Teaching art to kids (Some of my experiences)

The classes that I run are really intended for adults rather than kids but I do sometimes bend the rules a little and allow children and teenagers to attend.  (There’s not really much provision for talented children in Bristol and Bath, apparently)  What I usually do is get them to come along for a trial session and have a chat with their mum or dad afterwards before deciding to continue.  I’ve had quite a few home schooled kids in the area attending recently which was quite interesting for me as it’s something  that I didn’t really know much about.

In general I  find that one or two kids in the art class blend in quite well and gain from the experience of learning alongside adults but you do have to be careful if you’re a parent to make sure that your offspring aren’t too worn out from school. One over-enthusiastic parent insisted on taking his child to an after school martial arts club on the same evening as the art class.  No wonder he always looked so tired.   Once during a portrait drawing project he turned up late  so I found that I  had to quickly explain to him how to rough out the basic shapes by what’s called blocking in.  Blocking in is a way of working where you build up a kind of scaffolding using shapes like ovals and rectangles until you get the basic proportions established before going back over it again a second time and adding the details   “A bit like a robot?” he said. “That kind of thing” I said in return.  A little later on I could see he had drawn a beautiful lower body,  certainly much better than I could have done at his age but on the top was a fantastic robot head- including antenae and dials!  I know he could have just misunderstood what I was asking him to do but judging from the the wry expression on his face I think not!  I’d have loved to have kept the drawing.


More recollections of school…

I was recently talking to Helen, the secretary at Cairn’s rd Baptist church where I run an art class about experiences of art at school.  (I’ve already written at some length about this sort of thing in a previous post but this is such a classic example of the sort of wrongheaded and discouraging things that art teachers say at school that I though it merited a post in it’s own right.) Anyway Helen, aged 6 or 7 was drawing a picture of , I believe, a rose when the teacher held it up to the class and said “Class, this is an example of how not to do it”.  I was slack jawed with disbelief when I heard that one I can tell you.  At that age what on earth does it matter what it looks like and, anyway surely there’s a better way of doing it than holding it up in front of the whole class.   Inevitably after that Helen decided that she was “no good at art” and didn’t really  take any interest in the subject after that.


I was quite amused in the class this week by something somebody told me who used to teach hair dressing.  We were practising some colour mixing and I was showing how colours can cancel each other out when mixed together, depending on the proportions mixed.  Generally they need to be complementary pairs: red-green, blue-orange and yellow-violet.  Apparently it’s the same in hair dressing where too much of a copper tone can be corrected by adding ash colour.  I was discussing this with a group this morning and somebody told me how they’d had a haircut that had gone badly wrong where her hair had gone very yellow.  This had been corrected by adding a blue which horrified her initially but turned out to be just the thing needed to restore her hair to it’s proper colour.  I would have thought she would have ended up with green hair so it must’ve been an orangey tint and not a yellow one. (Complementary colours cancel each other out.) Unless there’s some weird magic in  hairdressing that I know little about…..

Second Painting Holiday


I’ve just returned from running my second painting holiday at Auribeau-sur-Siagne in the South of France.  I’ll be posting a little more about it in the coming days but while I’ve literally only been home for a few hours I thought it might be nice to put down a few impressions and observations while they’re still fresh in my mind.

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 Yet again, I was very lucky with the five people, Richard, Karen, Nick, Roberta and Barbara who came along.  They were all good fun and thoroughly entertaining company.  Quite a few times people remarked how hard I’d worked and whether spending five days with a group of people was a little full-on compared to running the usual two hour sessions that I hold in Bristol. By relaxing and being myself I felt able to give a certain amount of structured tuition but also allow people the freedom to take a break if they felt tired and answer peoples questions when required without feeling as if I was continually “on duty”.

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Unlike many painting holidays I had the advantage of knowing most of the group before hand so I had already taught people quite a few basics before the trip began.  As time goes on and I get more complete beginners coming along I may change things but for now it makes sense keeping things fairly informal.  As well as giving people the chance to paint I felt that it was important for some of the group members to look at a few art galleries and experience some different types of art. At home, it may be difficult or not something they would ordinarily do. So we all trooped up the Boulevard de Cimiez in Nice to see the Matisse and Chagall Museums but also made a trip to Mougins to see some of the galleries by local artists.  What a contrast! The big name galleries in Nice were fantastic but the art by the local artists was distinctly variable.  I really believe in all artistic expression as long as, of course it harms nobody else but people who come along to the beginners classes are often so very humble and self effacing that I thought it would be good to see a real spread of work from good to indifferent.  It’s important to have the right expectations when you visit some of these galleries.  Whether you visit the Matisse museum in Nice or the Picasso Museum in Antibes (closed at the moment but apparently reopening over Summer 2008) It’s important to bear in mind that the collections may not be as spectacular as they could be because both artist’s work is fairly widely dispersed.  The Matisse had some very choice items from the early part of his career including some of his early copies after Dutch masters and early life drawings even if there happens to be only one of his Nice period odalisques on display.  I’m still hoping to get to the Renoir museum at Cagnes-sur-Mer.  I know a fair bit about the artist and find the story of his last days painting from a wheel chair incredibly moving but, yet again, I’m led to believe that there aren’t many paintings by the man himself so if you went along expecting to see something along the lines of La Loge or The Boating Party you may well be disappointed.  I remember going to Giverney years ago to see Monet’s studio/house where they exhibited some large reproductions of the Waterlillies and, I seem to remember that weird monumental canvas of Turkeys which struck me as a little dumb considering the fact that there were dozens of perfectly good original Monet’s close enough by in Paris and that anyone who was doing the house and gardens would probably be doing the galleries also.

Like most of the museums in this country a lot of the museums have a no photography policy.(Except for the Chagall).  The Matisse Museum didn’t seem to have a comprehensive catalogue of images to buy which was a little frustrating as it makes it harder to share some of the images that are on view with you.


I love the old medieval parts of Auribeau and Mougins the best.  The streets are so narrow and the houses themselves were all very individual, probably very dark inside but undoubtedly very cool in Summer. I could easily imagine Gerard Depardieu running down the street dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac.   I’ve read much over the years concerning the “Hausmanisation” of Paris, the process where all the old medieval streets of Paris were cleared away to be replaced by the wide boulevards of that we know today.  Renoir particularly bemoaned it’s loss. I wonder after my trip if some of the streets we saw were a fair representation of the sorts of streets you could have seen in Paris once upon a time.  If so, it must have been an amazing city.

I’m currently organising another trip in July which is full but would like to get another one set up for later Summer 2008.  The price for five nights will be £200 b+b sharing or £300 for a room to yourself.  Obviously at this sort of price I’m not really trying to make a profit and at some point will need to charge more so if you live in the Bristol area and fancy a cheap painting holiday this might be a good opportunity.

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. 

Going to a Beginners Art Class? Should you buy cheap or expensive materials?


My Mother was a keen dress maker.  When she used to come up to visit me in Bristol we always used to have to make a pilgrimage to the John Lewis fabric department for her to stock up and I remember the momentary feeling of dread she used to describe cutting into a piece of fabric for the first time, a piece of fabric that may have cost the equivalent of a couple of hundred pounds in today’s money.  On the one hand you have to cut the material otherwise there will be no dress or coat, but on the other it’s a lot of money to waste if it all goes wrong. 

Many people feel the same way coming to an art class and would rather spend as little money as possible.  When you’re a beginner  you’re not going to want to commit a fortune to buying a lot of expensive artist’s quality watercolours, for example.

I’m not unsympathetic.  When I was a student I can remember buying a small set of gouache in the first year of my art foundation course.  I never used them because I was frightened of using them all up too quickly and having to buy some more.  In my second year I remember being given some pots of Ocaldo poster colour which I seem to remember being reasonably thick, almost like the System 3 or Galleria student quality acrylic that you can buy today.We were encouraged in class  to waterproof it  by adding P.V.A. (The white glue that school children use) and sand for texture.  It was probably the worst paint in the whole world but it was there in such quantities that I felt able to really let go and experiment.  These days I use better quality materials myself but as I provide all the materials for people who come to my beginners art class I still have to be on the lookout for bargains.

Artist’s quality materials can be prohibitively expensive when you’re starting out.  I  remember getting into a discussion in a life drawing class with someone a few years ago concerning watercolour brushes. I hadn’t done much watercolour at the time and didn’t really understand the importance of the different types of brushes and how much water that they carry.  Natural hairs, being hollow, will soak up more fluid than man made ones which is  why brushes made out of squirrel or sable are considered preferable to synthetic alternatives, basically you don’t keep having to dip your brush into your tray of paint. Sable is particularly prized because it keeps a very sharp point.  Now I was trying to struggle on using a small synthetic brush.  The person I was talking too picked up a watercolour brush from the table next to me. “This is what you want”, he said.   I looked at the brush.  It was big, obviously sable or a good quality squirrel  made in the French style and I knew enough to know that it was probably pricey.  “That probably cost a lot didn’t it?” “Oh yeah”, he said “£70-£80”. Now let’s get this straight, noone is going to spend that much money on a brush when they’re learning watercolour for the first time!! There are cheaper brushes made from pony hair that will cost approximately £3. You’ll have a bit of a job keeping a point but if you want to do a reasonably large background wash they’ll do and you won’t need to mortgage one of your children to buy it.  You could then buy a cheap fine brush for fine details.  Alternatively you could just paint smaller watercolours.

It can be equally dispiriting though to see how little people can be prepared to spend on materials.  For example  I brought in some exceedingly cheap watercolours for a project earlier on in the year.  They were just there as a way of providing a background colour on some watercolour paper to experiment with pastels, nothing special and they’d probably fade if you left them up in direct sunlight for a week or two but one or two people’s eyes really lit up when I said that 12 tubes had cost me only£1!  Having said that if you really can’t afford to spend any money cheap watercolours are probably the best option.  The colours in my £1 set of watercolours were agreeably strong and fine for practise purposes but as I’ve already hinted were probably dye based rather than pigment based and so would probably not be light-fast.  You may not think that would be a problem but I’ve seen posters of mine printed on standard (dye-based) ink in not very direct sunlight where after 3-4 months the red has almost faded completely. Always ask yourself, why are they this cheap? 

 Those little sets of tiny tubes of acrylics, watercolours and gouache which you can buy from bargain book stores are probably the worst option.   They may only cost £3.99 or less for twelve tubes but the colours will be chalky and dull and the consistency similar to watery household emulsion paint.  In fact you probably could get better results using house paint.  If nothing else white emulsion is a reasonable substitute for white acrylic and I’ve seen people get some fairly good results with those little sample pots of household paint that you can get from d.i.y.  stores.  It’s important to bear in mind though that emulsion paint is not made to last. Decorators paints are made to last on the basis that (apparently) most people paint their houses on average once every ten years.

In every paint there is a mixture of pigment, vehicle and filler.  The pigment is the colour which can be either cheap or expensive, lightfast or fugitive.  If you buy your paints from a name brand such as Winsor and Newton they will tell you what pigment you are using and it’s lightfastness rating, cheaper brands will not and will have vague descriptions on the tube rather than proper pigment names. (“French Ultramarine” is a proper pigment for example, “Ruby Red” on the other hand doesn’t really mean anything.) Cheaper paints will also have cheaper and/more filler or extender.  Student quality paints from a name brand will be cheap but nice enough to use.  You do really notice the difference when you use very cheap paint, however, such as the afforementioned bargain bookstore paint.

One thing I neglected to mention when talking about the Ocaldo poster colour I used for a while at art college.  One day I took the lid off of a pot of cobalt blue and found the paint surface was covered in mold!  If you mix your paint up with tap water rather than distilled water this can be an occupational hazard and is one of the reason’s why recognised brands of acrylic will contain an anti-fungicide.  This was a long time ago though and I wouldn’t like to say what ocaldo’s poster colour is like now but it’s another example of  things that can go wrong.  Also, beware of P.V.A. It’s a lot of fun but the cheap stuff that’s used for kid’s glue can go brittle with age!

I was having a conversation with Nick  who runs the art shop at Bristol Fine Art on Park Row.  His view is that whereas you do get people coming into the shop who will spend vast amounts of money there are also people who will come in having bought themselves very cheap sets of paint but are very disappointed because they can’t get the same colours mixtures as their class tutor.

If you have to buy materials companies such as Winsor and Newton, Daler Rowney, Liquitex and Golden will provide you with reasonable, student quality materials which will help to get you started but hopefully not cripple you financially at the same time.  Small tubes of Cotman watercolour will set you back slightly under £2 each, which is roughly the same price as a tube of System 3 Acrylic.   If you can stick to the primary colours, white and black in both cases you can keep the cost down to roughly £10.  I know that’s a lot if you don’t have it but it brings it down to a level comparable to what people tend to spend on a night out , a book or a d.v.d.  Chromacryl is not widely available in this country and  I wouldn’t use the cheaper student quality paints if I was going to paint anything to sell but they’re cheaper than System 3 and handle pretty well.  If you get into acrylic you can pretty much paint any thing and hardboard is a good cheap option.  There’s a hardware store close to where I live where you can buy off cuts of wood for  as little 10p!

As I’ve already said I provide the materials for my own classes but if you’re contemplating taking up painting or drawing as a hobby or going to a class where you have to buy your own materials don’t feel that you have to break the bank, but try and spend a reasonable amount of money and you’ll be glad of it.

Some Photos of the various beginners art classes


I’ve been busy taking photos of my various beginners art classes in preparation for the new term in January.  I’m going to use a few on the website but I thought it would be nice to post some here as well. They’re from the various Bristol and Bath venues.

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