Drawing with Scissors: An Introduction to Henri Matisse (Part 1)

I’ve just returned from Mumbai where I had been for a weekend workshop titled Drawing With Scissors, which I structured as an introduction and exploration of the works of Henri Matisse to children aged 5-7.

Many of the participants were children who used to come to the weekend art club I conducted all through 2016, and I was excited to be able to teach them once again. A week prior to my arrival in Mumbai, I had started receiving voice notes and messages from the kids about how eager they were to meet again. Some of them even pushed parents to cancel holidays that were planned in order to come to the workshop!

On the morning of day one, as I was setting up the studio, I heard the kids chatter as they walked up the stairs to the WAA residency, which was the venue for our two-day workshop. Immediately I felt that familiar energy I’ve shared with this bunch.

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Nyra’s depiction of the Drawing Room family back in class again after five months.

I was seeing them after five months away and in just that short span of time they’ve all grown and changed! So we all needed some time to warm up to the fact that we were all back in the same room. Pretty soon though, we were all sharing stories as usual, updating each other on all that we have learnt in the months gone by. It set a super-charged tone to the workshop.

I began with a quick round of a drawing game followed by showing of a little film introducing the life, the ways, studio and inspirations of artist Henri Matisse. It helped the kids distinguish the different styles he practiced, when we looked at a range of images of some of his work.

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In all the prep I did to develop this workshop, as well as while setting up, I was able to understand so many more interesting and exciting details to Henri Matisse and his work, which I’d completely glossed over when studying art history in college.

I was particularly fascinated with some of the quirky details like his fetish for animals, birds and other creatures. His journey from working realistic to abstract over many years shows a beautiful transformation in form. This was a fantastic insight into relooking at art history for myself and specifically Fauvism.

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I’ve always retained information when it was told to me like a story not just mere facts. While designing this module I kept in mind all the little details that made Henri Matisse an interesting person and told his story with images of his work and life, including all those little details that I personally found interesting. I’m pretty sure that it’s the little details like Henri’s pet cat, the birds and animals he kept to observe and be inspired by, and the extra long paintbrush he used to paint from his bed (when he was too sick to leave it) are what made Henri the artist and Henri the person an indelible memory in their minds.

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HENRI MATISSE A NICE

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It’s fun to remind ourselves not to always be right

I explored a composition session with my recent students — Niko and Mia — who were visiting Bangalore on their summer break. The session drew from a popular game we all played as kids – the memory card game. Using a set of illustrated cards, a selection I for the purpose of this activity, we played the game together. Then, based on the cards each one of them was left with, we created a composition that allowed for each element, picture, character in the card to be accommodated within it.

The restrictions imposed in creating a scene that allowed for each card to be placed in it, but not necessarily in a conventional or “correct” way actually allowed for a free-flowing creativity. And the challenge of placing animals and palaces in spaces that they wouldn’t other wise think of them to be made for two very fun compositions.

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I hope it was a small step in entering into a world where things aren’t always what they seem. Where it’s perfect for a hippo to live underwater, in a submerged palace.

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Niko3It’s the world of fantasy, and going in there from time to time is a necessary ingredient in enjoying any kind of artistic activity.

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Happy Accidents

Collaborating with artists from various backgrounds of the visual arts is one of the best ways to begin to see things in new and different ways. This has personally always added important insights into my own journey. This was something I wanted to introduce to the children too.

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In November last year, I had the chance to meet and work with Sarah Pupo artist in residence at the WAA residency. It was during the time I discovered Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops! that Sarah and I got talking about working with accidents within the artistic practice. This definitely wasn’t a coincidence and I took this as an opportunity to introduce her work to the children in an interactive session.5251

This was a fantastic opportunity for the kids to visit Sarah’s studio at the WAA residency in Bandra, Mumbai, where she shared with them her work process. Sarah’s work integrates painting and drawing, installation and self-taught, provisional animation techniques. Her approach to making things prioritizes intuition, associative thinking and the flux of chance and control.

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This workshop was an introduction to materials like watercolour and ink and the process of painting wet into wet. So we got the kids to make a splash and build a story or a picture from there on.  We used drops of water on paper and added ink, salt to it and tried various methods of random mark making. From there, they imagined what their splashes and blobs might be. It was immensely enjoyable for the kids, Sarah and I, to then collaborate and create a series of drawings that told the story of each of the child’s characters. The outcome could have been compiled to make a rudimentary flip-book of sorts, just a few steps short of animation.

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She then presented to them a few of her animation videos, which was followed by a walk through her studio setup which gave them an insight into how she turns her ink and watercolour drawings into animated moving forms.

 

Understanding how visual forms can transcend formats and mediums, often moving from one to the next — paper and paint, to drawings, to animation — seems to come very easily and simply, to children. And it made me wonder about their intuitive sense of viewing visuals outside the boundaries of the formats in which they may be originally created — a skill many of us have to re-learn as adults in the practice of art.

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Beautiful Oops!

When you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.

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Beautiful Oops! By Barney Saltzberg.

There have been times when as a facilitator, I have had to explore ways of unlearning concepts and some of the strong conditioning that I come with, both as teacher and as a child. This challenge has many a times brought me to discover wonderful ways of unlearning and re-learning.

I’ve grown up hearing adults and teachers at school say, “making a mistake is part of learning” or “making a mistake is part of life”, yet I never wanted to believe either of these statements. When you use the word “mistake” to describe an artwork for instance, you immediately imply that it’s far from perfect, or that it can be better. Whenever I heard the word, it was hard to not compare my work to something that was right and perfect. Because as we all know we celebrate our correctness over our mistakes a lot more.

I took this up as a challenge in my role as an art facilitator (and also for myself in life, in general) to learn to try and accept, and to celebrate my mistakes as much as I celebrate the times I am correct. Initiating that change meant creating an accepting and trustful environment for the kids to work in. Which in turn meant keeping in mind a nonjudgmental language when critiquing their work.

Looking back at my student life, I have come to realize certain phrases lock in judgmental ideas about the artistic processes. These phrases, the very language of feedback, right, wrong, mistake, easy, etc, cues a focus on performance, competition, comparison and risk of failure. Even though it requires constant attention to break these habits, it is well worth the effort.

In Mumbai, I taught a group of children aged 4-9, and one of the sessions was structured around this extraordinary book, Beautiful Oops! By Barney Saltzberg. It’s a simple book that shows young readers how every mistake is an opportunity to make something beautiful. Creatively made, Beautiful Oops! is filled with pop-ups, flaps, tears, holes, overlays, bends, smudges, and even an accordion “telescope” to demonstrate the magical transformation from blunder to wonder.

Introducing this discovery to the class brought about an immensely positive change in the way the kids explored and expressed themselves. It seemed to have set off a cycle of change where each of them discovered their strengths, while encouraging each other to work with a sense of spontaneity, acknowledging their mistakes and learn to work towards what they wanted their work to look like, regardless of the blips along the way.

Here are a few images from the sessions after having introduced Beautiful Oops!

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By Om Ahuja. Age 5.
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By Ahilya Lulla. Age 5.
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By Akira Kini. Age 5.
3Antalya
By Antalya Gupta. Age 5.
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By Azad Rao Khan. Age 5.

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The Garden of Earthly Delights

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Conducting a session outdoors was a luxurious idea for me, living in a city like Bombay. Having studied in Bangalore I’ve grown up mostly engaging in art activities that explore and include the outdoors. To replicate this in Bombay meant that I had to wait for the right weather and the apt location for an outdoor session.

The day came in March this year. We created an interpretation of ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch.

The original painting by Hieronymus Bosch shows Adam and Eve and various animals on the left panel, cavorting nude figures, oversized fruit and earthly delights in the middle (from which the triptych takes its name), and hell ensuring torment for sinners on the right panel. This work sums up the history of the world and focuses on the progression of life.1280px-The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution

The canvas became our playground and the kid’s creatures that populated this playground while making marks and layers with various different medium. Depictions of human life, plant life, city population, destruction, order, Earth and Space, day and night — was all a part of the canvas. Each layer was saw a different medium and each child used their vivid imagination to ensure their descriptions told the stories of life as they see it.

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The focus for this session was to engage them in a collaborative experience and to experience the challenges and thrill of painting on a grand scale. The canvas was approximately 10 ft wide by 10 ft long. For me, it was wonderful to see how each child reacted differently to the large blank canvas that lay on the grass in the garden we picked. Each of them then built a story the way they saw it unfold. For some it was a very intimidating experience and for the others an exhilarating one.     Garden5This session made me realize that kids are most excited and ambitious to learn on unconventional projects. There are so many topics shared and discussed that it becomes an opening not only into focusing on the art and the artistry but also crosses paths into history, geography and leaves room for a lot more imagination.Garden of earthly delightsFollow my experiences with teaching art with Drawing Room on facebook.

Take a line for a walk

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Drawing is taking a line for a walk.

Paul Klee’s famous quote, above, really does strip down the basic principles of drawing.

Making a drawing is about communicating with your self, without a conscious thought of what mark you’re making on paper. With this approach, I’ve realized there is a sense of ease, spontaneity and freedom with which I explore basics of techniques and composition elements.

Paul Klee’s quote was also the inspiration for a workshop I had the opportunity to conduct last weekend, in Bangalore. Over two mornings, I interacted with a delightful group of 5 – 8 year olds, exploring drawing lines of all kinds.

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Through games, freewheeling exercises and watching some videos, the kids saw that pretty much everything and anything that is drawn uses lines. The activities planned helped describe, develop and use different line qualities — horizontal, criss-cross, vertical, slanting, dotted, thick and thin etc.

The venue was a lovely terrace garden surrounded with plants, and made for a great location for the children to recognize the existence of lines even in our surroundings.

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By the end of the two day workshop, every child illustrated an experience of a journey they have taken. Using depictions of the various lines that we explored over the course of the workshop, and through different mediums, their drawings came to life.

As a facilitator, watching the unique process each child takes in understanding and implementing what we explore in every session, is as exciting for me, as it is to see what the final outcome is, in terms of the picture.

Take a line for a walk

The thing about conceiving Drawing Room as a travelling art project is to be able to reach a wider bunch of children, create more such experiences and take it to them, rather than always have a static “class” for children to visit. I look forward to many more such interactions in the coming weeks and months.

Drawing Room is open to collaborations! If you have a bunch of children, a venue or a space where you’d like to host a workshop or session, please get in touch with me.

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What colour is your sky?

Some of the most powerful and creative work that to come from the kids at Drawing Room has happened when I planted a question in their minds and allowed them to go wild with coming up with the answers.

Sky Colour is a fabulous book by Peter H. Reynold, that explores the thought processes of a child named Marisol, as she and her friends are faced with a dilemma of painting the sky for a school mural. The story traverses their explorations and the creative process of breaking out of the notions of right and wrong, finding one’s own meaning and sense of what we see around us, and most of all it stresses on observation being a key element in making art.

Inspired by Sky Color, by Peter H Reynolds

One Saturday, we began our session with the question “What colour is your sky?” and read the story together. Marisol, as well as the children in her class, considers herself to be a true artist and are at first stuck to the idea of perfection and accuracy. But slowly they explore the possibilities of looking at different hues, tones, textures and find a range of different ways to depict the sky.

The story was a great way to introduce observation and critical thinking outside the boundaries of picture perfect art. I observed that even in my own class, they were inspired to work outside of their comfort zone and not stick to colouring within the lines. What I hoped was that this was a beginning into encouraging them to question why something is right and wrong, considering other possibilities and decide why something works for themselves.

A few pages from some of the sky journals we maintained.

The exercise didn’t end there. We each kept a sky journal, recording what we observed about the sky for a number of days to come. Looking back into the journal, it’s safe to say that the kids realized that the sky is not always only blue.

Colour Light Shadow Party

Looking back at my years in school, I was never much of a textbook learner. Reading and writing alone didn’t do much to help me retain information. The concepts that have stayed with me the most, and that I remember to date have been those that involved interactions and physically handling objects to understand how things work. Sometimes this was about understanding materials, and other times it’s the experience of being completely consumed in an activity, allowing my imagination to run amok.

In September 2016, I collaborated on with performance artist Mahana Delacour (Paris) in an interactive workshop. Mahana was visiting Mumbai as an artist in residence at WAA Residency, and some of the key elements of her work are interactivity and art therapy. Also being a teacher, she had a really unique way of telling imaginative stories bound by theory and concepts in art.

The play of light and shadow are key elements of all visual art forms, so I planned this session with the intention to teach the kids to observe light. It was a great way to have fun while also discovering how we see light, how shadows happen with respect to the earth, sun and moon, and how the human eye perceives light and shadow.

The session involved a lot of hands-on activity, as the children played with objects, colours and a light source. They observed the change in light as objects were moved farther and closer from the source, the play of colour using cellophane paper in primary colours as well as the changes in results when they were mixed.

Excitement was high as placing the sheets one over another to discover a whole different range of colours made each child feel like they were magicians on stage! Then a shadow play session followed where they built narratives with toy animals and sea creatures and the shadows they cast. They were thrilled to see how the shadows were exponentially larger than the objects themselves.

It was a great introduction to an interactive installation as well, because the entire room was turned into a kaleidoscopic interactive art experience, with the children discovering things with every little action they made. I have always valued the delight of discovering things for myself. And it was satisfying to be able to share that feeling.

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Drawing Room: this is where it began

When I began the Saturday Art Club (as it was called then) my approach was simple. I started with the very basic idea to engage with the visual form, and use it to study objects and ideas closest to us.

Over the last few years of my practice, and some involvement with interacting with children, I’ve observed that the practice of teaching art has become unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome – involving expensive tools, stationery etc.

It was interesting to see that the children came from backgrounds in formal art education either through a previous art class or at school. Most were already initiated into art and craft through formal/conventional structures, bound by rules and guidelines typical to a classroom set-up. What I didn’t anticipate was the couple of sessions and time and effort it took to undo and break through those existing structures and frameworks they already belonged to.

Thinking back to my own years in school, and my early interest in art, I remembered how intimidating and off-putting a structured classroom set-up made me feel. So, I realized if my goal was to help children begin to engage, react and respond to the visual form freely and fearlessly, it was essential to break away from the rules and the pressure to create “pretty” things.

This is where looking outside the field of art education alone, helped my learning, how to initiate and kindle a sense of free exploration in children. As a facilitator there were so many wonderful connections to be made between the formal art education (such as learning perspectives, colour theory, colouring inside the lines etc) and the simple learning through the perspective of each child’s imagination.

By allowing children to explore their own memories, ideas and other visuals they wanted to bring to life, I found a method that balanced the two. This was the beginning to a journey I later titled “Dear Imagination”.

In the 12 months that I interacted with this group of children, it became clear to me that creating an environment that celebrates each child’s uniqueness was the best way to educate myself about what art education really means to me, and where I want to go with this.

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