Watch the video and see what I drew in my sketchbook as we wandered around East and West Berlin last weekend, taking in the sights and history.
I went with my wife and best friends to have a good look round and came away inspired and confused! I had to confront several prejudices, or should I say cultural attitudes, that I was unaware of having before. I realised that, even at my great age, I come with the ideas inculcated my upbringing in the social class and country I happen to have been born into.
I didn’t have much time to sketch so grabbed moments in cafes and while waiting for planes and trains.
There is so much history I don’t know and haven’t been taught, because it in not “our” history. The Pergamon Museum is similar to the British Museum. It has undergone war damage and rebuilding, but I was surprised that I knew so little about it and even more surprised by the contents.
The Gates of Babylon were stupendous! Then I realised they had been plundered and brought back to the museum to aggrandise the German Empire, to add the sparkle of previous, mighty empires to the the German Empire as was. But then, that is exactly what the British Museum is all about, and the Louvre. Each museum is filled with the booty hauled from each country’s colonial sphere of influence, to say, “Look how wonderful we are!”
Of course now we say that we are saving, conserving and displaying these cultural artefacts for the World, but that is a revisionist point of view!
I lived in Germany as a child, around the time the Berlin Wall was built. I don’t remember that event particularly, but the East Berlin we visited was in such a time warp, that I sometimes felt I was back there in the sixties, like a time machine. So much of Berlin is a facade. Bombed buildings are rebuilt in an old or ancient style with modern materials, bits of infrastructure from the 1950′ and 60s survive with a lick of 21st century paint on top. You are not quite sure if anything is real or original.
After visiting the Stasi museum, I kept imagining hidden cameras every time I saw a camera-sized circular shape in a light fitting or poster, for instance.
The pace of development is amazing. Building going on everywhere. Eventually the split history of the place will be built over and it will become a single city again, but I certainly felt it was still a place of two halves. We kept asking ourselves, “Are we East or West?” You didn’t really need to look for the line on the map. The East still has a generation or two’s worth of development to catch up with the West, But they are getting there.
For a capital city, it does seem quite parochial though. It’s been left out of the internationalisation of other World Capitals for so long, it has a lot to do to catch up, in attitudes as well as facilities and infrastructure. We felt the general levels of service fell short of what you come to expect in major capital cities, these days.
We came home quite exhausted, both from physically doing so much and fitting in so much culture!
As English children prepare for their new spelling and punctuation tests, It makes me wonder about the outcome of all this testing.
The testing of children is one-sided and far too academic. Where are the art exams for eleven year olds? The music exams? The interpersonal skills exams, the cooking, the athletic, the talking and the reading for pleasure exams? These are all real skills in life that are ignored by those academics and politicians who run education and wish everyone to be like them and damn them if they aren’t.
Those who excel in real life skills are taught by the education system that they are failures, that spelling and punctuation is all that matters, followed closely by maths and the cold analysis of text. Fail in those and you are a failure.
If those who excel in tests – those who go on to become politicians, set the tests and run education – were made to sit tests in art, drawing, gymnastics, football, astronomy, fashion, music and any number of relevant subjects, they would also know what it is like to be deemed a failure at the age of eleven.
I am all for good spelling and punctuation, but this comes with culture. If correct spelling and punctuation are expected and rewarded, then the achievement levels will rise. If it is made the subject of do or die testing – for the school as much as for the pupil – then for every happy smiling face on results day, there will be a crying, shame-faced failure, stigmatised for the rest of their lives.
“I’m no good at spelling,” they’ll say in their defence. “Look I’ve got a certificate to prove it!” And so the path of their lives is set for them by those to claim to have their best interests at heart.
Neuroscience is showing us daily how different we all are, how some just see the world in a different way to others. The internet is changing the way everything is done. New, previously unheard of skills are demanded daily, and yet academics are obsessed with preserving tests relevant to the age of coal and steam.
Let us have a level playing field. If you are not wired up for perfect spelling or number-crunching, let it be possible to show how amazingly you are wired up for the things in which you excel – the very skills that the world needs now.
I went to Brussels in Belgium on the Eurostar Train this week and I took my sketchbook with me. I thought it was a great way to share the experience with you as it is a record of my thoughts and things that catch my eye as I go along.
I was visiting the British International School in Brussels, which is in a wonderful old house full of Art Nouveau and Art Deco details. I had a great time there meeting the children, who come from all over the world, telling them stories and showing them how to draw stuff!
Thanks to everyone at the school for arranging the trip and making it both possible and memorable.
Here is a wonderful infographic I came across that explains everything about making art for other people, either as a professional or as someone who wants to have their work seen and appreciated by others.
What EVERY Creative Person with a Product or Service Absolutely NEEDS to Know – A graphic by Alex Mathers at www.redlemonclub.com
© 2013 Red Lemon Club. All rights reserved
But the nature of copyright is changing. When reproduction was difficult and expensive, copyright was easy to police. Now it is easy to and cheap to copy and almost impossible to police. Law is no use if it cannot be applied. What will creators do in the future?
I was really pleased to be contacted by Paul on YouTube today, who asked me what I thought of this video by Myron Barnstone, who teaches drawing at the Barnstone Studios, which I’m sorry to say I’d not come across before. Myron so perfectly encapsulates my thoughts about drawing and art teaching, I really wanted to share this video with you too.
I was lucky, my very first teacher, when I was 18, sat me down and showed me how a pencil works and showed me the shapes in the things that I was drawing. I only had that teacher for five or six months, but he literally changed the course of my life… in one lesson!
After school I went into a small print shop where I pretty much had to work it out myself. I learned a huge amount about type and the technicalities of Letraset and and wonderful machine called a headliner that produced crisp type on a strip of photo paper. All the time I was drawing and teaching myself with books from the library, trying stuff out. I then worked with a sign writer who really did instruct me. Like Myron says of his students in this video. I still feel him breathing over my shoulder as he points out where I’m going wrong all these years later!
Later I I worked for the land registry and had very strict training in watercolour wash techniques, which have stood me in good stead ever since.
Art college was three years of working it out myself. We received no instruction at all. In fact I often had to teach the skills I’d learned in the real world to my fellow students and on a couple of occasions to visiting lecturers! Our Lecturers “didn’t want to spoil out raw talent,” so they gave us a project and went to the pub for the rest of the week. Looking back, we floundered. Most never bothered coming in to college – there weren’t any classes to attend and if a lecture was arranged we’d got so out of the habit of attending no one ever went. It must have been soul destroying for the lecturers.
Myron is right. If you are serious, learn and get trained somehow. Then rebel after you know what you are doing and add your bit to the world of art and it’s body of work, but if you just rely on talent, you have a very long and hard and lonely journey ahead of you.
I had an email this week asking me for a bit of advice about self criticism. This is really hard to deal with and the harder you are on yourself, the harder you get. Its a vicious circle that gets worse and worse. Harsh del-criticism is a really bad habit, just like crack cocaine or smoking. the more you do it the more the habit gets ingrained into your daily routine.
Snapping out it is hard. Its a 24 hour a day battle against something that doesn’t want to go away. Don’t be hard on yourself. look always for the positive and ask that critical voice if it has anything constructive to say. If it hasn’t ignore it and then look for the positive in your work or the situation you are in. Criticism is a waste of time unless it adds something. if it doesn’t add, don’t do it and ignore the little voices in your head – and the voices of others who don’t understand or maybe don’t have tour best interests at heart.
This is part two of my interview with World Famous illustrator, Alex Brychta, who has illustrated over 500 books for the Oxford Reading Tree. If you are under 30, you probably learned to read with Biff, Chip, Kipper and Floppy the dog. In this video, Alex shows us how, through 30 years of practice, he swiftly lays out a page ready to do the ink drawing.
We discuss various techniques, but Alex photocopies his ink drawings onto conqueror paper and then stretches the paper onto drawing boards by moistening the back of the paper and sticking down with gummed paper tape. I do it dry with masking tape – you can see how in this video.
Alex scans his own work with a high end scanner and makes final corrections in Photoshop. the he sends digital files to the publisher.
Sit back and relax and learn from a master and his years of experience.
Have a look inside my latest sketchbook. This is one of my small sketchbooks that I carry around with me if I’m going somewhere. It’s a Moleskine sketchbook with nice watercolour paper, But I didn’t do any water colour in it! all drawn with Rotring Tikky Graphic pens.
Terry is a Card-carrying, old-school renegade. He’ll make a stand against anything that looks like authority just to make a bit of noise. I’m afraid that Terry, is just “being Terry.” You have to remember that Terry is an actor first and foremost and he loves a bit of drama.
Terry is more a manufacturer of commodities than what one imagines an author to be. At the height of the Horrible Histories fame, he set his researchers going at a new subject on the first of each month. Then, together they cobbled up a new book with a snappy title and added it to the production line. Librarians loved them, bought them in droves and promoted them like nothing else. Now they don’t have the funds to buy more of Terry’s books, Terry rails at them for lending out his books. He claims to have lost £180,000 a year in lost book sales because Libraries lend them out! Well, of course that’s not true. People who borrow books for free wouldn’t go out and buy them. And it’s a little ungracious of him, he would have to spend that much every year in marketing and publicity just to buy the promotion that Libraries have given him for free all these years.
But all the same Terry is expressing the little voice of doubt that nags away at all authors and librarians. Authors, publishers and librarians don’t know what to do. The Tsunami of the internet, for so long a problem that would have to be dealt with one day, is building a giant wave in front of our eyes and it is starting to crash all around us. Libraries let the computers in a long time ago. Appeasement hasn’t worked – it never does!
Two years ago, I wrote about Libraries being the Pillars of Civilisation. A lot has changed in that time.
I’ve had quite a few conversations with librarians since. I’ve met some young librarians who can’t wait to get rid of all those horrible dusty books and get down to the real work of organising all that loose data that’s floating around out there. Some have great visions of community informations centres. Others have seen the writing on the wall and are preparing their escape plans. Others are stunned, powerless in the face of the oncoming juggernaut.
Authors don’t know what to do. Anyone can be an author these days and they are jolly well taking up the chance. You can’t move for people who are writing books and flinging them up on the wall of Amazon to see what sticks. I’m afraid authors have had their day too. Or at least the old idea of being an author, someone special, chosen to be good enough to have their idea turned into a book. Our comfortable, middle-class existence has come to an end. We have to join the cue and try to shout louder than everyone else – which is what Terry Deary is doing now – and doing very successfully. See how much press he’s getting? Remember there is no such thing as bad publicity, you just need a thick skin to put up with the temporary flak.
The fact is that our gentle, rose-tinted image of libraries, has had its day. When we think of a library, we imagine a large room full of books and a nice lady stamping them in and out at the desk. Well, half of that has gone already. No one visits a library for the reference department any more. It’s all online, why would you bother battling through the sleet and snow to look something up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica? Reference departments in libraries have been reduced to a single bottom shelf for several years now. The specialist stuff, local history and the like, continues but even so – it’s slowly being digitised and as such is so much easier to search and access online.
So what is a modern Library for? That is the big question.
Everyone who is campaigning to save the libraries is campaigning for their own personal idea of what a library is. Look at the statistics – public libraries are used by old people, who still have a reading habit, but that sector will be in sharp decline. Old people can and do use kindles and the internet. Once a negative critical mass is reached, Libraries will not be able to justify buying thrillers and romance books for them anymore and the adult fiction department will close. I’m sure Boots the Chemists will check to see if there is a chance of opening up that old part of their business that was nationalised by public libraries.
Libraries are also full of people using computers – emailing home to Poland, running eBay businesses even looking up the Encyclopaedia Britannica – like in the old days.
But it’s the Children’s department that continues to flourish, even with all the distractions of the internet and tv.
It may be because the School’s Literacy Strategy has been such a disaster. Parents who care, realise that the only way to get their children to learn to read is to go and borrow lots of books from the library and read stories with them. That’s how it’s always been done and how those who learn to read, despite the literacy strategy, still do. Stories have been removed from education but, thankfully, the libraries are still full of them. They even have story time sessions and when did schools last have those? Libraries, in fact, are the most essential part of the education system, and that’s what they always were.
Public Libraries grew up out of the worker’s institutes, places where you could educate and improve yourself and get away from the grim realities of being at the bottom of the heap. If you wanted to read a thriller or a romance, you went to the circulating library and paid your weekly subs. Why did free entertainment become become a right? Terry Deary has a point there.
I think we need a new name for public libraries. A library, by definition, is a collection of books and a librarian is one who collates and looks after them. Just as merchant banks and high street banks need to separate, so do libraries need to separate from local education/information centres, which is what I think the public library has become.
We need public libraries to help young families keep up the reading – kids need lots of books and lots of practice to get the knack of reading and that is a skill we require our citizens to have and should be prepared to support them in their endeavour.
We need information centres where we can find stuff out and learn those skills that don’t need a college course or module points. We need a new breed of Public Librarian – someone who knows, or knows how to find out, someone who will help you find the information you need or put you on the right road to discovering it yourself. Someone who can put you in touch with your local history and let you feel part of somewhere. Someone to coordinate and bring together a sense of community in a rapidly fractionating world.
Books on loan, especially children’s books, may well be a part of the mix, but let’s not get hung up on an old technology that is rapidly being surpassed by ebooks, TV and the internet. Children are not born with an innate allegiance to paper books. They don’t care about the medium – it’s the stories and the pictures that matter.
I love libraries. I love their smell and their ambience, but so do I love old country houses. I’m sure people loved having only two channels to watch on TV and only four radio stations to listen too and… oh! …sending children up chimneys and polio and dyptheria, those were the good old days!
I’m sorry Authors. We have had our golden years. It’s been great and thanks for the ride. It was a wonderful time we will look back on. A time we could live quietly in our nice middle class comfort and bask in the glamorous title of Author, but it’s over, everyone’s an author now – move on. We have to find some new way to validate our existence.
If you want to see libraries running as they used to, all silence, dusty books and fearsome Librarians, then start a re-enactment society. I’m sure you’ll get a few visitors on a wet bank holiday.
For those who cannot or can’t be bothered to read, there is a YouTube spoken version of this text. It gave me a great opportunity to test my newly constructed teleprompter.