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Mixed-media identities

Emma Letheren shows how A-level students combined text, texture and artwork to construct self-portraits

Contemporary artists have responded to self-portraiture with innovative methods of construction, sometimes using non-traditional materials. Your A-level students can do likewise.

I began a self-portraiture project by showing students the work of contemporary artists who have used unusual methods to create their artworks. Tracey Emin has often used textiles, relating her life in the form of words appliqued on to everyday objects, such as a tent or an armchair. When text is applied to these personal objects, the relationship between the object and the artist is revealed.

Creating "Self" (1991), Marc Quinn used eight pints of his own blood, taken over a period of five months, frozen and congealed. I was not about to ask A-level students to transfuse their own blood - but I did want them to find their own new ways to make art. They were set the task of creating a digital collage which could be read as a self-portrait through text, textures and related images, with the aid of computers, scanners and digital cameras. Unusually, they had to leave their own image out of the final piece.

I began with internet research, directing the students to the websites of contemporary digital designers who have made portraits with text, textures and images.

Initially we worked on paper; students collected items and images unique and important to them as individuals. They had to bring in at least one of each of the following, collated in their sketchbooks: * textures - Jcan include favourite socks (great texture);

* printed images of some aspect of their lives outside school, eg a hobby, magazine clippings of a favourite band, photos of friends or an important influence in their lives;

* sketches showing any element of their lives;

* keywords, which could take the form of an extract from a diary, or favourite music lyrics perhaps.

We photographed and scanned in everything; each object imported into the digital collage became a separate layer within Photoshop. A dual purpose was being served: students would acquire a basic knowledge of digital image manipulation via the basic tools in the Photoshop software, including paintbrush, fill options, clone stamp, and cut-and-paste techniques. This took two sessions, and they were then shown how to use the layers palette.

From here on the exploration of Photoshop was up to the individual. I tried to get across to the students that the computer is just another tool in the art room: they need not be intimidated by the technology.

The most important element for the students was the freedom to experiment.

If they pressed the "wrong" key, an unintended effect could be applied to the image selection - the result might be a "happy accident", creating unique and exciting work. At the end of each session, everyone was asked to annotate a print-out of their work, noting effects applied to it, or issues which had arisen. The progression of each individual's project could be tracked and I could assess, along with the student, where the work needed developing.

For some, the project stopped here. But others decided to take the work to another level - the "palette" element of the project, developing the digital image back in the art room with traditional materials. (This kind of construction can be seen on the website of the designer Alexandros, who takes images from the computer and works into them with acrylics).

DigitalXposure edited by Kathleen Ziegler,Harper Collins Artcyclopedia is a general art website, good for information on artists and images of their Work of digital artist Diane Fenster:

Work of digital artist Alexandros:

Emma Letheren teaches art at Holly Lodge Girls' College, Liverpool and is co-ordinator of the teachers' forum at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology

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