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Innovative Practice - Drawing inspiration

Skype sessions with professional cartoonists can help to make portraiture more interesting for art students

Skype sessions with professional cartoonists can help to make portraiture more interesting for art students

The background

Art teacher Damien O'Farrell was struggling to bring the topic of portraiture to life for his GCSE art pupils. "On a trip to the National Gallery in London, most of the pupils were excited, but one girl in a room full of Rembrandts just rolled her eyes," he recalls.

So O'Farrell, a freelance illustrator who has worked for national newspapers and magazines, decided to approach the topic from a different angle. He contacted his friends Ben Jennings and Martin Rowson, both renowned newspaper cartoonists, to enlist their help.

The project

O'Farrell organised Skype chat sessions to allow his art pupils at King Henry VIII School in Abergavenny to quiz the two cartoonists about their work, their inspirations and how to draw portraits.

"I wanted Ben and Martin to encourage the pupils to work more from life rather than from photographs," O'Farrell says.

"As cartoonists on national newspapers, they are used to working to strict deadlines and although they mainly work from photographs they have to understand the historical and contextual backgrounds of their subjects in order to create successful portraits."

While Jennings is relatively new to professional cartooning, Rowson has been plying his trade since the late 1970s, so pupils were able to learn from the artists' different perspectives and experiences.

Tips from the scheme

Make sure the chat sessions, whether through Skype or other media, are short and snappy to keep the pupils interested. "Remember it's meant to be a means to an end and not an end in itself," O'Farrell says. "You don't want it to become a lecture."

Make sure to pick the right people, who are not only passionate about the subject but also have an interest in education and the process of learning.

Evidence that it works?

O'Farrell says that his pupils are more enthusiastic about portraiture and more willing to try new and different ideas and techniques.

"It also helped them to see that there are different routes you can take to achieve your goals and to be successful," he says.


Approach: Skype chat sessions with leading cartoonists to bring portraiture to life in art lessons

Started: 2012

Leader: Art teacher Damien O'Farrell


Name: King Henry VIII School

Location: Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

Pupils: 1,073

Age range: 11-18

Intake: Pupils are from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds

Estyn overall rating: Adequate (2011).

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