Collaborative design and illustration practice Pencil & Help explains how they create engaging art classes for children, following their recent collaboration with two London schools.

Visual artists Mark Oliver and Mark Long founded Pencil & Help in 2013, to work in education alongside their established personal careers. Mark Long illustrates for a number of editorial clients, including weekly columns for The Independent. Mark Oliver is an illustrator, comic book artist and printmaker, whose work also appears in magazines and newspapers.

With a background in education and an interest in collaborative approaches to their disciplines, the duo of Marks delivered illustration workshops to year five students at the schools for the hoardings project – which stretches between Westfield Stratford and the bridge to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The students took sections of resident poet Aisling Faey’s poem Safety Training. Golden Rules to illustrate using cut paper and collaged text. A range of imagery and text was then chosen and used as elements to produce artwork that responded to the location and the dimensions of the canvas, whilst reflecting the poem.

We spoke to Mark Oliver to find out what it was like to host an illustration workshop with children, what the collaborative process includes and how to keep children engaged.

Miriam Harris: What do you get out of doing workshops with children? 

Mark Oliver: "Working collaboratively with children and communities works really well to complement our independent creative practices.  As illustrators working independently, the work is usually fairly solitary and our visual approach needs to be reliable, so it develops more subtly.  As Pencil & Help, the circumstances for each project are so diverse that they demand a much more experimental and varied approach.  We look at the brief, and get a sense of the children or community that we will be working with, and really try to dream up a bespoke creative process that can bring the project together.  

"So, what we get out of working with children is a freedom to experiment very broadly - children are totally fearless creatively - and many surprises at what emerge from the process of collaboration.  It breaks us out of the tendency towards solipsism in our other work, and gives us a real reservoir of creative play and surprise, which is the lifeblood of any creative practice."

MH: What’s the process behind setting up the workshops – do you get in touch with the schools?  

MO: "We have approached clients directly in the past, but in most cases there is an organisation that has the funding and the relationship with a school or community, and they will either put out an open call for proposals, or approach us directly if they know our work.  It started from us doing smaller one-off workshop projects for a few clients (House of Illustration being one of the first, who we still have a good relationship with), and as we gained experience we took on bigger projects.  We're always looking for stuff that can extend our practice into new areas, new challenges, so we're always happy to hear from people with an interesting or unusual project on the horizon."

MH: Do you have to have Criminal Records Bureau checks (CRB – now called DBS) or other safeguarding checks before working with schools? 

MO: "You pretty much need a CRB to do anything these days!  It helps to have one as it means less admin in the early stages of a project, but in most cases I think people get their CRB through an organisation who are producing a project, so it's not a prerequisite.

MH: How do you build a lesson plan for a workshop that children will want to participate in? 

MO: "We build our plans mostly around the parameters for each project (budget, brief, setting, timetable).  When we're designing the creative process that we'll be using, we swing between what will give us the best opportunity for meeting our brief in terms of what the artwork needs to do, and on the other hand what will offer the children an accessible creative space to respond to our ideas and give us something great to work with.  

"We work collaboratively from the very beginning, as we always plan these projects together (myself and Mark Long), and this really helps the process most of the time, as the ideas aren't living in a vacuum but bouncing back and forth between two artists."

This is not the first time Pencil & Help have held illustration workshops with children. Earlier last year we featured the pair’s giant hide-and-seek illustrated game for the interiors of Sheffield Children’s Hospital. Phoebe, 8, is treated regularly at Sheffield Children's Hospital. She created Coloray – a long-legged creature with an extra eye in his stomach, as seen below.

MH: How do you keep the children engaged?

MO: "It's a well-worn cliché at this point, but we make sure to be properly engaged ourselves!  People learn way more from what they see you do than what you are telling them, so we are careful not to sleepwalk into a project or we'll be met with the same disinterest.  We also feel strongly that we need to be creatively invested in a project. We want to be able to stand by the work we produce and as such we are sharing in the sense of risk that everyone feels when they embark on a creative project."

MH: In your latest project you gave them a poem to base the illustrations on. Do you usually give the children a starting point for their illustrations?

MO: "There is almost always a brief that includes some kind of contextual basis for the work, whether that is a research theme or a text, or a place."

MH: Do you decide on the medium that the children will use – such as cut paper and collaged text?

MO: "We almost always choose the medium ourselves, although the setting for the project often factors into this.  For example, our visual approach to a book design project would be different from how we approach a large-scale installation. 

"We have learned over the years how different media can work for us in terms of the characteristics of the visual material that they produce, and how we are able to work with it."

MH: We’ve seen a few hoardings about the place featuring commissioned artworks.  

MO: "I expect it's becoming more recognised by artists and illustrators as a valid forum to present work with it's own set of possibilities.  I think in the past developers have been guilty of commissioning token/box-ticking work that seems more of an afterthought, but I do think that is changing now, and we hope to see more interesting work on hoardings in the future. 

"It's especially relevant to what we do, as our work often begins with research into and engagement with a specific place, and these projects often call for work that reflects its social context."