Early expressionism;Reviews;Television

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Robin Buss tunes in to a series that shows how art and artists work

Watch: Art Start. BBC2. Tuesdays 10.30-10.45am. Rpt Fridays 9.30-9.45am. To June 19. Age range: 5-7.

Art Start is constructed around four programmes for children at key stage 1, particularly younger ones. The series aims to develop visual perception and encourage pupils to experiment with their own creativity.

It assumes that, while "every child is an artist", young people need more than free creative play to develop skills. Simply providing materials and the opportunity to use them, Nigel Meager implies in the resource pack accompanying the series, is an abdication of responsibility.

Accordingly, the programmes are highly structured. Each of the four 15-minute films centres on a particular medium and subject - painting and portraits, printing and patterns, collage and landscape, modelling and figures.

Each moves from theory to practice, starting with the work of a well-known artist from the past (Picasso, Van Gogh, Grandma Moses, Leonardo da Vinci) - represented by an actor with a more or less appropriate accent. A living artist then shows how she or he uses materials, before the film focuses on the work of a school group.

Along the way, puppets with names such as Drip, Splash, Squidge and Squiggle serve as presenters. They are unlikely to achieve the fame of Tony Hart and Morph (the piece of Plasticine that, more than anything, launched Aardman Animation); but they do their job, with the voices of Craig Charles, Andrew Sachs and others, along with a rhyme or two.

The language is simple, but the concepts can be sophisticated - colour, texture, patterns, representation. In the first programme, Picasso explains how a Cubist painting might show the same figure from several directionssimultaneously, while the programme on places invites the viewer to study effects of light at different times of the year or day.

"Colour Time" associates primary colours with objects and feelings, and shows what happens when you mix them. The concepts involved might, at times, be beyond the reach of some children with special needs, but the teacher's notes emphasise the need to make active use of the materials - to stop and start the video, repeat if necessary and, above all, to give the class plenty of preparation.

Throughout, Nigel Meager and the producers of the television series are working on the idea that structure and language are essential to art teaching. They acknowledge that "some art educators have claimed talking, language and rational thinking get in the way of a deeper, perhaps unspoken, understanding". They are polite about such views, but make it quite clear they do not share them.

The series involves a definite reaction against earlier, more libertarian attitudes. This "structured and progressive" approach, as Meager insists, does not preclude free play - "taught sessions of painting can sit alongside the play activities and begin to empower children with an increased opportunity to make creative choices and exercise creative control".

The resource pack, with its accompanying posters, is full of suggestions for exploiting and developing ideas in the programmes. As a whole, the series seems well-designed. It guides children towards an understanding of art as an essential means of expression, while instructing them in the use of materials and giving ideas for pictures or models they can make individually or in a group. But the final test will have to come in the splash, splurge and drip of the classroom.

Teacher's notes pound;3; video of all the programmes plus pack pound;38; Art Start resource pack pound;13.50, all available from BBC Educational Publishing, Freepost LS 2811, PO Box 234, Wetherby, West Yorks LS23 6YY. Tel: 01937 541001

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