Children's column: The seven-year etch

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children 05 Jun 2009

Shaun Tan, the remarkable illustrator whose work is on display at the Illustration Cupboard until 21 June, and who appeared at the Hay Festival this year, told me last week that most of the skills I use in my work I learned at high school . After that, he says he was mostly self-taught , not least by looking at the work of fine artists in books, as well as by constant practice, though in fact in 1995 he graduated with joint honours in Fine Arts and English Literature from the University of Western Australia. His school art classes, in Perth, W.A., taught him all the techniques, from etching to oils, that are exemplified in his astonishingly skilled collection of stories and images, Tales From Outer Suburbia . Hands up anyone else who learned etching at school? It is a characteristic common to most illustrators and artists that they started to draw early and obsessively examples off the top of my head include Charlotte Voake, who won a set of paints in a Puffin Club competition and decided she wanted to be an illustrator; Raymond Briggs, who copied the cartoonists out of the papers; Clara Vulliamy, who was allowed to use up her mother Shirley Hughes's leftover paints


Like learning to play the violin, it is best to start young. (In fact, everyone starts young, with crayons put into their hands by the age of two, but the important thing is to go on doing it.) While it may never be too late, and not everyone has to be John Ruskin, the Mozart of drawing, Shaun Tan's remark made me think of the value of learning techniques early.
What most primary and secondary school art teaching does early is imitate grand masters. Six years olds get to copy Monet and Van Gogh. They go straight to the end product, bypassing the processes that got there. Looking and making are fine in any form, but there is something about mimicking a Picasso without ever having learnt to draw, or to use oil paints, that is a bit like (and this happens too) writing theses without having learnt to punctuate, or writing poetry in a language in which you are not proficient.
This sounds like a clarion call for back to basics. It isn t. It is just a reminder that there are technical skills, of the kind that artists apprentices once used to learn (even if they no longer have to grind their own colours) that are worth imparting to the young. How many come out of Art A level courses without even knowing what linseed oil is, or what the technical difference is between an etching and an engraving?
Shaun Tan is evidence that this kind of knowledge pays off. And our children's picturebooks are the richer for it.

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