Children and young people often find this painting bewildering when they first approach it. Comments such as "what is it?" and "what are all those strange shapes?" can usually be heard. Others believe the work looks "woolly" with out-of-focus areas. The reason for this is the mass of interlacing images which make the picture abound with contrasts. The gritty texture of the lower-half differs from the smooth surface of the top, and the blurred images within the left of the work are quite different to the sharp-edged shapes of dominant reds and greens to the right. The whole composition sways with movement while vigorous, invisible lines swirl through the work. The little spot at the bottom of the work suggests a tiny planted seed out of which we see this explosion of images all melting and weaving in and out of each other.
Ceri Richards was a prolific artist throughout his life. He was not directly linked to any one artistic movement, but was influenced by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and the surrealists to varying degrees. In the same way that Richards made work inspired by some of these great artists, children and young people today can find a wealth of inspiration from a study of his work.
This painting is one of a number he produced between 1943 and 1969 exploring ideas about nature. It is related to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, whose line "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" was the source of inspiration. The same images appeared time and again in his paintings, prints and sketchbooks. Sometimes Richards devoted whole sketchbooks to developing an idea such as this, with pages showing repetitions and variations. Changes, from day into night, from one season to another, and in the journey through life influenced Richards in this painting (as in others) and determined his choice of images.
Unexpected images were often placed side-by-side, showing the influence of surrealism. Richards was once asked if he worked from nature and whether he had a clear conception of a piece of work before he began. His reply sheds light on his mental processes: "I have to refer directly to nature for stimulus before I can start my painting. Once I have transferred to the canvas an expression of this stimulus, the painting grows on its own as an entity."
A study of this painting can be integrated into art schemes of work for all key stages. Studying the work of an artist born in Wales, who deals with many Welsh themes in his work, also meets some of the requirements in the Cymreig aspect of the national curriculum in Wales. Since music and literature were lifelong inspirations for Richards, there are also many opportunities for cross-curricular work.
In class, this painting provides a jumping-off point for many ages. Ask questions to promote observations. Can pupils or students recognise any areas within the work? Arms, legs, wings, leaves, petals, flames, feet, a bunch of grapes and an eye are among the objects that are often recognised.
Once individual areas have been studied, ask them about the whole work.
Think of all the items that have been named, then ask what one theme links everything together? You may even arrive at the title of this work, "Cycle of Nature". Adopting Richards's method of working could offer an interesting focus to stimulate pupils' own work. Encourage children and young people to study objects from nature, then use music or literature to foster imagination to take over and develop images and structures.
Ask pupils to make rubbings and do drawings of leaves, twigs, cones, bark and stones. Like Richards, refer directly to nature. Once a range of visual information has been collected ask the pupils to consider designs for print-making work. Use different forms of print-making; some of the objects can be printed from directly. Alternatively, build designs on a piece of card, using PVA to glue card shapes on to the base (old cereal packs work well). Take a rubbing of the printing block before it is used for print-making. For the technique of collograph print-making the block is built up from a range of different textured surfaces. Each shape is glued on to the block. Once the block is completed the surface should be sealed with a mixture of PVA and water. When dry the block can be used for print-making. A rubbing could also be taken.
Language and literature can jump-start class work. The words of Dylan Thomas directly inspired Richards in his "Cycle of Nature". This painting can in turn provide the inspiration for pupils to develop their own creative writing. Sitting in front of the work, ask the children to say the first word that comes into their minds. In doing so, you can form a collection of nature words that can be drawn on to make nature poems: A series of open-ended questions may also help pupils to write their poems.
"You are standing in this painting. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you feel?"
Language can also provide the inspiration for visual images. Present the children with words or sentences. They could be descriptive words or words that evoke a mood. Ask them to draw shapes suggested by the words. Present them with a range of transparent materials, such as tissue paper, net fabric, tea-bag paper or tracing paper. Cut out some of the shapes and trap them behind the transparent materials. You may even wish to trap some words with the shapes and to flood the work with areas of colour.
Eleri Evans is art education officer at the National Museum and Galleries of Wales
Exam teaching tips and resources
Key stage 4 and AAS-level students are often interested in the range of work Ceri Richards created. Over about 40 years he returned to the theme of the cycle of nature time and again. Since the development of one theme is often asked for in work produced for GCSE and A-level exams, students could focus on Richards and track his development.
Welsh Arts Archive
BooksCeri RichardsBy Mel GoodingCameron and Hollis, pound;39.95
Gallery shop Tel: 029 20573477
Leeds Art Gallery, until March 30, 2003Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, May 3 to June 29, 2003