teaching

This was posted on CyberScribes by Ieuan Rees.  He is one of the rock stars in calligraphy and lettering. It is very well written and expresses my own views better than I could ever have expressed them.



THOUGHTS ON TEACHING by Ieuan Rees

From my very early years of teaching lettering and calligraphy, part time, mainly as a discipline subject to Foundation Students in Art Schools, and also in conducting workshops both at home and abroad, I have always felt that some teacher’s role is not to teach students as such but rather to encourage them to teach and see for themselves. Too often the students blindly copy other people’s alphabet sheets with their natural imperfections without questioning, and their natural abilities are often suppressed due to so many rules, set methods of teaching and lack of confidence in their own judgement. As children we always asked ‘WHY’ because we were humble and wanted to understand and learn. Unfortunately as we got older we didn’t ask ’why’ so often, as we were happy to accept the opinions and rules of our mentors. We should always ask our teachers ‘why’ if we don’t understand any comment or rule. I am often asked by students who have been taught by a number of teachers whose rules or opinions are correct as they are so confused by their diversity. In my teaching I try to help the student to see and reason for themselves and trust their current judgements. Sadly a student once said to me at the end of a workshop ’Thank you for giving me permission to think for myself’. One side of me was pleased that I was able to help her, and the other side of me was upset that it was necessary to do so.

I believe that students should be encouraged to see letters (drawn, carved or written) as an extension of drawing. They could become adequate lettering craftspeople without the ability to draw, but to be an artist/craftsperson requires more than mere technical skills. Drawing is the basis of all art, and teachers ought to do all that is possible to encourage students to learn from looking, observing, questioning and experimenting. They should draw anything they see around them, from their own hands, trees, building, objects, people, a packet of crisps or any other else, and they should never be too narrow in their approach and choice of subject matter. They need to experiment with drawing on smooth paper, rough paper, textured papers and with hard pencils, soft pencils, felt tip pens and anything else going that makes marks. All this will help them to combine the use of the eye, hand and mind, and to be more sensitive towards materials and tools. Students should never be discouraged if the drawing is not brilliant at once as success has to be deserved and they also need to understand the value of learning from their own mistakes. Its what we learn and discover whilst DOING something that matters the most, not necessarily the results. Technical instruments too have their role in design and can help enormously in its development, but as optical illusion plays such an important part in all art and design, the trained and informed eye must make the final decisions.

For years I have taught lettering, especially the Roman alphabet and calligraphy, as means to an end rather than ends in themselves, by relating to all things around us – the tip of a holly leaf, understanding the shape and function of the beak of birds of prey, observing motorway junctions from the air, watching planes taking off and land - all these can teach us so much about the form and flow of letterforms. Understanding the difference between the structure of rounded arches and pointed arches in architecture can explain so much about the structure of letters as well as observing musicians performing. One student improved the life and flow of her rather stiff, but well constructed calligraphy enormously after I took her to see and hear a harpist performing. I particularly wanted her to observe how the harpist’s fingers floated on to the strings from the air and how she extending and dissolved the music into the air.

Music can further help students to appreciate the importance of speed, rhythm and tempo in writing.

Students need to be guided to see letters as part of a whole and not merely as isolated forms, judging their work from time to time from a sensible distance rather than being glued to a chair or to the floor in front of the easel or board. Students must be encouraged to give equal consideration to the spaces within and around the letters. The forms we draw, write or carve are only items of clothing that reveal their letters beautiful body shapes. The forms vary from alphabet to alphabet and the students when drawing a letter must be aware of its family characteristics, be it Roman, italic, traditional or inventive.

I have been amazed by the extra confidence in the attitude of students to their work once they begin to have faith and trust in their own judgement and when they realise that there are no concrete rules - only flexible guidelines.

I encourage students to be humble enough to ask the general public to tell them if their designs convey the message intended and whether it is legible.
Often students, and indeed the tutors, may not always be the best judges of their own work as they have the advantage of knowing what the words say, and thus look at their work with the benefit of both eye and knowledge. The public on the other hand will give you an honest personal visual reaction only.

I also believe that as well as respecting tools and materials the students should become more aware of how the human body and joints have influenced the design and execution of letters. At the end of the day it is the letterers body that creates the letters by manipulating the pen, pencil, brush or chisel, and so it is important to know how to sit or stand correctly and how to work with the body, especially the hands, arms and wrists to find the best and most comfortable way to write, draw or carve. Our bodies can teach us so much if we work with them rather than against them.

Sometimes teachers must have the courage, where appropriate, to give the students what they need rather than what they want. They will accept this if the teacher gives constructive reasons for doing so.

Of course not all workshops need to be so formal as experimental and less formal workshops too have essential and necessary parts to play in helping students to experience free expression and to discover new and exciting directions.

The benefit of a successful workshop may not always be felt and realized immediately. But if students leave with renewed confidence and more faith in their judgement and awarenesses, the seeds planted in the workshops will grow as they continue to practice and develop their lettering skills as long as they keep on watering the growing plants.

Ieuan Rees

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