Thursday, 15 June 2017

Developing a visual-textual academic paper: lessons on process and style.

I have begun working on a visual-text journal article with a colleague at work. This has continued a learning process about developing a visual vocabulary that began for me in earnest at Christmas, when I asked for a graphics tablet so I could integrate my artistic practice much more into my teaching and research. Some of my most challenging learning in this context has been about visual style.

The year started really well on the visual front, and I had some good feedback on using illustration to teach a social policy module on my Childhood and Early Years Studies programme. It reminded me of the power of the visual, but also how much work has to go on behind the scenes in order to make it accessible, inclusive and meaningful to students. It's not 'just drawing' or 'making things look nice', and it IS valid academic practice when appropriately utilised. At the same time, drawing in academic contexts is not automatically valid, relevant or accessible - hence the need for serious consideration.

Examples of new illustrations used in a recent Social Policy module.

My more recent focus has been on the article I mentioned, in collaboration with a colleague who is a cultural geographer. It has been a real eye opener in terms of building technical skills, swapping audiences and most significantly, thinking about my visual style(s). This has allowed me to take the learning from my teaching practice and really forge something new for me.

Because I love drawing and painting, I entered the process of creating visuals for an academic article in quite a relaxed way, but quickly realised that drawing, like writing, could be lots of things. I have learnt whilst doing, as multiple challenges and questions arose. Practically, I have learnt about sketching, layers, line art and colouring in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. I have asked questions about whether I start with line art or blocked tones and about what sorts of marks work well together. More importantly, I have thought very hard about what job my visuals need to do in articulating a particular narrative, alongside text. I tend to call this the development of my visual vocabulary, and I realise it needs as much thinking through (and work) as does writing. I have dealt with questions such as: what do I want to draw attention to? how might it be 'read'? how does a visual narrative differ from decoration? Therefore, my focus is on how I communicate visually in specific contexts, or my style for shorthand.

The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language defines Style as;
"A general term that primarily means a way of doing things, with additional senses such as doing them appropriately, doing them well or badly, doing them in a distinctive way, or doing them in one of a number of ways." (OUP, 2003). 
Finding a way of doing things is a simple phrase which requires serious attention, especially if we want to that way of doing things to be appropriate and distinctive. It has made me think about how the various parts of my artistic repertoire will work well together, what I should select and reject, and what is going to help my 'reader'.

You can see some parts of the process below. It's a work in progress.

Parts of the development process towards a style that works for one article.