Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Using plants for artistic inspiration: Primary Art CPD Conference – Jenny Hulmes

At the back of some art cupboards in schools, there are intriguing yet daunting art materials, which hardly ever see the light of day. These might include bottles of Indian ink, printing paints and rollers, oil pastels and graphite sticks.

The Education Team at the Botanic Garden runs a fantastic art CPD conference to boost primary school teachers' confidence with working with an eclectic mix of unfamiliar art materials in unique and adventurous ways, and of course, using plants for inspiration. I was fortunate enough to attend the conference led by Emma Williams, Primary Education Officer at the Garden who has a background in fine art.

I joined primary school teachers, some of whom were art coordinators in their respective school, in exploring the Botanic Garden and its glasshouses for leaves, flowers and fruits, which would make for exciting artworks. Plants are both intriguing and beautiful, so it's not surprising that artists throughout history have chosen to celebrate, adapt and distort for effect, their alluring colours, textures and shapes.

Whilst in the lily house, we were confronted with a vast array of plants made up of all different shapes and sizes. We discussed that pupils engaging in art often find it tricky to find a starting point when asked to carry out a drawing from direct observation, especially if the choice can be overwhelming. 

Exploring the lily house

Emma described various techniques she employs with school groups, geared at providing them with a sufficient amount of direction and guidance without being too restrictive or imposing. One technique involves giving each pupil in the group a sheet of paper with a printed shape at the top of it. The shape could be a star, heart or raindrop; the pupil has to then sketch a leaf which shares that shape. Another technique involves handing out a sheet of paper which has a specific colour (not green to make for more unique and vibrant artworks!) printed at the top of it; the pupil then has to sketch a leaf using predominantly that colour. 

Throughout the conference, we got to grips with using oil pastels with coloured ink washes to achieve a wonderful batik effect. We also learned how materials within the school and classroom could be recycled to make textured printing blocks. One teacher made an impressive multi-textured block comprising string, corrugated cardboard and bubble wrap. We also etched images of plants into polystyrene pizza bases, which when used, resulted in brilliantly crisp and detailed prints.

Print workshop with Emma

As well making me want to rush back home to my neglected box of oil pastels, the conference helped me appreciate how important it is for schools to have green spaces so pupils can draw and study plants from direct observation. Seeing plants close up and personal (as opposed to seeing them in 2D representations) will help children to engage with them on a more tangible level as they are prompted to use their sight, touch and smell to become fully acquainted. This multisensory exploration has the power to encourage an interest and excitement for plants which can then enable artistic creativity and experimentation to flourish.

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