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Life classes

Art teacher Giles Hughes finds inspiration for his lessons in the natural world

What is natural? What is man-made? What organic shapes can you find in tree bark or a piece of coral? For Year 5 children in Colmore Junior School this summer, this sorting exercise began a term's art work using nature, leading them to a wide range of media, from drawing, printing and photography to more abstract ideas such as "wind drawing" and large-scale textile pieces.

First, children used pencil sketches to design and draw an "organic shape" which was used as a basis for a mono print. (Many of these shapes resembled fungi or bacteria.) Choice of colour was important - the children used "earthy" and natural colours for their prints. To vary the texture, many worked back into their mono prints using soft drawing pencils, while others scratched through oil pastel work.

Each child made a large-scale close-up - rather like a microscopic image of a sample of bacteria - using the photocopier to enlarge a small area from their sketches and print it on A3 paper. They then applied thin watercolour washes to the photocopies so that the colours could merge and "bleed" into each other. The resulting images were quite abstract in form, but striking and very effective.

The children enjoyed working outside directly from nature. They especially liked "wind drawing", which involves attaching a pen to a piece of string and hanging it from a small branch or twig on a tree or shrub so that the nib just touches a sheet of paper placed on the ground below. When the wind blows, the pen moves across the paper. Setting this up is quite tricky, so we paired the children. Each wind drawing was a totally original piece of abstract art. Some children used music paper, and then spent a session with our music specialist, turning their wind drawings into a real musical piece with percussion instruments.

For homework, each child was given a disposable camera to take photographs of natural plant life around their home. They used the camera from a variety of angles, lying on the floor and looking up, or climbing a tree for an "aerial" view. They then tried to reproduce small areas of their favourite pictures in collage, using various papers, wools, threads, dried leaves and sequins. Rounding up the project, they took sketchbooks and pencils into the school garden and drew directly from nature. Using their viewfinders, they selected areas of foliage and drew "negative shapes" they could see between objects. This is a difficult concept, so the class were given a demonstration of the technique beforehand. Placing two tree cuttings onto an OHP and drawing the space works well.

The children used thin washes of watercolour to "block in" selected areas of their sketches. They then selected sections and redrew these to produce mixed-media studies with oil and water-based paints and batik wax on paper, producing complex and interesting textures. White poster paint was used to cover any areas that had become muddled or overworked. This gave the pieces greater form, structure and balance.

As a celebration of their work, the children made a large textile. On top of the batik base, details were worked in with various stitching techniques, such as running-stitch and French knots. Finally, we used electric sewing machines to apply padding to the back of the pieces, giving them three-dimensional bulk. It was a delightful embodiment of our summer.


Unit 1: Drawing organic shapes

Resources: selection of natural and man-made objects, sketchbooks, drawing pencils and rubbers.

Unit 2: Mono printing organic shapes

Resources: work from sketchbooks from previous unit, printing inks, rollers, pencils and paper, oil pastels or watercolour pencils to add details.

Unit 3: Close-up views

Resources: enlarged photocopies from previous unit, watercolours and brushes.

Unit 4: Wind drawing

Resources: string, scissors, masking tape, black fibre-tip pens and various types of paper.

Unit 5: Photography

Resources: disposable or digital camera.

Unit 6: Collage

Resources: photographic prints from previous unit, view finders, large variety of collage materials, glue and scissors.

Unit 7: Watercolour sketches

Resources: sketchbooks, view finders, drawing pencils, watercolours and brushes.

Unit 8 Multimedia studies

Resources: sketches from previous unit, view finders, watercolours, watercolour pencils, oil pastels, drawing inks, white poster paint and brushes.

Unit 9: Batik studies

Resources: sketchbooks, paper, view finders, batik wax and tools, batik inks, brushes, iron, newspapers, pencils and oil pastels.

Unit 10: Textiles

Resources: white cotton, batik wax, tools and inks, brushes, sketches from previous units, needles, thread, iron, sewing machine, newspapers and padding material.

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