Light Subject

pexels-photo
CC Zukiman Mohamad

In the past week I have had two students complain about the comparative difficulty of their photography courses and that it wasn’t supposed to be challenging; it was their ‘light’ subject.

One is in the third week of their AS Photography at Post 16, so maybe we can put it down to early realisation or that a fourth AS isn’t necessary. Her three other A levels might be the priority but she said she didn’t realise there would be so much work involved and that it would be so demanding of her ‘free’ time. This is an A level, not an evening class!

The second student is in the second year of her GCSE, not a case of ill-informed choice but well into the course. “You never said it was going to be so hard!” We have just 4 months to complete our coursework, now she realises how difficult it s to get to the ‘good’ grades. It was always rigorous, tricky, time-consuming, intellectually and creatively challenging. This hasn’t been an overnight change of some kind.

Photography courses aren’t an easy option. Really. Familiarity with taking images (snaps) is being confused with the artistry, creative process, refinement and competence of the photographic art. So why has this misconception taken hold?

Okay, I’ll agree that A level maths/physics and chemistry require an intellectual understanding beyond that of practical subjects and that some students are best-placed to study them than others. Other subjects require different skills, interests and ability but are ‘difficult’ in their own unique ways. Part of the problem comes from a Russell Group of Universities guide that confirms that certain courses are regarded more highly by universities than others.

According to the guide, “softer” options include media studies, art and design, photography and business studies while traditional and mostly scientific subjects are seen as more academically rigorous. Those not studying at least two of the “hard” subjects – maths, English, geography, history, the pure sciences and classical or modern foreign languages – will find that “many degrees at competitive universities will not be open” to them, it says. The guide suggests pupils taking less traditional subjects may be “trying to avoid a challenge”, adding that if pupils study more than one “soft/light” subject, “some caution may be needed.”

Similarly and anecdotally, at parent’s evenings when GCSE option choices are being discussed, I frequently hear comments like: “Oh, you could do photography. It will be a more relaxing subject when you need a rest from the really hard ones.” Different and no less involving I would argue in these days where e-baccalaureate is causing division between the perception of academic and practical GCSEs. Besides, there are 77 UK universities offering a whopping 201 graduate degrees studying photography and surely the journey to complete such a light subject has value there.


 

Further:

Russell Group Guide; “Informed Choices” 2011

Education Datalab; “Which are the most difficult GCSEs?” 2016

The Guardian; “A level choices: which subjects should you pick?” 2013

 

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Developing Photography students

This post is a reflection on how recent technology has seemed to have impacted on photography students at key stage 4 or Post-16. My thoughts centre on ease-of-use, quality and ‘quick fix’ or shortcuts.

My photography teaching started in the mid-1990s; these were pre-consumer digital camera days so it was essential to have a darkroom and chemicals and rely on a bit of hit-and-miss in terms of quality. I had a GNVQ Intermediate group (level 2 GCSE equivalent) who were largely left unsupervised in the classroom as I disappeared into the cupboard (converted darkroom) with three others of the class. This would be a safeguarding issue today but much more shocking derelictions of duty took place in those days. Without a technician, every step had to be watched, managed and dealt with; fainting kids (hot in there in Summer), smelly chemicals and dripping papers… My point is, this was a kind of alchemy, a complete mystery to all but a few who may have read the book in the library. With the time allowed and cost of materials, the students could only hope to produce something… something for portfolio to evidence they had a go until they made it to college and could explore further.

Casio digital camera 1995
Casio QV-10

Next stage, late 1990s, was the first affordable Casio and Kodak digital cameras. Our first one was a Casio QV10 from Dixons with a tiny 1.8″ screen and I think a 1/4 megapixel sensor. It saved to internal memory and cost an arm and a leg but revolutionised the idea of quick capture for developing art work. Not a truly photographic tool, unless you compared it to a pinhole camera.

My next step was to focus on Photoshop. Any crappy image could be post-produced and our usual ragtag of inept camera output could be cropped, liquified and gaussian-blurred without exception. I didn’t know anyone who owned a DSLR at this stage.

Nikon DSLR
Nikon D40

Around the mid-2000s a slew of 6mp DSLRs became very affordable for a select group of Post-16 students. The impact was incredible; these were the first quality to compare with analogue means of production. The interface was simple, meaningful settings (compared with SLR) and no reliance on pre-built in filters and ‘features’ (yack). At last, we could viably run a digital darkroom! My school at the time got so excited they bought green gloss paint for the skirting boards and matching green plastic chairs! Classroom of the future or what?! With Post-16 funding being what it was at the time, my class of 22 students enabled me to buy 15 Nikon D40 kits.

iPhone 8 screen
iPhone 8 Studio lighting mode

In the last few years the technology has been miniaturised to fit in smartphones and tablets/iPads. Without the controls, settings and understanding but with an incredible ease-of-use. There are apps that simulate SLR use (VSCO or Manual for instance) but there isn’t the thrill of getting it wrong like on a real camera. The point here is, they are easy to use and have great quality output and with apps like Snapseed, superb end-user quick fixes that you don’t need Photoshop for. But because they skim the surface of the subject, the user has no real understanding of either the technical reasons or the aesthetics of their photography. You see it all the time on Instagram – ‘pretty’ snaps, devoid of cognitive depth. Otherwise there is a proliferation of shitpics. I am not just being snobby about it here! I have recently had students say they prefer to use their phones for assignments as they are more reliable than a DSLR camera. Why take the risk of it not going to plan? This is emphatically the case for portrait mode on iPhone 7+ and on the latest models (iPhone 8 and X), portrait lighting mode (currently Beta). We seem to have gone back a leap in photography terms. I am not dissing the photographic quality; just the usefulness – the phone camera is merely a quick capture tool in the hands of the students albeit with exceptional results. The photographic process is not being explored or learned and the photographer reduced to an idiot-savant¹.


¹ Defintion at http://www.dictionary.com/browse/idiot-savant.

Art lesson resource: Candy skull lino printing

At this time of year, we tend to roll our timetable forward so that students can begin their GCSE art and design classes before the Summer break. For us, this is Year 8 into 9 (12 to 13 year olds) who may lack maturity and sometimes skills. My new classes are keen as this is their option choice but need to be engaged by skills, topics and presentation. For this purpose I pick something that they find slightly familiar; Day of the Dead candy skulls (calavera).

What you will need

  • Linoleum tiles cut to A6
  • Day of the Dead resource sheets
  • Lino cutting tools (v and u shaped blades)
  • Water-based printing ink
  • Ink rollers
  • String and washing pegs – to provide a drying line for prints

Inspiration

Dia de muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican cultural festival that takes place over three days from October 31st to November 2nd. Although essentially linked to Halloween and gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, there are links to much older traditions such as the Aztec festival for goddess, Mictecacihuatl.

day of the dead skulls
Mexicana: calavera skulls

Day of the Dead family

Decorative skulls (calavera) are a symbol used during the festival applied to decorative or edible skulls made from either sugar or clay which are used in the Mexican celebration or even face paints for party-goers! As an inspiration for print-makers, they provide a cultural reference point from which to explore symmetry, shape, pattern and texture.

© damoward 2017
Artists’ examples

Method

I get students to draw from examples of calavera, concentrating on symmetry and pattern. Once they understand common motifs, they can begin to produce their own designs. A double-page spread in a sketchbook can show research and presentation skills – this forms my home learning tasks and a deeper understanding of looking into other/unfamiliar cultures. I think this idea was magpied from @LeedsArtTeacher on Twitter as she found it an engaging theme for Year 9.

The video at the top of the post help the students understand the Lino printing process from sketch to mono print.

Resources such as this image help the artists achieve a variety of textures and they are asked to explore at least two blades for cutting details.

Finally, reviewing progress against a simple ladder of achievement (below) can help move ideas and details forward.

© damoward 2017

A single colour mono print can be a starting point for further exploration of lino printing, experiments with other media on top of dry prints or gradient effects with wet ink rolling. Final prints can be used as part of the double-page spread presentation or as individual page presentations.


 

Art lesson resource: Split pin characters

Here is an extended task to go with the animation project we normally do with Year 7. This is actually suitable (with adaptation) for Year 5 or 6. Some of this is fairly straight forward but does require some technical know-how. I will include an example character resource below.

What you will need

  • Cereal boxes or thin white card
  • Scissors
  • Choice of colour technique; paint, felt tips etc.
  • Split pins (essential)
  • Green cloth
  • Camera
  • Computer to create final cartoon

Inspiration

Still image from Ivor the Engine

To accompany the many types and methods of animation, it is worth showing students Oliver Postgate’s work, especially Ivor the Engine.

The story behind the artist and Smallfilms:

Method

There are many templates for split pin characters (here is a split pin model free resource), however, for Year 7 we like to get students to develop their own ideas in a sketchbook. These can be story related or based on characters by Sjors Vervoort like ours. Here you can see development of my example character; a cheeky fox.

IMG_2102IMG_2103

Next transfer the character outline to card (use thin card like cardboard cereal boxes as easier to cut with scissors). Use an appropriate method to add colour but remember to separate arms, legs and head or any moveable parts!

IMG_2104IMG_2105IMG_2106

Cut out each part carefully. Make a pilot hole using a compass at each split pin position. Attach the split pin carefully. As you can see from the example, I painted the tops of each split pin to match the background colour.

IMG_2107

Photograph against your green cloth in a well lit room. Change positions of limbs etc to suggest movement in each frame/photo. Transfer the set of images into the movie editor of your choice or use an app like Doink on iOS.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 09.59.21

I used iMovie and followed this simple green screen tutorial. I have added a bit of music and sound effects just for fun but this is only supposed to be a screen test. The real fun is getting the students to make their own!

 


 

Art lesson resource: Alice illustrated

Here is a popular project we do with Year 8 toward the end of our key stage 3 as they opt for GCSE choices (we do GCSE in y9 and 10). It has developed from a drawing and painting project into a mixed-media compositional approach as we felt it best readied students going on to GCSE or brought up motivation and skills for whom it was the end of their art studies. Although we have chosen Alice in Wonderland as the inspiration, it could actually be anything that students are aware of from literature, movies or other popular culture. The examples used here are either current or go back over the last 3 years.

What you will need

  • Card; we save cereal boxes for months prior to recycle but you will also need some more robust cardboard too
  • Scissors or x-acto knives for the brave
  • Newspapers or old books
  • PVA glue and yoghurt pots
  • Black Berol fine-liners/sharpies or similar
  • Either cheap acrylic paint or watercolour sets and ready mix white. If you can afford gouache for ks3 then this would be better.

Inspiration

Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland is as relevant a story today as 1865 due to the wonderful interpretations by artists and film makers based on Caroll’s imaginative prose. Many students have seen the Disney animation or more recent Tim Burton movie (2010). They are less aware of the Jan Švankmajer movie (1988), the Sony PS3 game or too numerous to mention book illustrations. Those ‘class experts’ can still be amazed by at least 10 things they didn’t know about Alice in Wonderland! The point is to look beyond Disney’s characters and even the original Tenniel illustrations.

Alice book illustration by Kay
Gertrude Kay
Alice book illustration by Steadman
Ralph Steadman

Method

We like to start with drawing and water colour studies; focus on symmetry based on secondary source images. Initially, we use bugs, butterflies and creatures then move on to fungi and flowers. Using Austin’s Butterfly as a reminder of critique and resilience, we try to create a tessellation of studies across a double-page spread in the students’ sketchbook.

sketchbook page
Student’s studies

This is a great opportunity to introduce other media; in the above example there is a study using black felt tip and a watercolour/wax resist attempt. Notice how newspapers/old books are used to ‘patch in’ around studies to become aware of negative space?

Next, we begin to plan how the elements of the illustration begin to place together as a scene in Wonderland. We use thin card and a base card of around 20cm x 20cm to try out different compositions. This is done as collaborative tasks and a trial and error approach – nothing is stuck down until the next stage.

We introduce four main Alice characters:

resource sheets
Resource sheets

These are copied back to back on A3 in colour. Some will try directly copying, others will be inspired to create their own version s based on common character motifs and some will use carbon paper or even cut out characters from the sheet depending on motor skills.

We use cardboard platforms to bring some elements forward in 3D (working on many levels so that the illustration has depth), papier-mâché to create 3D relief bugs, cups and top hats prior to painting.

White ready mix paint is relatively cheap and when mixed with watercolours a serviceable gouache effect is created. Students are encouraged to select their own materials including wax and ink. Despite the restricted base, students can cut into the profile edge or expand beyond it, breaking square format dimensions (difficult to show in the photos).

Students are encouraged to explain the part of the story they are illustrating or create their own descriptive writing.

This example shows work in progress, before Alice characters have been made.

Kids’ Feedback

“The best piece of art work I’ve done”

“This project allows me to use art materials in a different way; I can use stuff that I know I’m good at or try new stuff”

“I can compose an idea now”

“I’m rubbish at painting; I didn’t have to paint my Alice picture”.


Class sizes

C-ZSchlXgAA0q6_.jpg-large

It is most unusual for me to turn to Twitter for a poll to back me up in an argument at school. After all, we know Twitter is an echo chamber (in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition amongst peers), but I wanted a bit of proof to back up my assertion that most people don’t teach huge classes of art and design at GCSE. In almost 25 years of teaching, I have never had over 30 in a GCSE class and can remember the early 2000s as being a time when it was a Labour government policy to ‘keep class sizes small’. This was GCSE mind (15, 16 year olds) not KS3 (11-14 year olds) and not considered safe or manageable.

In the last few years though we have had the implementation of the e-baccalaureate in English schools; core subjects are arguably considered more important and the arts, sport and design technology. This hierarchy is considered to give more time to English language arts, mathematics, modern foreign languages and the sciences. We (the remaining subjects) fear the impact in the long term, however, short term issues are currently raising their heads. These are: budget cuts, option choices, staffing and class sizes. Obviously I will not divulge details about my own academy, but my experience is currently of a frozen budget, options are no longer called options but ‘guided pathways’, our staffing is not currently under review but there are only two of us for 1400 on role and a prospective class groupings of 29 and 32 next school year. We have not been ‘bashed’ by the ebacc so that students no longer are guided to the visual arts but as a third option subject, students look for a relief from the academic. Undoubtedly some of these 61 students have interest and ability in fine art and photography, but for some on the ‘pathway’ it seems like pure fantasy or convenience. Hence the poll above; is it becoming normal to have over 30? Manageable and even safe?

Apart from raising the issue with colleagues, I also hope to take the results from the poll as evidence to my senior team to try and elicit a cap at the mid-twenties. What is the optimum class size at GCSE? Are you expected to push for the 100% pass rate? Issues for us all to consider in the next few years.

 


 

Brings you to tears sometimes

tears
Image: (cc) flickr – Megyarsh

I’d like to think that, as an art teacher, sometimes a sense of catharsis develops in my classroom. We would all definitely encourage deep emotional involvement in the visual arts on a visit to a gallery or the theatre for example. Unusually though in the amount of emotional in-put from the average child in the class. More typically this is a ‘meh’ or ‘can’t be arsed/CBA’ attitude from 15 and 16 year olds. Although I have had a sabbatical from blogging for the past few months, I feel the need to reflect on one recent untypical occasion.

It would be great to report that my positive teaching methods induced a sense of joy (like Ben Connor with his Y5 class here, see I did my research). However, I am not about to journal an incidence of sadistic teaching where I deliberately made a student sob. No, this is a different example altogether and remains a positive in my view. In this instance, a GCSE art student was asking for extra work to complete over the Easter break, following our 10 hour art exam. This student has been particularly lazy over the last 18 months but performed very well under the pressure of the exam. Buoyed-up and confident, she wanted some expert guidance on achieving an A or A*. I gave her one of her sketchbooks that had been thoroughly marked; including an estimated grade and advice for improvement. Target grade: A. Current grade: C. “So how do I get an A then, sir?” Honesty is the best policy isn’t it? “It’s a bit late now” I said, “that was marked back in October, you could have worked on it quite a bit since then. Maybe if you follow the advice you could get it up to a C depending on how much work you can do in two weeks.” If the marking is fit for purpose… “And,” I added “you really should have followed the feedback 6 months ago, as you could have got an A if you had.”

Oops. No flannel. No bullshit. You just hadn’t worked your socks off when you should’ve.

The result was an hour and a half of tears (apparently carried on for the rest of the day too). Now don’t think I’m gloating about this; I chatted with her, made more comments for improvement, pointed out the positives in her work etc. Cold shouldered.

Now for the positive bit: she obviously thought “f*ck you”, snap-chatted (or whatever) her friends to whine about me, then set about getting the best possible grade she could. This unintentional bit of reverse psychology has created an art-monster who is determined to one-up me. Good for her! I really hope it all pays off (we cross-moderate so there will be three marking her work) and she genuinely works her butt off to get a grade she deserves.