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Brush with the natural world

Nicki Household investigates the rare opportunities for practical art outings

When Vanessa Quarrel, of Kitebrook House girls' preparatory school at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, decided to introduce her class of 11 and 12-year-olds to the Javanese art of batik, she first put in a call to Jackie Garner, education officer of Nature in Art at Wallsworth Hall near Gloucester. "The wonderful thing about Nature in Art is that they offer you the chance to try out art forms that you don't have the expertise or the equipment for in school, " Vanessa Quarrel explains, "and they say they can arrange anything!" Housed in an elegant Georgian country mansion, Nature in Art is the world's only museum dedicated exclusively to art inspired by nature. Inside, six galleries of fine wildlife paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures span 40 countries and 15 centuries. Outside a large nature garden is designed to encourage wildlife and protect wild flowers, with a newly-dug pond already visited by moorhens, kingfishers, herons and six species of dragon-fly. Open-air sculptures abound: a leopard in a tree greets you in the main driveway, a metal kudu crops the grass near the education centre and a stylised swan presides over the pond. And when the weather permits, visiting children and adults alike are encouraged to sit in the grounds to draw or paint from nature.

Most of the tuition - for example, basic drawing and painting, experimental techniques, animal masks and scrap sculpture - is given by Jackie Garner, who is a wildlife artist and naturalist. But for specialist techniques such as origami and batik, she brings in outside experts. Vanessa Quarrel's customised batik day was such an all-round success that she afterwards got permission to order the necessary equipment for her school. "There's something about the ethos of Nature in Art that inspires children to attempt new things," she says, "and they often find they're very good at a particular form of art, even when they thought they weren't artistic. I'm always in my seventh heaven there, and I hope the children are too!" A typical school visit involves three activities: a look around the museum (quiz and worksheets are available in advance); a hands-on art session, outside or in the magnificent purpose-built education centre and a conservation activity, such as dipping the pond for minibeasts. Jackie Garner is also happy to arrange bespoke days themed specifically to art, conservation (the museum's associate director, Simon Trapnell, is a rainforest expert) or other topics.

There's a different artist in residence each week from February to November; watching them at work shows children how a painting or sculpture progresses from initial sketches to the finished piece. Some but not all of the artists also enjoy working directly with children. Jackie Garner suggests that teachers who would particularly like their group to meet and work with an artist should consult her about which day to come.

Nature in Art welcomes children of all ages, from GCSE and A-level art students to infants and special-needs groups, and can accommodate parties of up to 60. Teachers bringing younger groups will appreciate the sensible system of goody bags, designed to prevent chaos and indecision in the gift shop. Priced from 50p to Pounds 2.50, these can be included in the cost of the visit and contain an assortment of pencils, stickers, rubbers and toys.

Nature in Art's commitment to bringing out the artist in everyone extends to teachers as well. "Many primary teachers feel uneasy teaching art because they think they can't draw, but I firmly believe that everyone can draw if they learn the basic rules - I've never met anyone who couldn't," maintains Jackie Garner. To prove her point, Nature in Art runs holiday and term-time classes offering primary teachers the chance to explore the art curriculum and learn more about different techniques from drawing and painting to printing, ceramics and watercolours.

While many museums offer school parties unspecialised opportunities for drawing and painting, there are relatively few like Nature in Art, with a strong commitment to encouraging creative art.

The Tate Gallery in St Ives and the National Portrait Gallery in London are among the handful that do. The St Ives gallery uses its glorious position on Porthmeor Beach to help children understand the way the artists are inspired by the seascape. During last summer's exhibition, "Porthmeor, a Century of Images", school parties worked with local artist Robert Jones, exploring and observing the beach before getting down to their own drawings. A typical 2-4 hour visit begins in the gallery, where the children are encouraged to do some preparatory sketching, then moves to the beach or the studio for a practical art session (drawing, painting, sculpture, collages) with a local artist.

Although the Barbara Hepworth Garden is nearby, schools are advised to treat that as a separate visit (unless they have come from very far away) as the education projects are different and take time. There, too, children are encouraged to make connections between art and the natural world. During a typical visit they might investigate how the shape of a hollow tree or a rock pounded by the waves can inspire a sculptor before trying some hands-on work with a carver.

The National Portrait Gallery offers a wide variety of practical art experiences for all levels from key stage 1 to art A-level. Its new education centre, opened in 1993, includes a fully equipped art studio with photographic facilities and darkroom. Three half-day sessions for older children (ages 11-18), entitled Liquid Light, Room of My Own and Jigsaw Groups, explore aspects of portraiture, using photographic images, egg tempera, water-based paints, and collage. Younger children (Years 3-6) can pose for each other in costume and learn the Tudor skill of "pouncing", in which copies of a portrait are made by pushing charcoal through small guide holes in the original. Interesting facts are discovered, like Queen Elizabeth I controlling her popular image by only allowing the most flattering portraits of herself to be pounced.

For students with good experience of line drawing, there are sessions which concentrate on the use of light and shade, patches or planes of colour and the different styles used by present-day artists. GCSE and A-level artists can try their hand at miniature painting, using sable brushes and watercolour paints in mussel shells and do practical work based on such themes as What is a Portrait? Self-portraits and Symbolism. As all sessions and materials at the National Portrait Gallery are free to schools, it is important to book early.

Further details: Jacqueline Garner, Education Officer, Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall, Twigworth, Gloucester, GL2 9PA. Tel: 01452 731422. Open every day 9.30am-5pm, price Pounds 2.00 per child with an additional charge of up to Pounds 1 per child for specialist staff or equipment * Susan Lamb, Education Officer, The Tate Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall. Tel: 01736 796226. open Tues-Sun 11 am-5pm, price Pounds 1 per child, plus artist's fee * The Education Department, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2 0HE. Tel: 0171 306 0055. Open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm. School visits free, including materials. Bookings taken from the half-term of the term before your intended visit * Longleat Estate in Wiltshire also has potential as a site offering drawing, painting and craft sessions with a working artist, in the house and grounds or the safari park. Further details from Sarah Bew, education and marketing assistant, Longleat, Wiltshire BA12 7NW. Tel: 01985 844400

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