Thursday, December 3, 2009

2-D Compositions Grow Out of Sculpture and Botanical Studies (High School Art Unit Plan)

Following is the text from an article I wrote that was published in the October 2009 issue of SchoolArts Magazine. The article is not yet online, so the editor granted me permission to post the copy and some photos here. Essentially, the article reads like the summary of a unit plan, learning plan or what I refer to as a Creative Challenge. It is my hope that you can adapt it to your context.

Sculpture Sketches in Bloom
by Betsy DiJulio
"When I looked at this sculpture, I felt something and I wanted my work to depict what I felt…I let the analytical part of my imagination guide me." ~Kendria T.

The best artistic challenges open students’ eyes, hearts and minds by combining both formal and conceptual concerns. A temporary exhibition of African Shona Sculpture entitled "Mutambo!" (Celebrate!) at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens in Norfolk, VA, inspired such a challenge. However, the project’s parameters are applicable to virtually any group of objects.

On a crisp October day, my 40 art foundations students fanned out across the Gardens, each group led by a volunteer artist/art educator in our community. The observational drawing assignment for our 2.5 hours on site was simple: make one large and fully modeled drawing of the sculpture of your choice; make additional contour drawings of other sculptures; and make one botanical study.

The sculptures were ideal objects to draw, not only because of their cultural connection to Zimbabwe and their obvious cross-disciplinary connection to history; but because of their simple, yet expressive, forms. I encouraged students to fill their pages by overlapping drawings, making drawings in the negative spaces of other drawings, turning their sketchbooks 90 degrees between drawings, and so forth.

Afterwards, I presented students with two consecutive challenges. The first was largely formal: to translate their modeled rendering into a large black and white charcoal drawing on gray paper. The second was both formal and conceptual, as it played with the notion of "content" in art and "contents" of a cardboard box. Specifically, I asked students to combine several of their drawings of the sculptures with their botanical study(ies) on corrugated cardboard and link them all through a theme stenciled onto their support. Media was limited to Sharpie, graphite, white paint, coffee and the occasional use of raffia.

Students derived their themes such as "Unity" or "Family" by brainstorming ideas using a sunburst diagram. They then used the Creative Problem Solving tool "SCAMPER" to help them think in terms of possibilities rather than limitations as they planned their compositions. SCAMPER is an acronym for substitute; combine; adapt; modify (magnify, minify or multiply); put to other uses; eliminate; and reverse/rearrange. It can be applied to any product or service in any field.

Using a matrix, students applied SCAMPER to the proscribed parameters of the project. For example, "Combine" led students to mix beautiful "latte" colors from coffee and white paint; "magnify" gave them permission to change the scale of individual drawings, "eliminate" encouraged them to cut away the surface of the cardboard revealing the corrugated texture underneath or to pierce patterns into it, and so forth. In myriad ways, the students’ use of SCAMPER catapulted their thinking way "out of the box" in relation to both composition and media. As John A. reflected, "This method was extremely helpful when looking for ideas on how to get the project going, progress when finding myself at a loss of creativity, and wrap up and tie all the elements of the pieces together."

Students selected cardboard and made thumbnail sketches before beginning on their final pieces. They worked with relish for about ten classes to build up actual and metaphorical layers. As they problem-solved individually and collaboratively, their solutions became more innovative, confident, interesting and complex. I encouraged this divergent thinking while continually emphasizing good drawing over "decorating," including the use of weighted line, as well as strong composition.

We concluded the project with a written assessment in which they chose two "21st Century Proficiencies/Skills" from a list (see below) and described how they used, developed or reinforced them in their artwork.

The students’ achievement is born out in their written statements, as well as in their artwork. As Amy C. summarized, "Overall, I thought this project was a success. It was very creative and different from the art I usually make and I am very happy with what I have done." Administrators at Old Dominion University--Virginia Beach Higher Education Center were too and mounted an exhibition of the students' work with a reception in their honor (February 2009).

Skills Taught/Reinforced:

Technical Skills

  • Observational Drawing (contour and modeled drawings)
  • Composition

21st Century Skills Used in Written Assessment

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Inventive Thinking: Curiosity, Imagination & Risk-Taking
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Initiative
  • Planning
  • Collaboration
  • Literacy (Visual, Oral, Written)

Teaching Tools:


  • Sketchbooks and Pencils
  • Corrugated Cardboard
  • Ebony Pencils and Erasers
  • Sharpie Marker
  • White Acrylic Paint, cups, brushes, water
  • Instant Coffee, cups, brushes, water
  • Stencils
  • Raffia (in select instances)

National Standard:
Students conceive of and create works of visual art that demonstrate an understanding of how the communication of their ideas relates to the media, techniques, and processes they use.

Student Art Credits: Rachel T. (top) and Allison X. (bottom)

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