Sunday, June 23, 2024


I can see why you might suggest a child uses bleach to make art. Taking a surface of ink, applying drops of a solution of four parts water to one part bleach, or applying it with a brush or matchstick, applies chance, unpredictability and excitement to the making of the artwork.

Of course, this would immediately be followed by advising adult supervision, finding alternative materials, or banning it altogether. Meanwhile, a book made for children in 1970, and published by the BBC, made clear to its young readers that you must be extremely careful when handling bleach, followed by explaining how you do exactly that, putting responsibility alongside creativity.

“Bleach” was the second word in the alphabet used by “Vision On: A Book of Nonsense with Some Sense In It”, a book published in 1970 to accompany the celebrated children’s programme, which ran from 1964 to 1976. It looks and feels like a children’s annual, but is instead a “a sort of alphabet book for anyone who likes painting and drawing”. But “Bleach” is on page 36, its alphabet ordered randomly: “The book has been made this way because it’s mainly about looking at things – and because if you put things in the proper way, people sometimes stop looking at them.”

When I saw a copy of this book in an emporium, listed as “rare”, I bought it straight away. “Vision On”, a fast-moving entertainment show ostensibly made for deaf children, prominently featured art works alongside comedy sketches, mime and animation, all keeping spoken passages and captions to a minimum. It can play like a silent movie, but it will hold your attention.

As the only official “Vision On” tie-in book, “A Book of Nonsense...” takes time to explain each of its subjects, utilising elements from the show: photographs from sporting events are used to explain concepts like foreshortening and motion blurring; David Cleveland’s “Prof” character is presented in a picture story using elements of photo-montage; metal objects are pressed with ink to make pictures from shapes, then made into sculptures; British Sign Language is introduced, in an article by co-presenter Pat Keysell, to explain why it is more enjoyable to use than lip-reading; comic strip conversations are made from photographs of a girl and her tortoise, and drawings of the show’s animated character “Jonah” - David Sproxton & Peter Lord’s “Aardman” and “Morph” came later in the show’s run; concepts like texture and optical illusions are fully explained; and new artistic forms like Chinese brushes in ink, and creating pictures with oil pain on water, are introduced for when you have finished using the bleach.

The key article for this book is “Observation and Art”, from the show’s artist Tony Hart, who created the “Blue Peter” logo and shield, and continued making similar shows for children until his retirement in 2001. Explaining that they “have suggested some unusual ways of making pictures”, it is then explained that the key is not just knowing what to use, but where to use, explaining composition like arranging ornaments on a mantelpiece. Negative space is also explained, and also how chance and nature plays a part in composition: “The patterns formed by frost and ice, the way bark forms on trees. Drop a handful of nails – see the angles they make. Do it with matches, see the difference.” The article ends by confirming that, while the show looks for artistic ability in the viewer-submitted “Gallery” feature, they are not prescriptive: “The whole point being that someone, whatever their age, has been observant. They’ve used their eyes, and their imagination has done the rest.”

While I never tried emulating the artworks made by Hart on his later show “Hartbeat”, or by Neil Buchanan on “Art Attack”, it is clear now that what made great television was meant to start young minds running. Likewise, “A Book of Nonsense” is not didactic or pedagogic, but inspirational – I’ll try ink with a brush first.

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