The teachers at Isolation Art School are very encouraging. "Your drawing may have started out as a horse but if its neck is too long turn it into something else," says the illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. "You are in charge so you can draw an animal however you like, as long as there is room on the page." By the end of Blake's tutorial I have no idea what the creature I've created is but it was a welcome distraction from reality. I was so absorbed that for a few minutes I forgot about Covid-19.
Luckily, Blake can't see my efforts. This is one of the short video lessons on Isolation Art School's Instagram page, set up by Keith Tyson, who won the Turner Prize in 2002. As well as videos from Blake - who draws faster than Joe Wicks moves - there are live portrait-painting demonstrations by Jonathan Yeo, workshops where you can build an Alexander Calder-influenced mobile and much more.
Some of the videos, like the one where charming double act Polly Morgan and her three-year-old son Clifford make a model of Rocky from Paw Patrol, are fun to watch even if you don't follow their instructions right away. It now has more than 26,000 followers all over the world, sharing their own art.
Tyson had the idea when he heard that lockdown might be imminent. "Terrible circumstances notwithstanding, for an artist the idea of isolation is familiar," he says, on the phone from his home in Oxfordshire, where he's running the art school from a field because the internet signal is better than in his house. "Artists spend most of our lives holed up working alone so we have a lot to offer. I also thought of all the people who always tell me they'd love to paint but they've never had the time. Isolation Art School unites those ideas. Artists are passing on their craft and looking after the society they belong to."
It's all free and he's turned down collaboration offers from companies, "because this isn't about money, we are here as long as we need to be to help people stay indoors and sane".
You don't need too many art materials - sculptor Morgan tried to use things most people will have at home, although Tyson's donated supplies to low-income families - and there's no pressure to create a masterpiece. "It doesn't matter if you're a child or a world-famous artist, anyone can make a picture," says Tyson. He's right-handed but trying painting with his left hand. "I still don't know what I'm doing," agrees Yeo, who was nervous at first about revealing the process of him painting actor Dexter Fletcher on the art school's page, but now says: "It's important to show it all, I don't want to give people the impression it should go smoothly every time."
Morgan adds: "So much of the art I make doesn't get seen. An awful lot of the joy derives from the process." This is her way of "giving something to parents in similar situations". She's also selling prints to raise money for Refuge, helping victims of domestic violence. "It's easy to feel useless at a time like this unless you are a key worker saving lives. Artists can help people occupy themselves in a meaningful way.
"Like any other parent I've been racking my brains trying to find a way to entertain my three-year-old and my one-year-old," she continues. "It's forced me to think more creatively than ever before. The first day I didn't have childcare I tried winging it and it was a mess, everyone was screaming and crying all day. I wrote a timetable that night and we all responded well to it. I've had to be realistic about what I can achieve in my work but a funny calm has descended because I know no one else is working so my competitive side is relaxing."
When Morgan was younger she remembers making art "as a way out of boredom or frustration". "Kids can get cabin fever even when they are let out constantly. When I was three I made a big pile of cut-up bits of coloured paper, put them in an envelope and posted them to a friend. The great thing about children is their imagination, they don't need shop-bought toys - they can turn a piece of cardboard into something else in their minds. We're all having to think more like that now."
The art school is full of ideas for those who lack inspiration. Tyson recalls how "as a child I asked my mother what to draw, she said a farm. I asked what to draw next; she said another farm. I remember thinking she couldn't be bothered to think of another thing."
Getting a daily message about what's on at Art School keeps people's spirits up, they've told Tyson, while others find "something peaceful and meditative in watching someone paint".
"The simple beauty of making things got lost as the art world split between high finance and activism," says Tyson. "But everyone needs to feel they've achieved something positive in the day right now." Morgan agrees: "Making things helps you go to bed feeling less anxious. It is psychologically important to be able to see the end result of your work, rather than dwelling on the terrible things that are happening."
Tyson adds: "Art was important in my fairly difficult childhood. When I was seven I drew a radiator stop tap at school. The teacher asked if the circle I'd drawn was what I really saw. He showed me it was actually an ellipse. I always drew after that. I went to work in shipyards before I decided to go to art college - that was a big risk. I'd never been to a museum." He laughs: "I hadn't even tasted garlic."
Yeo, meanwhile, is trying to persuade friends to sit for him on Facetime. "My family are tired of posing for me. Photos are too static, you need to be able to piece together from people living and breathing and reacting. I'm not used to showing my whole process but I'm keen. I've never had a better audience potentially."
All the artists hope Art School will continue beyond isolation. "There's a place for more online teaching," says Tyson. Yeo adds: "We'd never have set anything like this up ordinarily, but it's lovely, turning adversity into something positive."
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