Portrait of the man as an artist

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Figurative artist Peter Howson was the inspiration behind a remarkable drawing workshop for North Lanarkshire primary pupils

A group of children sit and stare intently at each other's faces. Two minutes later, they close their eyes and begin drawing fast and furiously. Once open-eyed, they admire their work and are surprisingly pleased at the results.

The task is a technique taught to students at Glasgow School of Art. But, today, the P6-7s from St Aidan's Primary, Wishaw, are learning about this and other methods as part of a Peter Howson workshop at Motherwell Heritage Centre.

The workshop was set up in conjunction with a temporary exhibition of Howson's paintings and drawings, and involves practical drawing activities and discussion of the artist's work. With a client list including Mick Jagger and Madonna, and drawings of Jade Goody hanging on the wall, Howson's art is recognisable and relevant to today's young people.

The class is split into two, and group one goes downstairs first, to the exhibition. Museums interpreter Margaret MacFarlane begins by talking to them about art and, in particular, Howson's work. She gives the pupils a brief account of his life and tells them he has Asperger syndrome.

Stopping at a set of three portraits, she gets the group thinking. "What is a portrait? Which one is your favourite?"

Eleven-year-old Monica Allen is impressed by Howson's portrayal of Dante, the excessive wrinkles captivating her.

On another wall, the children see the work Howson produced when his art materials were stolen while he was working as a war artist in Bosnia. The picture, made from boot polish, is proof to the children that you don't need much to be able to produce a picture.

The intensity of the pictures means the children are happy to meander around the exhibition, discussing the paintings with each other. Margaret is happy to answer any questions they have, but they don't appear to need much prompting. When the class stops to study his four pictures of Jade Goody, they are happy to analyse the various moods and states of mind in each portrait.

Next, the groups swap over. It is on to the practical part, and the children happily spend half an hour experimenting with various techniques and colours. They learn about "crayon and wash", and try to see how many different shades of grey they can get from one pencil.

Georgia Moore, 10, works quickly and determinedly. "I am drawing different lines and circles - a collage. I have an idea of what it will look like at the end, and have a picture in my head."

Laura Bowman, 10, is drawing random circles, and knows what she wants it to look like. But a coating of paint and water over the crayon changes all that, and the finished product looks quite different.

Eleven-year-old Hannah Johnston is also surprised by the changes the second coat brings. "I am making a firework scene in winter, using a colour effect on a black background, and using the moon to mix colours. It hasn't turned out how I expected. The colours are different - some are lighter, some are brighter."

Lu McNair, the community museums and learning manager who helped organise the workshops, says: "They came about because Peter was very keen for school children to be involved in the exhibition. We received 21 bookings from schools. All the children were P6-7, as it was felt that this was the right age for the peer project."

This is an open-ended project, where the class goes back to school and in some way passes on knowledge to others. This makes them eligible to enter a piece of art into a competition to produce a work inspired by Peter Howson's art.

"We had one group who said they were going back to demonstrate en masse to the whole school," says Ms McNair. "Another group said they would each send a peer representative into the other classes at school, to show them what they have learnt. How they do it is very open."

Principal teacher Theresa Neilly is not sure how they will follow up, but is certain that they will. "We won't leave it at this," she says. "We might enter the competition."

Young Georgia is clearly having fun. "It is cool, quite fun using all the paints - not how I imagined it would be. I had heard of Peter Howson, but didn't know anything about him. The Jade pictures were interesting. He's good at portraits."

But it is 11-year-old Michael Quinn who appears to have got the most from the day. "I had heard of him before today. I have Asperger's, just like he does. The workshop has been very good and it is good to know I am not alone. His work is inspiring."

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