When a friend asked if I was happy to be suggested for a science-art collaboration that involved having my portrait painted, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am not even keen on photographs of myself, but the rigid boxes that subjects are often put in at school has always frustrated me. I felt compelled to say yes. And the process turned out to be even more fascinating than I had expected.
Everyone who meets me quickly learns that I love colour. My students know I love a great diagram. My friends know I love to draw and paint, as well as gazing at great works of art.
I still remember the wonder of seeing art for the first time, as a teenager taken to the Tate by her dad to help complete GCSE art coursework. I still have the postcards I bought in the gift shop of works that moved me. It was transformational to be gazing not at a photo in a book but at a creation there in front of me.
Now, when I go to art galleries and exhibitions, I love to read about the artist, who I’ve often never heard of before, and about their life. To see their sketches and peer closely at their brushstrokes. To muse not just on the creation but the creativity.
Scientists and artists
So you can imagine my fascination with the idea of sitting for a portrait and getting to experience first-hand the process of a professional artist creating a work, with me at its subject.
Creativity is a buzzword people write in personal statements: “Miss, shall I say I’m creative?” However, as a teacher, I feel there is too much focus on talent – rather than hard graft – around creativity. This translates to subjects other than art, and skills other than creativity, too.
As a science teacher, I am sure I am in the majority in being frustrated by students declaring they “aren’t good at maths” when they are grappling with a graph, rather than acknowledging that they need to practise more.
Perched on a stool in the art studio belonging to Ann Witheridge, who was painting my portrait, I was surrounded by her work; some finished, some unfinished. Her palette itself was a work of art as she observed me. Really observed me.
What do you observe?
“What do you observe?” is a question I am constantly asking students, as a science teacher. Observation is a skill scientists and artists need to cultivate. It is also a skill that, as a human, tends to make you a better communicator and team worker, too. I couldn’t put it better than Leonardo da Vinci, who said: “The direct study of nature is the true source of knowledge.”
As Ann observed me, I observed her. Ann’s answer to one question about her working methods led to another question, and another.
Perhaps it was the scientist in me, wanting to understand. We spoke about learning, and Ann talked about the fundamentals, the importance of learning about line and tone before colour.
“People want to jump in and do colours,” she said. I laughed as I remembered an art class I attended many years before, labouring away on a tonal drawing followed by a tonal painting. The teacher was too stern to argue with, but I really wanted to ask for some colours. Being a student of something is a great way to stay grounded as a teacher.
The creativity of a teacher
Of course, as teachers, we are always learning. But I’ve found it's valuable to keep fresh the knowledge of what being at the edge of comfort and out of your area of expertise feels like. To look up to someone with vast expertise behind them and to try and work towards that in small steps.
Observing the painting form over the day, I saw layers being laid down in stages that aren’t necessary apparent to an untrained eye in the final piece. It makes me think about how, as a teacher, I take apart a concept, scaffolding down from the understanding that I want the students to achieve.
Having worked in a lab before teaching, and having been the teacher with her own diagrams on the classroom walls and windows, I’ve never struggled to think of myself as creative.
However, creativity is a skill all teachers have – perhaps without realising – even if they aren’t getting out the paints and illustrating their own classroom. Each day, as teachers, we are creating lessons, creating moments of learning. Just as Ann’s years of experience make her more skilled, so the more I teach the more I learn how to teach better.
We aren’t all destined to become professional artists, just like we aren’t all destined to become professional scientists. However, both science and art have so much to offer all students.
Artistically and scientifically literate
I am passionate about students understanding the scientific process, in order to become scientifically literate citizens.
Taking part in Viewing the Invisible made me realise that I also need to be passionate about students understanding the artistic process, to be artistically literate citizens.
It would be wonderful if the Viewing the Invisible exhibition is used by teachers to start a conversation with students about what being artistically literate even means.
I’m not yet sure I have as clear an answer as I would to what being scientifically literate means. It’s certainly a conversation I look forward to having with the art teachers in my school.
Watch Ann Witheridge paint Misbah Arif's portrait:
Misbah Arif is a secondary school science teacher in North London
Viewing the Invisible, an exhibition of collaborative work between artists and scientists, is being hosted by King's College London until 20 September. Ann Witheridge will live-paint an eminent scientist at the National Portrait Gallery on 15 September