Drawing matters: Devils in the detail

Year 12 art students have recently been developing self-portraits, but not with any highfalutin conceptual, abstract or expressive concerns; perish the thought in these sombre times. Nope, they began with a straightforward drawing task (copying, even). The plan was to exorcise some of those ‘I can’t draw’ demons that still seemed to be lurking. I thought that by confronting this ‘crisis period’ head on it might subsequently free up some looser approaches.  However, I’m not sure it’s worked out that way.

And frankly, I blame Mo, our Year 13 Art prefect.

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drawing of Dylan by Year 13 student Mo (in progress)

Mo’s drawing – even more than his battery-powered eraser – has been a continual source of fascination: “You drew that?! Really?! I don’t believe it!” Said every visitor ever.

But it’s true, he did. Box by painstaking box. Not bad eh?

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Mo is a great example to Year 12 students for all sorts of reasons, not least his patience, persistence, and highly sensitive observational skills. Relevant too – and not to be underestimated here – is that he knows the right tools for the job, and invests in these before beginning. He’s a top student with many strengths. 

And so, what with all the fascination, Mo shared his secrets to Year 12 students and invited them to have a go…

It’s a side-step I wouldn’t have taken on the old AS level: As a lesson in drawing for a class (rather than an informed personal decision, a la Mo), this Chuck Close/photo-realist style copying is an exercise I’ve tended to avoid. But in the context of our journey (our 3 simultaneous lines of enquiry, with TC#4 looming) it seemed an appropriate stop, if only to emphasise the difference between a HB and a 4B.

I was intrigued by the variety of responses. When offered the same recipe, students don’t necessarily bake the same cake. Some outcomes have become more stylised, with subtle differences in technique emerging; other examples demonstrate wavering attention spans and compromised decisions, even before (the wrong kind of) pencil has touched paper.

So how useful is this activity for a class? I’m still not sure, as much as I’m delighted with the efforts of this group. I can’t help but think there are more liberating ways to develop drawing skills. But that said, student feedback has been nearly all positive: 19 out of 20 of these cats said the task was very beneficial – building confidence, improving observation, developing control, and so on. Given the choice many would be keen to pursue more of the same.

Here are a few questions that I’ve kicked about:

  • Is this a useful technical exercise? – understanding of tools; tonal sensitivities; measuring, observing, translating etc.?
  • Does this exercise develop concentration and persistence?
  • Does this exercise improve drawing skills? Does it build confidence with drawing?
  • If a student sources their own specialist materials, do they then invest more time and effort in the work?
  • Do students care about this type of drawing?
  • In the context of our Threshold Concept work (and TC#4, our current concern) do students consider this kind of drawing more ‘traditional’?

As a next stage, the class have now turned their attention to portrait painting, this time from direct observation. It’s a more complex task – I asked them earlier and they agreed – and certainly not without its own fears and apprehensions. I’ve written before about our approach to this, but am delighted again with the progress being made. I’ll share examples soon.

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Do you have any thoughts on such drawing matters? Please feel free to contribute via the comment boxes below.

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