SUMMER SCHOOLS / Getting it all in perspective: Susan Watts, Science Correspondent, reports on a holiday with a difference

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The Independent Culture
Anyone who goes on a study holiday must expect to mix a little work with their play. But at the summer courses run by Francis Pratt at the painting school in Castelnau de Montmiral, southern France, even a relaxing round of boules on the esplanade below the studios can become part of the learning experience.

For here boules is not just a game but a practical lesson in the basics of picture construction. Under Pratt's tutorial eye, the virtual impossibility of judging the winning bowl from the distance of the throwing point affords a simple introduction to the idea of perspective, while the subtle differences in the shade, or warmth, of the bowls' silver surfaces offer an easy way into theories of colour. Above all, just as the accuracy of your game depends upon judging the weight and strength of each throw, so Pratt's 'feely technique' of drawing depends upon developing an intuitive sense for the relative lengths of line in the scene you have chosen to draw.

Pratt describes his course as 'person-centred', which means that each student can expect individual tuition, carefully thought-out to match their personal expectations. The aim is that beginners (my companion and myself included), dedicated amateurs and professional artists should all benefit.

Students are expected to have at least partly-formed ideas of their own as to what they want to get from the course, and the first thing they are asked to do is produce a drawing or painting for Pratt to assess. This is not supposed to be a test, but a starting- point from which he can discuss what they are trying to achieve, why they are not achieving it and how they can best go about doing so.

Perhaps the most memorable part of my time at Castelnau was the two hours I spent drawing four simple lines - each no more than two centimetres long - which were to form the start of my second drawing (a picture of a row of dilapidated houses). It had never quite dawned on me before how vital it was to get the lengths of the first few lines of a drawing right.

Francis Pratt does not see accuracy as an end in itself, although he will help students achieve it if they want to. Rather, he sees accuracy as a way of introducing ideas about creativity, self-expression and even abstract art.

Learning to 'see' is an idea that crops up in many drawing classes but, in most other respects, Pratt's course is unique. As our two fellow students, both professional artists, testified, his course probably contains more intellectual soul-searching and almost certainly more science than most.

For in addition to teaching and lecturing in various art schools and exhibiting his work throughout Europe, Pratt has also, for the past 15 years, worked closely with scientists at the University of Stirling, where he was, for three years, a fully paid-up research fellow in the university's psychology department.

This exposure to science and scientists informs his approach to teaching art. Much of our tuition was designed to build up confidence, largely by convincing us that our visual systems and their links to the brain, while brilliantly designed to help deal with three-dimensional objects in the real world, are as physically ill-equipped for drawing and painting as the next person's - even if they happen to be called Leonardo da Vinci.

Experimental work on colour perception and on children's drawings led Pratt to initiate a new research group on vision at Stirling University. The group, bringing together psychologists and computer scientists, specialised in research on image interpretation and new ways of teaching computers to 'learn'.

Pratt will enthuse endlessly about his theories on colour, which are complicated, but persuasive. In simple terms, his thesis is that, for the most part, artists have ignored basic scientific facts that could have helped them solve many of the problems they have been grappling with. As he points out, the brain analyses the infinite variety of colours in nature to find out about the form of objects, the light that falls on those objects and the space that separates them. The eye, he believes, extracts this information from an ambiguous mixture of the 'body colour' of a surface and the light reflected from it.

His own paintings demonstrate the power of his ideas. Using thousands of colours, many in shades that hardly differ, he produces stunningly effective pastel paintings and abstract artwork. His technique may be distilled from the work of the Pointillists - the difference is that he can explain why it works, because he understands the scientific principles behind it.

Such principles, he says, could help explain even the most traditional ideas on painting - such as the rules on aerial perspective attributed to Claude Lorraine, the 17th-century pioneer of landscape painting. Claude's observation that atmospheric interference makes things appear blue provided a way of painting distance. For Pratt, the science that explains why this technique sometimes works also explains why it is not always the answer.

But if artists have ignored science to their loss, Pratt also notes that scientists have disregarded information from the world of art that could help solve problems in their own world, particularly in the area of image interpretation. With Pratt's help, the Stirling group developed computer software to remove the effects of mist from satellite pictures of the earth's surface.

From his idyllic home in France, Pratt fires off his criticisms of the British art establishment and of conventional art school tuition, which he sees as inflexible and dogmatic. Those who enjoy painting as a hobby will find his views fascinating. Those with more serious ambitions may have trouble abandoning their preconceptions. But it is these, he claims, that block them from finding their true creative potential.

Course information direct from the Painting School of Montmiral, Rue de la Porte Neuve, 81140 Castelnau de Montmiral, Tarn, France (Tel: 010 33 63 33 13 11) or through Unicorn Travel, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA (0786 72023).

(Photograph omitted)