9. Sep, 2015

Getting Arty with the WI

I don't, as a rule, teach art.  I have a number of reasons for this, mainly that I don't feel I am accomplished enough to be able to and I find it hard to break down what I do in to words sometimes to be able to explain how others should do it.  

I remember when I was at school and I was constantly being told to paint a certain way or draw a certain way and if I dared to step outside of the curriculum I was told I was no good.  So, teaching art for me is quite difficult, as I don't want to limit what another can create, even if it's not like what I do.  It was a tough dilemma to get the right balance of teaching someone something they would find useful, but also allowing them to find their own way and style and be individual.  

As some of you know, we live where my husband works, on an activity centre in the middle of the woods.  The Rotherfield WI (Women's Institute for those not in the know) were coming to do some of the activities on offer, such as air rifle shooting and archery (don't worry, we made sure there were no other people around who may have been injured!).  There were a few in the group who are also very interested in art and wanted to do a workshop with me on drawing and sketching. 

Knowing some of the group also attend an art class in Rotherfield did not fill me with confidence that I would be able to teach them anything new, but I gave it my best shot.  With pencils and sketch pads in hand, they eagerly followed me out to a little clearing with benches, we like to call 'Squirrel Lawn'.  The great british weather played its part, as usual, and the sunny day I was hoping for had not yet made an appearance, as it was cloudy and really rather chilly to boot, but in typical british style, we braved it anyway.  

I had brought along a few things, the first of which was three different types of paper.  I wanted to show them how important paper is when starting a drawing.  I made them run their hands over the water colour paper I had and explained that by using this paper you get a rough looking drawing, great for moody sea or craggy rocks. The second was the bog standard cartridge paper and third was Bristol Board Airbrush paper, my new favourite thing!  This third type of paper is one of the smoothest, with barely any tooth to it and can allow you to produce a very smooth clear drawing.  It's also heavyweight, which means no matter how much rubbing out you do, it won't get holes in it.  They were shocked at the difference in paper and wrote everything down.  

I then handed out some view finders.  This was to help them find something they felt inspired to draw and is a great trick if you happen to be out with your sketch pad.  Then came crunch time, they had to start drawing.  I gave them some leaves and told them not to draw any lines.  In this exercise I wanted them to only draw any shadows they saw, not an easy task given the lack of sunshine!  They did struggle and half way through I felt like I had been a bit cruel by making them do this, but I wanted to show them that drawing in graphite is not necessarily all about lines.  The light and the shade are just as important and you can actually produce a really good effect by just drawing the shadows, without any lines at all.  They found it hard because they had not yet trained their eyes to look at things in that way.  

When I look at people, animals, objects, I see a collection of shapes, a collection of shadows and highlights.  The ladies I was teaching, told me when they see things they see the outline, in terms of drawing.  Having an outline is useful, it helps to place the composition on the page so you can ensure you have enough room to fit the whole thing in, or so its not lopsided.  It also helps to get proportions right and with perspective, but in the finished piece, usually you don't want peoples eye drawn to the outline, you want them drawn to the object, person, animal itself.  In order to do that the lights and darks are essential and probably the most important aspect of graphite drawing.  I showed the ladies my elephant drawing, Watoto (see the picture with this blog).  This is a great example of where light and shade make the drawing and there barely any outlines at all.  

Their confidence was knocked a bit by this exercise, so we chatted about why they thought they found it so hard and why they muttered comments such as, 'I can't do this'.  We came to the conclusion that it was all down to confidence and the feeling of needing to get it done, so they can get on with other jobs they had to do.  The latter, a very common problem in my house!

As they had their sketch pads with them, I asked to see what else they had drawn before coming to the workshop.  One lady showed me some of her drawings (after a lot of coaxing!), and they were fantastic.  So I chose one of her bird drawings and showed her how to develop the drawing, by adding darker shading, using a number of different grades of pencil and gradually building up the layers and putting in more detail.  

It's about not being afraid to start a drawing and then walk away from it for a while.  It's about having patience, with yourself and the process of creating a picture and the confidence to rub out anything you think doesn't look quite right and readjusting it until it does.  I explained that it was ok to start a drawing and then go back to it a few days later and keep working on it.  They didn't have to get a picture finished within an hour, they could just do 5 minutes on it every day.  It's about not allowing those negative thoughts to enter your inside voice.  It's not that you 'can't do it', it's that you need to adjust it slightly, or work on it for a bit longer or add another layer to it.  

This built up their confidence again and they were raring to go.  After lunch we made a start on another exercise, deceiving the eye.  I showed the ladies a drawing I had done when at art college at the age of 18.  It was a scene from a similar activity centre to the one I live on and had bushes, trees, a bench and a bin.  I wanted to show them how I had created the effect of the bushes and trees having leaves all over them, without drawing every single leaf.  'It's just a bunch of scribbles' I said, 'scribble upon scribble, in different grades of pencil'.  I told them to let it go, scribble away, use their whole arm.  It was quite liberating I think!

They went away with smiles on their faces and I am told, one was a completely new woman after our little chat.  So having felt nervous about not really being able to teach anything they didn't already know, I may have just done enough to keep them drawing and feeling confident in doing so and that is good enough for me.  🙂