can have a powerful hold on us  and the ways in which it can act as a barrier stopping us from trying new things in adulthood due to the ways in which we are labelled, and label ourselves. I’m obviously going to be drawing from my own experience of running art classes in Bath and Bristol but  I believe that a lot of what I have to say is relevant to any class you might go to or any attempt you might make to change your life for the better.

 One memorable image from my t.v. watching childhood is the opening sequence of the 1960’s science fiction show The Time Tunnel, a kind of psychedlic plughole through which the two scientists Dr. Tony Newman and Dr. Doug Phillips spin, or pretend to spin badly at any rate, falling, falling, falling further still until they eventually land in some episode from past history, the bridge of the Titanic just before it hit the iceburg for example.

When people come along to my drawing and painting classes in Bristol and Bath it can be a bit like a personal kind of Time Tunnel where people fall, fall and further still into their 15 year old self which is probably the last time they picked up a pencil during a school art lesson.  I’m not saying it happens for everyone but I’ve been teaching long enough to be aware that it can be an issue.

I’ve heard some stories over the years that I’ve found pretty amazing, at least if you feel that people deserve to be a little bit nutured in a creative learning enviroment.  One lady in her forties told me of the time she collected her picture from her art teacher after it had been marked and asked why it had a big R in the corner? “That’s R for Rubbish!” the teacher told her. On other occassions I’ve heard of people being banned from the art room for not being able to draw a giraffe or some other animal properly.  Many people’s experience tends to be that they would like to have been taught some art but because they were never given the attention that more gifted members of the class were they just sunk into apathy, thinking that they were obviously no good at this.  Even if the criticism is quite mild because it comes from a teacher who is,let’s face it, in loco parentis (sometimes just plain loco) it’s very easy for it to get swallowed whole.  Sometimes people are told they’re useless and it comes as a kind of relief to them because it means they can take the whole area of art, put it in a box and forget about it. My sister-in-law Debbie likes to tell me how Bruce Foxton from The Jam’s brother used to teach her art at school.  “You’re never going to be any good at art, Debbie” he used to say and to be honest I don’t think she’s remotely bothered.  What is true though is that for a lot of people looking back on it it can be genuinely quite painful.

But you know something?  That was a long time ago.  Painting and Drawing in the conventional sense can be a complicated thing to teach kids.  It involves the ability to realise that there is a difference between the way we look at things normally, and the way we look at things when we try to copy something. You need patience, not neccessarily in huge amounts but it is helpful and that’s certainly something that as an adult you are more like to have when you’re little.  When you’re a child painting or drawing a picture that your parents are going to praise you for, that’s perhaps even good enough to stick on the door of the refridgerator can be very, very important. But, come on!  You’re older now and you already have things that you’re good at.  If you don’t produce something really fantastic in one lesson it’s not going to kill anybody! As long as you’ve learnt something useful about the process and produced something that’s a bit better than what you did last time then you are approaching your goal.

Before I continue I’d like to say that not everyone will be a Rembrandt. I also don’t believe in giving out praise for every little thing in a bland obvious kind of way.  I do think though that people should always give themselves a chance when doing anything new and be prepared for the fact that people’s abilities change with time and something that might have seemed almost impossible as a child might just be possible as you get older.

Certainly where art is concerned in my experience of running art classes it’s possible for an awful lot of people who wouldn’t consider themselves gifted to learn how to draw pretty well.  Painting takes a little more time but providing you don’t set yourself the task of creating a medieval altarpiece in two or three weeks it’s possible to have fun, and acheive in that area also. You may decide that drawing is something that’s not you’re thing but if you want to experiment with colour then there is a whole range of mixed media and abstract techniques out there to inspire you.  If you are prepared to give it a go there is a type of art out there that’s for you. 

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