Before everyone disappeared off indoors, when I was teaching real people rather than computer screens – back in 2019 – I was feeling proud enough of my students’ work to want to show it off to the rest of the school so we put up this display of paintings in time for the first week of term to welcome people back with a splash of colour packed, as marketing people might say, with vital energy. A year ago now – it seems an age away – although your time at college has always been like that, imagined in advance and viewed in retrospect. Facing three years, the prospect stretches ahead an infinately long way, by graduation the years’ve compressed into no distance at all, so much so you hardly know where they went.
I’m saying this as a selection from the show goes on display in the main college building of the University. Because when the students and I put the First Year work up they were about to enter their second year (which got messed up by the Coronavirus pandemic) and now, suddenly, here they are in their Third and final year.
Forty of their pictures were picked from the original exhibition by people on the executive and framed. Then the work sat in storage for eight months. Last week I saw that the paintings had been installed in the main college building, 39 framed pictures in a long line along one wall. My first thought was that this work needs to be acknowleged, the student’s name who painted it placed discretely beneath each frame and somewhere a word of introduction, a block of text, to explain the whole thing. In my studio that evening I sat down and scribbled a few lines. A day or two later an urgent message came, we need to contextualise the paintings before we get complaints, please send written copy asap!
I’d already written a rough draft, and here it is, extended and slightly more polished. The reason I’m publishing it is because it’s a bit like a manifesto for, or explanation of my teaching. It is First Year Illustration students who are at the receiving end, they take it all, for the most part, in good heart and, in truth, it works both ways, I learn as much from the class as anything a student might learn from me.
“In the first year students devote a day a week to drawing and painting either in the studio or out on location. Concentrating in the first semester on drawing and in the second on painting, students develop their own way of working – interpreting freely what they see from close observation of the world and by thoughtful examination of their own visual processes.
Students learn from each other’s example and from studying works from the past, a tradition as old as language itself. In the studio the focus is on the human figure because it is who we are and is the basis of all our sense of form and expression, scale and understanding.
Learning to see the shapes and tones from which our sense of reality is constructed is key to understanding these paintings. The colour is not naturalistic, it is treated as an independent painterly value. The palette is mixed beforehand – a combination of colours selected for their harmonious or discordant quality. The painter applies them with a mind on both the whole surface area and the tonal contrasts which describe the separate parts.
The composition being the portion of the scene the painter has chosen to depict and the way it holds together dynamically to make its own world, the world of a picture. This display of paintings shows how the painter’s view of the world is transformed into the world of painting, or how the picture of nature turns into the nature of a picture. The medium, the nature of the material the picture is made of, completes, carries and supports everything the work expresses and shows.
Individually, the paintings show how the painter’s “handwriting” or style emerges through working practice – which means it is produced unselfconsciously from out of how and where attention is focused rather than a ‘look’ added or imposed from outside. Collectively, the exhibition shows how the familiar is renewed for each of us in every generation by the power of vision and intellect.
Whether glimpsed in passing or meriting deeper study, the pictures we see here represent some of the first steps at the beginning of a life in the arts and the creative industries, paintings which we very much hope you will be able to appreciate and enjoy.”
There we have it, I think that pretty much says what I try and do with my teaching.