Day in the Life

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This is an experiment with documentary photography. A photo taken every half hour in monochrome using a Canon 1200D with 50mm lens is an exhibition of the mundane as well an exploration of composition. I set this as homework for my Y10 GCSE Photography group with a couple of revisions. Firstly, they could use whatever was at hand to take their images (phones, iPads as well as any kind of camera). Secondly, if every half hour wasn’t a realistic preposition, then take 28 images throughout the day.

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Here’s my documentary photo-shoot WAGOLL representing my Monday ‘Day in the Life’   It is quite a challenging task! My day consisted of mainly having the MOT for my car and wandering around our local town centre. I could have contrived something far more interesting, such as a walking trip to the Peak District…

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As an alternative documentary project my Wednesday ‘Day in the Life’ This was created using a mixture of Canon 1200D with 18-55mm kit lens and an iPhone for panoramas.

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Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.

The mini-project can work as a one-off or the launching point to a more extended piece of work. I found these great tips for documentary photo projects:

  • Documentary means as it happens, naturally in an environment
  • To capture a person’s essence, their real personality
  • Record details and scene settings
  • To think ‘big picture’, take shots for the process and expansion of an idea
  • To create a story with images, leave a legacy of a moment in time.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the students have responded to the task and any exciting or unusual responses may have developed from the challenge.




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Any art teachers involved in the teaching of the new 1-9 GCSE Art & Design will know there is a new emphasis on drawing in all it’s forms. That includes in the Photography endorsement. The implication for this ‘new emphasis’ is that drawing was a measure of rigour. I know some ebacc orientated school leaders who think that art is ‘an easy subject’ (it’s not, despite some schools achieving 100% pass rates recently) and they find it difficult to judge levels of craftsmanship (“These GCSE paintings are ALL great, give ’em a grade A*!” declared one while I reassured him there was a full range of grades on display). Drawing is often the means that art teachers use to acquire levels of craftsmanship appropriate to the quality of ideas expressed and the student’s confidence in their chosen media. On Radio 4 recently, an interview with illustrator, Stanley Chow was preceded by an introduction along the lines of Chow uses computers, ergo, artists don’t need to have drawing skills. This was corrected by Chow during the article who recognised the importance of digital media to his style of illustration but said that budding artists should learn traditional media first.

To encourage and develop drawing skills as appropriate to the new GCSE, we went back to drawing from primary source material and the ubiquitous soda or soft drink can.

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These Year 9 student examples (13 year olds) used the direct experience of the soft drink can as a man-made form with a malleable aspect; the can be drawn as a cylinder and then dented, ripped and torn to change the form. Surface as well as typography/graphics on the can are also an interesting feature. For this task we used oil pastels in order to effectively blend colour and achieve shiny, metallic surfaces. These were selected for use independently but could also be intriguing as a contrast to a natural form or grouped with other reference materials to develop and idea or concept. My idea for the project is to explore the theme of the polluted shoreline by contrasting seaweed, sea shells, rope, plastic toys and fast food packaging. Other conceptual approaches could include:

  • Light and reflection
  • Decay
  • Distortion
  • Colour range
  • Patterns and relationships
  • Metamorphosis.

My next step is to introduce natural forms and explore colour. I have a selection of stones rocks and sea shells but also sheep skulls (some children have difficulty understanding what these are and if they do, some often ask if they are real). I could look toward a variety of natural objects of similar colours to develop understanding of the basic properties of one colour (a selection of plants for example). Drawing shouldn’t be used as the measure of academic rigour and achievement in our subject but rather the means to acquire craftsmanship and confidence in drawing media and a launching position in which to project oneself with our own ideas.


Art lesson resource: Film Noir Photos


Here is  a recent project I have completed with Year 9 GCSE Photography students based on the theme of Film Noir imagery. Developed from a project created many years ago for the NCFE level 2 course, there are a few essentials needed but basically it is about interpretation of the visual style. The examples presented here were all produced this half term by the students working in teams of 4 or 3 (there are 27 in my class).

What you will need:

  • Ideally DSLR cameras but use what you can
  • Photo editing software, ie. Photoshop
  • Battery torches – even cheap £1 LED ones work well
  • A studio light would be great
  • Black sugar paper and masking tape
  • Costume props: police-style caps, Macintosh coats, long gloves
  • Props: plastic handguns (must be relevant style to 1940s USA), plastic Tommy guns, plastic handcuffs and/or police badges.



As a starting point we looked at clips from some of the best Noir movies of the ’40s. We used collaborative team methods to identify the key elements common to each of the examples (lighting techniques, good guys, dubious gals, the femme fatale etc). We also looked out for common costume, make-up and hair as well as props. Students went from there to research contemporary artists (and movies) that employ some of the iconography of the 1940s Noir. The mood board above shows that a student has identified Noir ideas in the work of Vandervell and Carr.


Usually in a photography project, I will start students with idea research to get visual prompts for the imagery they will go on to experiment with and develop in their own way. However, the Noir style is quite intuitive once you have the props. It is surprising how many members of staff had a classic Macintosh coat hiding (probably hardly worn) in a cupboard and I sourced three. The handgun props I found at Poundland and even got a Police Set that included a badge and cuffs. Tommy guns were trickier; eventually I got some made in Hong Kong in bright blue and orange that took an age to arrive in the UK; cost just £5 each including p&p. Trilby hats and police-style caps we had in school already from drama performances.

So session one included the smaller teams of 4 wearing/using props in a drama studio and basically improv acting, more accurately ‘acting up’! Cameras were gradually introduced to the teams who were starting to get it. These were photography students after all and didn’t want to be the ‘models’.

After a review of the first shoot, students identified what did or didn’t work the first time. Here we introduced lighting effects. Bringing in their own family torches (and the odd Pringle tube*), we blocked out all the natural light in the studio to get a more developed contrast in tone. Using our two studio lights too and lots of black sugar paper also helped create more abstract tone shapes.

*Empty Pringles tubes with a torch gaffer/duct taped to one end make a makeshift snoot or mini spot-light.

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Sample contact sheet

Contact sheets of the second shoot were compared to inspiration and to a checklist of creative studio techniques. What was missing? How could we develop further using adjustments to light meters, aperture, ISO etc.? What can be done in post-production to create a Noir look and feel?

An in-depth analysis of the projection room sequence from Citizen Kane (1945) helped us to understand how important a range of grey tones can be in obscuring detail. How could we do this without a smoke machine? This informed our next two studio shoots before post-production editing.


To help develop the Noir style, students used monochrome, spot colour, curve/level adjustments, fog layers and when a neutral back drop had been used, replaced backgrounds. The editing and refining aspect took a number of lessons to get right.

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Specific skills lessons were undertaken on picture planes (creating depth), cutting out around hair and rendering lighting and clouds.

Kids’ Feedback

“Best project so far; really enjoyed the studio sessions especially dressing’ up”

“Made me use my imagination”

“I can’t draw so this is my most creative piece of work as I could imagine being a character in an old film”

“I liked using the lights to make a Noir scene. Not using Photoshop all the time”


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Art lesson resource: Graffiti 3D Bottles

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This project extends the urban art project that I do with year 8 students. Instead of completing large scale cardboard ‘walls’ for their graffiti work, this expires smaller scale 3d ideas.

Like all good art projects, always start with a basis in skill development and drawing; typography and lettering are explored as well as hip-hop/graffiti styles.


Next step was to do a bit of research into SeakOne’s graffiti. Much of his recent work sees the individual characters living within each typographic form. Insect-like robots mimic the shapes of roman letters usually in industrial colour schemes.

SeakOne has recently begun to produce 3d models of these letter-creatures and this is forms our main inspiration for graffiti bottles.


Students need to bring a plastic bottle of their choice; mainly water or pop bottles with some 1 litre style shapes occasionally too.

Either on a piece of paper or directly on the side of the bottle, create the creature letters and build up using paper-mache. This is a bit messy of course! When working on separate paper, this needs to be formed on to the bottle, filling in any spaces as the glue mixture dries.

Finally, use acrylic paints to add bright colours, blends, details and outlines. I asked students to leave the cap un-covered so that the bottle could retain functionality.

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Using elements of urban art style such as primary colours, outlines and even ‘dotty’ textures adds an extra element of skill and is quite manageable for Year 8s. The personalisation aspect meant that students really wanted their own bottle at the complete stage not just as a sculpture but a trendy water-retainer!

Recording art demos

Do you find yourself repeating demonstrations of art techniques? I keep my most recent art sketchbooks in school as a reference to show the kids that I have also ‘had a go’ at whatever I set them. However, this is not the same as seeing a work in progress. I am reminded of the video of Picasso painting on glass:

Seeing the artist at work often can give more hints and tips to resolving art problems than merely the finished piece. With our abundant availability of tech these days, it isn’t too hard to create a mini-video to share as a ‘what a good one looks like’. The popcorn task above was filmed with an iPhone in my left hand. Ok, so I added some music after but this isn’t so hard these days especially on a tablet. My advice is: record it, upload it. preferably to YouTube so that they can review it at home (review, rewind and pause).


Right there


“That’s where your painting is, son. Right there.” The Rebel (1961)

One of my favourite art quotes and something I find myself repeating to students in response to their extraordinary talent. The movie is the story of an office clerk, played by satirist Tony Hancock, who believes himself to be a great but undiscovered artist. When he’s fired from his job he moves to Paris, in the hope that the art world will recognise him for the genius he is. Of course, being Hancock, he’s a terrible painter, but his ability to act like a genius persuades a group of fashionable young artists that he might be the real deal.

The sublime technical achievement in art sometimes even happens with young students doesn’t it? I don’t know maybe it’s a correct planetary alignment or something every now and again, but the use of technique in painting, sculpture, photography or whatever and suddenly everything goes right for them. I find myself quoting Tony Hancock from the film The Rebel: “That is where your painting is, son. Right there.” Students don’t often get the reference so I explain how their technique has been handled well; consistent and to help develop their skills through repetition and knowing why they are doing it.

I suppose this could be an aspect of metacognition; whether you understand why things work well and how they can be used again. Not just a happy accident – so that’s where your painting is there helps me explore the creative process of ‘understanding why’ doing something and how it was achieved rather than just luck or skill. I tend to get into exploring processes and getting students to write sentences on the back of their work or next to their ideas to connect to another area. It just depends really on what they’re producing; sketchbooks are a great way to make references and understanding notes of why something is working well.  For teacher assessment I always use a post-it note or slip of paper or what we call bookmarks. Bookmarks for assessment that we’ve shared through Twitter are great for peer and self review, especially at key stage four and I would like to develop something similar between myself and my colleague for key stage three too.  In this way, when we are not interfering with the flow of the creative process we are adding to it through a few more teacher pointers. After all, it is to help them to develop their skill even if they are newly found members of the Infantile School or Shapist movement.

*In this example, the sublime use of black gloss paint really makes the image in my opinion. Apparently, the artist applied this paint with the flick of some swinging fairy lights.


Art lesson resource: Mandala ‘pizza’


Here is a great GCSE project idea suitable for developing a theme in terms of differentiation and widening the scope of tired secondary source images. This pattern making painting activity takes about 8 weeks (three hours per week) with Year 9 GCSE students and slightly longer with a one year group when they main part has been delivered in 7 weeks or half a term and students finish at home.



Circular designs exist in all sorts of global contexts and can be used as sources of inspiration for this project. As my starting point was based on observational drawings from natural forms, I introduced elements of pattern using MC Escher, Islamic tiles and Damien Hirst’s butterfly work. Only as the process became more apparent to students did  I show a YouTube time-lapse video of a Tibetan sand-painting and links to my Pinterest page. Other inspiration (not mandalas as such) came from artists, Vincent Scarpace and Jim Dine.

What you will need:

  • Metre rulers
  • Transparency or tracing paper
  • Acrylic or gouache paint
  • Thick card or grey board
  • Craft /x-acto knife
  • PVA glue
  • Tissue paper for papier-mâché


The starting point for this is observational drawing but through the use of secondary source material start to explain how abstraction works and why individual artists produce images of such varied style.

Focussing on formal elements and ways to simplify patterns, students explored both manufactured and natural shapes producing an A3 study sheet of each.

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Based on an approximate 45° triangle, students used tessellation and symmetry to produce a mandala section (known by some students as a ‘pizza slice’). After refinement and colour experiments (restricted to 3 harmonising and one complementary) the mandala section is traced and then transferred to A2 grey board. Students make the decision to flip the image (or not) in order to create a circular design. Acrylic paint works very well but gouache is a lot more precise. My older students, working at home, preferred to add colour blends using gouache.

An additional idea is to bas-relief 3D shapes into the design or add cardboard relief structures. This is purely a differentiation based on skills and speed of working; painting alone is a time-consuming affair, however, some students may choose to work quickly.

Kids’ feedback

“An amazing outcome! It looks really complicated from a short distance but wasn’t too hard to do.”

“I think I got an idea as to how textile patterns and wallpapers were designed before computers.”

“Takes too long. I’m impatient! Looks good though so I will finish eventually.”

“I love my design! Drawing it out was repetitive but now I’m adding gradient paint tones I’m in love with it again!”

I have a handful of completed designs already and will post some on here after GCSE moderation. Please let me know how you use this #mandalaproject idea via my Twitter: @damoward.