Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Magic Mystery Prompts (High School Art Unit Plan)

My intermediate, advanced and AP students, though initially unsure of what I was getting them into, absolutely loved this process and the results. I hope yours will too. It is a great challenge to use between those requiring extended periods of intense focus.

The Art Problem:
Students will create a work art using a series of prompts that create intentional and accidental mark-making. Students will utilize their knowledge of the principles of design to create bold works that address the concept of abstract as well as non-objective art.

Scrap paper or canvas
Spillable liquids (the students' or something available in the classroom)
Masking tape
India Ink, cups, small brushes
A selection of organic objects
Oil pastels
White china markers or white charcoal pencils

Guided Practice:
Quick and expressive is the name of the game with this assignment which is best spread over 3 class periods, though the first and last will take no longer than a half hour.

Day 1:
To begin, have students tape edges of their paper to create a border when removed at the end (not necessary if using canvas). Ask each student to spill something on their surface, e.g. a beverage, watered down paint, etc. (Avoid telling them where or how.) Doing this will release any preconceived expectations that students have for the finished piece. Place artwork on drying rack and leave until the next class. Meanwhile, finish a previous assignment or complete an exercise of your choice.

Day 2:
Prompt 1--Once dry, instruct students to add 3 pieces of masking tape in a linear pattern to the surface. (Avoid telling them how long the pieces should, where to put them, or if they should be overlapped.)
Prompt 2--Ask each student to quickly look around the room for an organic object. Once they find this object, they should use India Ink and a thin brush to make a 5 minute gesture of the object. (Avoid telling them where to place the object--except to keep it out of the middle of the page--or what size to make it.)
Prompt 3--Now, ask them to turn the artwork (but avoid telling them how much) and make another 5 minute gesture on top of their existing drawing.
Prompt 4--Once dry ask each student to select 3 oil pastels. Once they have done this, ask them to give you one back. Then, just when they think they can begin to work, ask them to trade one with a neighbor. (Be prepared for good-natured groans!) Now, ask them to use the oil pastels to make bold marks that define positive and negative space, however they interpret that.
Prompt 5--To complete the artwork, ask them to return to the India ink and black out areas to create emphasis and direct the viewer's eye to the focal point.
Prompt 6--Remove the three pieces of tape (but leave the border taped).

Day 3:
Allow students to refine and correct their compositions for 20 minutes by working back into them using only the materials used during the series of prompts PLUS white china marker or white charcoal to correct areas that, e.g. are too heavily blacked in. (Students can break up those areas with white strokes.) Remove taped borders to leave a nice clean white margin.

Optional Extension:
Conduct a group critique.

According to Sailing the Seven Cs Rubric

Student Art Credits (top to bottom): Raymond K., Daniel B., Paula L., Polett B. and Grace M. (Intermediate and IB-MYP Intermediat); Maddie J. (AP Studio)

Source: Very slightly adapted from Nicole Brisco


  1. These are wonderful! What a great assignment. I've just found your blog and have really enjoyed looking at all the fabulous art work. You are an amazingly accomplished art teacher.

  2. Wow, Mary, thanks. I'm very humbled by your praise. However, for this assignment, I have to give virtually all of the credit to Nicole Brisco, as I noted at the end.

    I'm so glad you found The Blooming Palette. I've had a crazy year this year--all good--but have been so neglectful of this site. I plan to rectify that this summer and next year.

    If you are so inclined, I would love it if you would share my site with your colleagues in your school, district and any association you might belong because I've not really had much time to market it to other art educators.

    My best wishes for the close of your school year and beyond!


  3. Hi Betsy,
    I just found your site and am in the process of directing my advanced classes in high school art through the "Magical Mystery Prompts". I love this! I felt like my students needed to relax a bit and free themselves for greater expression throughout this school year and this seemed to be a good way to start. I can't wait to see the results. I have made a reflection sheet for them to think about this process, along with their class critique.
    I really love some of your other lessons too--haven't had time to see them all!


  4. How fun, Ellen! I would love to see what they come up with! I have to give my mentor, Nicole Brisco, all the credit. I've wondered if I could design one just as effective using just graphite pencil. Need to think on it because I'd love to do it at different levels and once you've presented it at one level, you can't do it the next year in the next level, as they know the secrets. :) I think you introduced it at EXACTLY the right time, though I'd never thought of jumping into the year with it. Great idea. It's perfect for when students seem to feel uptight/tight/too controlled and that can be August for sure. Feel free to share your reflection sheet here. I know others would like to see it. My promise to myself is to get back to this blog which has been sorely neglected for TOO long. Great to hear from you, and thank you!

  5. Hello Betsy! My name is Erin Crouch and I have been doing this same assignment (with lots of modifications) with my Art 2 classes for many years now! I recently wrote a blog post about my process and I linked back to your post here. I have been doing this assignment for so long that I almost forgot that where I found it. A quick Google search of "magic mystery mixed media" brought back my memory! Anyway, if you'd like to check out my post you can find it here: https://itneedsmorecontrast.blogspot.com/2018/06/mystery-prompts-mixed-media.html


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