For the first semester this year, I took a new approach to teaching the Elements of Art. Instead of just having a project that used the element we were focusing on, I explained the concept and then gave my students a choice of two projects – one that was realistic and one that was abstract.
On the first day of class, I showed my students examples of realistic and abstract artwork. I also demonstrated how artwork is not either/or when it comes to abstract and realistic. We talked about how any piece could fit anywhere on a “timeline” of representational to non-representational artwork.
In the middle of the year, I had them work in groups to practice thinking about where a piece of artwork would fit on the “abstract to realistic” continuum. I printed out five pieces of artwork for each group and had them discuss and sort where they would place each one.
Doing all of this work with abstract vs. realistic up front made it easier when we got into more complicated concepts like Space. Since they already understood that they could make artwork anywhere along that continuum, they could focus their energy on understanding the element of Space.
After discussing the element of Space, I gave students the option of creating a more abstract notan or a more realistic drawing of a room. The notan used the concept of positive and negative space, while the room focused on drawing in two-point perspective. (For the room drawing I used the same lesson from last year about Surreal Spaces, but I only briefly touched on incorporating surrealism.)
Some students drew incredibly realistic rooms, while others created more surreal atmospheres. The notans were equally diverse. It was exciting to see my students exploring the full spectrum of abstract to realistic artwork.
I could see that opening up the assignment helped students to feel more comfortable being adventurous with their project. Instead of ending up with a set of cookie cutter pieces of artwork, each student’s art was truly unique. Another benefit was that even though my students each picked one project, they got to learn about and see the process of doing the other assignment while they watched their classmates.
Abstract (Notans): Black construction paper, White construction paper, scissors, X-acto knives, glue
One of my students won second place for the Safe City contest at our high school. Safe City is a contest that several different districts in our area participate in. Each school puts together a team of teachers and administrators to choose a first, second, and third place winner.
My students could choose to work from several of the suggested themes: family violence, suicide, bullying, or cyber-bullying. For this project, we focused on the Element of Texture. Because it is a required contest for all art teachers to participate in, many of my students had created a poster in Elementary or Middle School.
In order to make the project new and interesting, I showed my students examples of artists who incorporate text into their artwork. Each student could decide how to include words in their drawing.
I was so proud of how this student wove the text throughout his drawing and turned each letter into a detailed and powerful representation of the tough subject matter he tackled. He won a $50 award; he and his family were invited to a celebration for Safe City. I’m so proud of him!
My students started this painting while they were waiting for their clay projects to get bisque fired. I showed them examples of incredibly detailed animal drawings, most of which were filled with abstract designs. Since they had just finished creating an animal out of clay, I gave them the option to choose another subject if they wanted to. I had a big box of animal photos and facts for student to look through if they decided to draw an animal.
They sketched their design before transferring it to watercolor paper using the carbon copy technique. (They shaded the back of the sketch with pencil, taped it on top of the watercolor paper, and traced over their design.) Before they began painting, we had a day of experimenting with the watercolors. I demonstrated five different techniques. I’ve found that letting students practice on a small piece of paper first gives them more confidence on the final artwork.
For the glazed wash, students would paint a color and let it dry, then paint another color. This showed them that watercolors are transparent and that you have to let the first layer dry if you don’t want the next color to mix with it. I gave them small spray bottles to moisten their paper with for the wet on wet technique. (I bought body mist at the dollar store and filled it with water.) When they combined colors on the wet paper, the colors blended together in an interesting way.
I explained that “sgraffito” means scratched in Italian and showed them that they could use the other end of their paintbrush to scratch a design into the paint. In order to make the salt technique successful, they had to paint a very liquid-y layer before they sprinkled the salt on top. Once the paint dried, they could scrap off the salt with a rag. The rubbing alcohol was the most popular technique. After painting a fairly wet layer, they would dip a Q-tip into rubbing alcohol and then splash it onto their paper.
It was so much fun to see so many of my students come up with their own ideas of what they wanted their subject to be. My goal is for students to become more and more comfortable branching out on their own as the year progresses.
After they were finished with the watercolor portion of the project, they worked on an Independent Project while they waited for the paint to dry. Then, they used felt tip pens and Sharpie to trace over their pencil lines. This really made their designs pop. I almost didn’t include this part because our order of black pens hadn’t come in. I glad I re-ordered them because their pieces looked so much more polished after this step.
We worked on this project in bits and pieces because it was combined with the clay project and fell in the middle of a testing week. It was easy for my students to pick it back up where they left it. I will definitely pair it with clay again.
High school students use coil and hand-building techniques to create ceramic animal containers.
Clay tools, plastic knives, unfolded paperclips for carving
Small containers of slip
Underglaze, clear glaze
Bristle brushes (hold the glaze better)
The students created a container and added animal features to it. I started by having the students draw a rough sketch of what their design would look like from 3 different perspectives: front, side and back. I emphasized that this was a rough sketch. Some of my students were getting frustrated because the drawing didn’t look like the idea they had in their mind. I told them that the sketch was just a plan. I wanted them to put their artistic energy into making the clay look like the image they had in their mind.
I began by teaching them how to coil build a container. They could choose whatever kind of container they wanted. I put very few limitations on this project because I wanted to see where their creativity would take them. While they were coil-building, I constantly reminded them to score and slip. I also focused on having them smooth out the sides of the container when they were finished. The flat side of a plastic knife works really well for getting a smooth, even edge.
After they finished their container, I taught them hand-building techniques to add their animal features. I told them that you can’t add a solid piece of clay that is bigger than the circle your fingers make when you do the “A-okay” sign. (A piece any bigger than that will have air bubbles, which could cause it to explode in the kiln.) I also reminded them to score and slip every single thing they added on. If they didn’t do those two things, the piece would pop off in the kiln. I had a handful of breaks, but we were able to repair them with glaze paste and another coat of glaze.
While we waited for the pieces to air dry and get bisque fired, I had the students work on a watercolor project. Once they were all fired, we spent a week glazing. They used underglaze, with a coat of clear glaze on top. We spent a lot of time talking about how to take care of the glazes, since they are the most expensive art supply we’ll work with all year. I had them dip right into the original container, so that we wouldn’t waste glaze pouring it back and forth. I also emphasized how critical it was that they wash their brush in between colors.
I explained to my students that the underglaze would appear much lighter when they painted it. I showed them finished examples so that they could see how the colors would brighten and darken in the kiln. We talked about chemical reactions, especially when they were putting on the coat of clear glaze. I reassured them that the clear glaze would not stay blue; the heat of the kiln would turn it into glass.
The underglaze had to dry overnight before they could put the clear glaze on. I demonstrated how to dab on the clear glaze instead of paint it on, so that it wouldn’t smear the underglaze. There were a few students who had really gone above and beyond with their clay project. I allowed them to use special glazes that would create interesting reactions.
Some of my students finished glazing in just two days. I had them work on Independent Projects if they finished extra early. When about half of my class was done, I set up a table with watercolor supplies and had them continue working on their painting. The watercolor project paired really well with glazing. I was able to reference watercolors when I explained that glazes are transparent, which means you can’t cover one color up by painting another color on top of it.
Once all of the glazed pieces had been fired, I lined the back counters of my room with all the work from all of my class periods. Usually, my students write about their own artwork for a critique. For this project I wanted them to be able to see everyone’s work, since I wouldn’t be able to hang their work on the walls. I lined that edges of the counter with neon “Do NOT touch the art!” signs and told the student not to let their fingers, nose or toes cross the blue line I taped on the floors. One table at a time walked through the back of the room and observed the art. Each student chose one piece of art, other than their own. As their critique, I asked them to describe the form and glaze well enough that I would know which piece they were talking about. I also asked them to imagine what would they use it for, if they could buy it and take it home.
A Note on Materials: The only way we were able to afford to do this project is because a local artist donates big buckets of his clay scraps to us. Us art teachers spend a lot of prep time re-claiming the clay. It’s a bit time-consuming, but oddly therapeutic (and a great workout!)
During the second semester, it has been amazing to see how my students have used the different materials and techniques I’ve introduced to them to create Independent Projects. This student began a painting of butterflies using acrylic paint. She was stuck deciding what to do for the background. At the end of class she grabbed a couple pieces of paper, asked for some oil pastels, and said she knew exactly what she was going to do. She came to my room the next morning to show me the finished project!
This is a special piece of artwork because it marks the transition of one of my seniors. First semester, I had a conversation with him – “I know art isn’t your thing, but you have to pass this class to graduate.” He stopped laying his head down in class and slowly started engaging in the assignments. This Independent Project is the beginning of him really embracing his creative side. We had just finished making paper-cut artwork. He created the painting and decided to use an Xacto knife to carve designs out of it.
I love watching my students explore new techniques on their own. A student in my 4th period class told me that he wanted to try transferring photographs to pieces of wood. I showed him how to do it, and the project took off like wildfire. I’ve had 5 students in that class create a wood transfer of their own photograph. What I love about this project is the way it connects with my students’ everyday lives. This student used a photograph of her quinceanera.
The wood transfer process is fairly easy, but does take several days to complete. This video is an excellent guide if you are doing it for the first time. If you ask your local print shop to print the photo out as an “engineer print” it is much cheaper and the paper is thinner, which makes it easier to scrub off. After the students scrubbed off all the paper and let it dry, I had them finish it with several coats of furniture polish.
When my student told me he wanted to paint a valve cover to display in his room, I had no idea what process he should use. He did some research on the internet and talked to our Auto-tech teacher to figure out his plan. I loved that this project gave him the opportunity to experience what professional artists do when they have an idea, but aren’t sure of how to proceed. He painstakingly taped sections so they would stay raw metal and then spray painted the rest.
When I taught middle school, I had a system where my students could earn time by cleaning up quickly or answering questions. They could use the time they earned for Free Art Friday. When I started teaching high school, I wanted to have a similar system. However, I wanted my students to be more focused and create more polished pieces. I came up with the idea of Independent Projects.
When students finish a project early, they begin working on an Independent Project. For these projects, they have the freedom to choose any subject they want. They can also choose to use any of the materials that we have already used in class.
Each students has a folder that is filled with notebook paper for our writing assignments. They keep any unfinished Independent Projects in the pockets of their folder. This makes it easy for them to have something extra to work on, without them having to finish that project in just a day or two.
Once we finish a class project, I schedule a day that is just for Independent Projects. This gives everyone time to focus on their individual artwork, and it also allows students who were absent to catch up with the class. Independent Projects have helped so much with classroom management. One of the challenges of teaching Art is that there is such a wide range of paces that students work at. Having something meaningful for students to work on if they finish early means that they are still engaged, which keeps them from misbehaving out of boredom.
Part of their mid-term exam grade was to take an Independent Project that they had started and finish it or polish it up. (The other part of the grade was to write about if they thought an image was art or not, using the Elements of Art to support their case.) Some students decided to start a new project and finish it in the extra time we had for the exam.
This was my first year to help my students participate in the VASE (Visual Arts Scholastic Event) competition. Students create a piece of artwork and write about the decisions they made throughout the process. At the competition, their score is determined by the artwork itself and by the interview they have with a judge about their art. If a student scores a 4 (the highest possible score), they receive a Letterman jacket in Art.
I let my students choose the subject and medium for their artwork. I knew that it was going to be a huge amount of work for them outside of class, so I wanted their artwork to be something that they were personally connected with.
Some students decided to take an assignment they were already working on and spend extra time and effort getting it ready for the contest. I let all of my students use class time to work on their piece.
They also stayed after school and took their artwork home over evenings and weekends. We had a work day after school where students filled out their paperwork, including their answers about their choices in creating the piece. They also had an opportunity to practice interviewing each other. It was great for them to have a chance to get to know each other while they prepared for the interview portion.
We spent a Saturday morning and afternoon at the actual competition. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for them to present their artwork. They were able to walk around and view the other pieces that were submitted. I was so proud of all the hard work they put into their art! All of my students who were judged received a 4, which means that they will be getting a Letterman jacket in Art!