'Drawing is so important to children because we are visual beings. We read faces, we read body language, we read symbols, even when we’re tiny. We’re really good at reading the world around us and it’s vital we can do that....' Former Children’s Laureate Lauren Child, speaking at the House of IllustrationEmily and her team of professional illustrators started working with schools and groups four years before their King’s Cross building opened to the public. Since 2014 they’ve provided high-quality learning opportunities on-site, together with outreach sessions on a one-off or project basis.
Before Lockdown, an educational visit to the gallery included access to exhibition artwork, followed by a two-hour practical workshop led by a professional illustrator. Teachers were able to select any topic for their workshop, and topics could be drawn from any area of the curriculum. Emily’s team provided a choice of six different workshops - Character Design, Pop Up Illustration, Poster Design, Creating Mood and Atmosphere, and Sequential Illustration – and Emily worked closely with teachers to ensure a good fit between their chosen topic and their workshop. Media and techniques were generally left to the professional illustrator leading each workshop, allowing them to work to their strengths in a way that fitted the brief and ensured good outcomes. The gallery’s approach may differ going forward, though, so do check directly with them if you’d like to involve your school or group in future.
Over the years, Emily and her team have also worked extensively on special projects, based at the gallery and out in the community.
During the King’s Cross Story Palace project, Year 2 children from King’s Cross Academy Primary School took part in a series of workshops and walks with illustrator Sion Ap Tomos to find out about the history of the King’s Cross Goods Yard. Ap Tomos created a beautifully-designed concertina booklet - The Exceedingly Good Goods Yard – which included children’s artwork plus an informative text provided by The Building Exploratory, a local charity.
Ridley Road Market was a project inspired by On Gentrification, a House of Illustration commission + exhibition by artist Lucinda Rogers. Led by Sion Ap Tomos, Year 5 pupils at Princess May Primary School drew on location at Ridley Road, a traditional East London market close to their school, and recorded their observations. They researched the market’s history using materials from Hackney Archives and Ap Tomos preserved the children’s images and writing for future generations in an eye-catching concertina booklet.
“When you go to the shops they just stand there, they don’t tell you a bit about what they are selling. I like the attitude that they have in the market and it’s a bit scary but that’s a good thing...” Year 5 pupil
Emily also showed me a collection of booklets, each representing the work of a single child during a two-hour outreach workshop, and all of them printed in-house (on a photocopier) and staple-bound. The children had chosen what to write about and how to illustrate their stories, but “tight production values” had been imposed - there was no choice of font, for example, and the covers were uniformly plain and monochrome. As a result of the workshops, I could see that children of all abilities had been enabled to create a high-quality artefact with a sophisticated design aesthetic while retaining ownership over their content – and it was at this point that we discussed the balance between process and outcome. How much guidance should children be given? Should choices be restricted? To what extent should adults impose their own aesthetic judgements and values on children’s work?
These are complex questions but picking them apart is useful, as well as interesting. When high value is placed on outcome at the expense of process, children may have little room for self-expression, or lose ownership of their work. Most of us will have seen children doing activities that involve little more than colouring a template, or following instructions towards a uniform outcome. But removing all external guidance or boundaries doesn’t necessarily lead to greater creative expression or satisfaction. It may work in a therapeutic sense, but is unlikely to help children acquire the skills they need to produce the outcomes they desire, and of which they can ultimately feel proud. “I think some degree of restriction is essential when working with children, because they can’t limit themselves yet, especially if they’ve had very little art teaching. They’ll use every single colour, every single type of font. And they need to be taught, they need to know the parameters they’re working within and the result they can expect if they follow those parameters. It’s a really important part of their learning… I do believe in the process of making art, but I also believe in the power of slick outcomes. This is something I converted to after years of being a process person, and I now think both are equally important...” If we want children to enjoy good visual outcomes, if we want them to gain skills and develop aesthetic awareness, if we want them to use this innate language mindfully and with confidence, then we need to structure their learning, just as we would in any other subject. But if we structure too rigidly, children will not be able to express themselves, or have the courage to experiment and discover their own paths. For that, we need to step back and let them explore the materials and techniques in their own way.
And how do we meet these apparently conflicting needs? By working out which elements of a task should be restricted (and how, and for what purpose) while defining areas where there’s room for exploration, self-expression and problem-solving.
Or – as I wrote in my notebook at the gallery - there’s a time for getting your hands on every colour in the paintbox, and a time for being told that today you’re working with two colours, and that’s it...
Delivering semi-bespoke workshops at the gallery plus outreach in schools is demanding, but it does ensure that House of Illustration’s offer is fresh, dynamic, and focused on the needs of participants. This care is extended to the teachers who take part, and developing their skills has always been a key aim. As Emily says, “teaching teachers is the most important thing we do… because that way, we reach so many more pupils…..Once teachers have got some accessible, usable skills and ideas, they can incorporate illustration into all their teaching in all subjects, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Until Lockdown, CPD training took place in the gallery as well as in schools, focusing on basic drawing skills and accessible skills like collage, and how these can be applied across all subjects, while masterclasses were available for those who wanted to take things further. During Lockdown, selected workshops and courses for adults were available online, and anyone interested in taking part in training of this type should keep an eye on the website or join the mailing list for further details.
A recent addition to the gallery’s work with adult learners is Pathways into Children’s Publishing: a national vocational programme which launched in December 2019 for ambitious and talented illustrators from diverse backgrounds, who remain under-represented in children’s publishing. Pathways runs for two years and is managed and delivered by House of Illustration together with Pop-Up Projects. It is funded by Arts Council England and supported by 21 publisher and university affiliates.
Pathways is such an innovative and important programme that it deserves more space than I can give it here, and I’ll be posting another blog about it soon. Until then, there are links below if you'd like to find out more.
As well as learning about House of Illustration-specific offers and projects, Emily gave me lots to think about in a broader and more widely applicable sense.
So what did I take away from our discussion? What has fuelled my thinking since we met?
Talking about the ‘language of illustration’ – one that predates the language of the written word by fifteen thousand years or so – highlighted its fundamental importance and made me think about the risks of ignoring or downgrading it. All too often, I’ve seen drawing restricted to art lessons or used as a reward or ‘time-filler’ rather than being embedded throughout the curriculum as a way of exploring ideas and responses, recording facts and reactions, and communicating complex information. Drawing is a fundamental skill that enables a different way of exploring, visioning, synthesizing and learning. It can - and should - be embedded across the curriculum and used, like writing, as a tool.
The House of Illustration takes a co-created approach to schools workshops, in that adults with different roles and skills (in this case, teacher, illustrator and gallery educator) work together to create exciting, joined-up learning opportunities. I think co-creation is a really powerful way to work, and I’d like to see it becoming more widely understood and used.
As learners, we need high-quality opportunities to explore process – to be involved, be adventurous, be reflective, task risks and try new ideas.
We also need high-quality outcomes that are eye-catching, that make us feel proud, that we want to share and celebrate.
Many adults think they can’t draw, often because they’ve been prevented from developing the necessary skills as they grew up - which makes it really important to equip adults taking any kind of teaching role with the experience, confidence, tools and ideas they need to use drawing and illustration in their work. And that goes for children and young people, too.
Learners of all ages also need to be taught how to look, and helped to develop a language for talking about what they see, because those are also necessary skills.
My understanding of all this is growing, and I’d like to take it further - so if you can add to the debate, I’d love to hear from you!
Create a log-in to enable you to leave comments below, or send me an email HERE
If you’d like to find out more about House of Illustration’s learning offers and plans for the future:
Email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out their website at houseofillustration.org.uk HERE
Watch Building Confidence and Skills Through Illustration, a House of Illustration video
For Illustrating the Curriculum click HERE
Find out more about plans for the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration HERE
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