Drawing from Photographs: A High School Painting Project to Remember

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

This is the kind of high school art project that makes you catch your breath. It is the work of Grace Pickford, a Year 13 student from Pukekohe High School, Auckland. Grace’s NCEA Level 3 Painting folio (the equivalent of A Level Art) was awarded Excellence, Scholarship and Top in New Zealand for Painting, 2011. There’s no other way to say it: it’s amazing.

ncea art boards - excellence with scholarship
Grace’s submission: 3 x A1 NCEA Art boards

Grace begins with material that is fraught with difficulty: photographs taken by others. Grace’s photographs, however, are not flat, second-hand images: they are the subject. They are the essence of a still life; rich in their imperfections, creases, stains and tears. They are a tiny collection of memory: a depiction of something that was before and has now been imbued with layers of time.

Grace’s work is a reminder that gaining an exceptional result is not just about meeting learning objectives, showing development or demonstrating a high level of technical skill (although Grace excels in all of these areas): it’s about communicating something that really matters. It’s about making art.

I was lucky enough to interview Grace about her painting project. Her responses are below.

ncea art board ideas
Sculpture or installations can be used to drive forward NCEA Painting board ideas. Here Grace has cropped old family photographs and projected them onto sheets (using an OHP). This installation is then photographed and, using Photoshop , overlaid with images of branches to reference family trees.

Amiria: Your art project explores what happens to our memories of a person following their death, and how – like photographs – these fade, stain and become ‘discoloured’ over time. What made you choose this theme?

Grace: I’ve always loved my family’s old albums and place extra value on the ones that have been damaged over time, and at the beginning of the year I decided on a theme that expresses the mixed emotions these old photographs provoked in me. It took a lot of thinking and analysing these photographs as well as questioning my parents about the people they depicted, before I understood the subconscious thoughts I had about them that have always attracted me to them. I discovered that it’s the fact that all the people in the photos no longer exist, and the overwhelming fact that one day I no longer will either. Memories are all that remain after a person passes and in a way keep them alive, as memories fade and photographs deteriorate, so does the last part of a person’s existence.

ncea painting exemplars - excellence
This oil painting of photographs (above left) depicts not just the photographed images, but the string used to hang the photographs, shadows created behind the photographs, blurred images and torn edges. It is an excellent example of how to best approach second-hand imagery. Grace begins her project with monochrome paintings, using oil on cardboard that has been prepared with gesso . This allowed her to focus on refining her control of oil paint without the added distraction of colour. This approach is especially valid given that Grace’s subject is centred around the exploration of aged photographs.

Amiria: Prior to completing this project, you described yourself as a sketcher, with little interest in painting. You are clearly now an exceptional painter, with work that is deemed the best of all NCEA Level 3 Painting students in New Zealand in 2011. What tips or advice do you have for those who have difficulty painting and are more confident with drawing?

Grace: For me the transition into painting was probably quite different to most because I started in black and white and also went straight to painting in oils. The aspect of painting I originally found hard was working quickly while also mixing colour after colour, so in painting in black and white oils I had all the time I wanted (as oils dry slowly) as well as focusing on detail and tone rather than colour (which I had little interest in at the time). Once I became confident in painting, I took the step into colour and was just sure to be patient with myself when mixing colours and slowly became more confident with that also.

amazing high school art
Captured in time, these dated snapshots have been depicted with [painted] burnt eroding edges, fading away.

Amiria: Your work contains a good balance of tightly refined, realistic areas with those that are more abstract. Talk through the advantages of this approach, in terms of both practical and aesthetic considerations.

Grace: Because I like painting in a realistic style, I knew I had to be careful to still express concepts and ideas through my art, and avoid my work just being seen as ‘copies’ of images without provoking any thoughts in the viewer. To visually express my ideas about fading memories, and memories being damaged or covered in some way I juxtaposed realistic areas with blurring and areas that looked like stains or mistakes, as well as blurred areas and areas of one colour.

Amiria: Which artists did you study as part of your project and how did these influence your work?

Grace: I was interested in Christian Boltanski’s concepts. He expresses ideas about memories and death but avoids any sentimentality in his work, I found his views and ideas around these subjects interesting as he addressed them without fear and ignored the taboo society usually places on death-despite the fact that it is a natural part of life.

Other artists that influenced my work both visually and conceptually were New Zealand artist Barry Ross Smith, as he looked at the relationship between photography and painting, and Pedro Matos.

NCEA Level 3 Art painting -scholarship example
In the middle of her NCEA Level 3 Painting board, Grace begins to really hit her stride. Here her project lifts from the excellent to the draw-dropping extraordinary. These carefully rendered portraits have painted stains seeping over them, connecting the unfaltering gaze of the viewer with those who have gone before.
ncea painting scholarship exemplar
A great example for NCEA Painting Scholarship students as well as A Level Art students, this work combines both highly realistic elements with blurred abstract marks.
amazing oil paintings of people
Grace’s project is filled with amazing oil paintings of people: this one (along with the two below) probably cinched her Top in New Zealand placing. It’s hard to believe this work was completed by an eighteen year old.

Amiria: Your project includes a very subtle and considered use of colour, with many pieces entirely black and white. Please talk to me about the thought process behind this.

Grace: I’ve always been attracted to images that rely solely on tone and lighting rather than colour, I think it was more a subconscious preference rather than a thought process I went through. However I think the reason I’ve always loved black and white images is that they add another layer of separation between the viewer and the work, reminding them that what they are seeing is only a representation of something that exists. This separation reminds me of the same feeling I get when looking at an old photograph, be it in colour or not, because that moment is captured yet all we have of it is a representation, giving it an ‘untouchable’ quality.

ncea art exemplars, scholarship
Working with the confidence of a successful contemporary artist, Grace begins the careful and considered integration of colour.

Amiria: What advice do you have for other high school art students who are hoping to achieve excellent grades?

Grace: I think with a subject like painting, or any art subject, it’s important for you as the artist to love what you are creating. If you find it visually pleasing and have an idea you are interested in and feel the need to express then the work you produce will reflect this. It’s also important to understand that not everyone has to love what you are creating, it’s good not to get to doubtful because of people’s different tastes or to get distracted by other peoples work. Talk to your teacher as much as possible about ideas and artists they recommend you to look at, as they understand the marking criteria better than anyone. However follow your gut when it comes to the bigger decisions (or at least try compromise if your teacher and your gut are telling you different things) you are the one who will spend hours on your boards so make sure you are staying on a path you’re passionate about, putting in the time needed will seem easier this way.

best ncea painting board example
Flawlessly composed, this oil painting contrasts fully rendered form with flat, grey areas of line. Here Grace continues the exploration of photographic remnants: picking and choosing which part of the story we see remember and which part we tell. Perhaps my favourite work from the best NCEA Painting board in NZ, 2011: beautiful.

The last section of Grace’s portfolio was inspired by the exceptional artwork of young Lisbon artist Pedro Matos (you can see a gallery of his artwork here).

ncea level 3 painting exemplars
In an age when art students are encouraged to be inventive and experimental with mixed media, Grace instead makes it look like she is working with mixed media, by using oil paint in a realistic fashion to depict layers of torn and peeling paper (these torn edges link visually with those shown on Board 1, helping to unite the submission). A stunning NCEA Painting Level 3 exemplar.
ncea level 3 art exemplar
NCEA Level 3 Art: you would never guess that the ripped layers of paint in this work are a painted illusion. A symbolic ripping away of time and peeling through memories, these pieces are a fitting conclusion to Grace’s outstanding project.

Grace Pickford is a name you should remember. Currently studying at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design, she is set to achieve great things.

If you would like to view more outstanding student artwork, please view our Featured Art Projects.


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