Alternative Monday 24 – Pixelated Portraits

In 1969 Joseph Kosuth wrote, “The artist cannot compete with flying to the moon by rocket, the lights of Las Vegas, coloured television or movies. The visual experiences of the modern day man make painting impotent.” Had Kosuth worked on our Alternative Provision programme in 2017 with students excluded from mainstream education he may have expressed similar sentiments. How can you engage teenagers with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in painting and drawing, instead of the constant stimulation of the online world?

As the Digital Special Interest Representative for Engage, I’m an advocate of using digital solutions, particularly when they are offline. Buttons can be pressed, screens can be lit up and two parts of the curriculum can be joined: art and technology.

This workshop began with an image projected onto the wall, which the students identified almost correctly as a star. We discovered it was only with recent advances in technology that the resolution of telescopes was high enough to distinguish the light from the bright point in the night sky as from two bright points close together – two stars. Cue a discussion about who had the best camera phone.

This concept was explored further as images of pixelated celebrities were projected onto the wall and students competed to identify them first as the resolution improved.

Manipulating their eyeball apertures, students discovered that by squinting like in a life drawing class helped distinguish tonal areas. Pixelated portraits of Beyonce, Barack Obama and Paul Pogba were recognised increasingly quickly. Worryingly, the image that was recognised fastest was a highly pixelated version of Donald Trump, even with the orange fully desaturated.

Next the process was reversed. Students photographed one another under extreme lighting conditions, with images placed on light boxes and covered in grids of varying size. Dark squares were filled in black. Light squares were left empty. The bigger the grid the less time the drawing took to complete. But the resolution was worse, making it harder to identify one another from their own pixelated portraits.

The workshop culminated with a Kano Pixel Kit – a programmable build-it-yourself computer and light board that students used to illuminate designated tonal areas, creating digital portraits. They may not have flown to the moon by rocket but they were now the stars.

James Steventon

Pixelated Portraits
Pixelated Portraits using Kano Pixel Kit

Look out for our final Alternative Monday post in a fortnight, concluding the series looking back on some of our favourite alternative provision activities over the past 10 years.