Friday, January 22, 2010

Surrealism and One- and Two-Point Persepctive (High School Art Unit)

Looking through some computer files, I stumbled across this unit from 2005-2006 that I created and taught to beginning students when I was a very new teacher. I see a fair number of perspective units that are problematic to me for a variety of reasons. But my iteration satisfactorily addressed most of my concerns. The students really enjoyed it and I am thinking of resurrecting it, perhaps with more emphasis on mark-making so that the pieces combine drawing issues with design.

Or, observing that the paintings were a little "plain," my mentor, Nicole Brisco, suggested flipping them and having students make another drawing on top. She liked my idea in response to her suggestion: have students flip their pieces and repeat their compositions as simple contour drawings overlaid on their paintings. If we do the new, improved version of this Challenge, I'll be sure to post samples.

The Art Problem:
Students will explore both one-point perspective and surrealism through the creation of tempera paintings or tempera batiks that feature intriguingly ambiguous spaces and a sense of mystery.

Inspiration Artist: Craig Blair (older work)

Basic drawing experience
Basic composition experience
Basic color mixing with tempera (or build in a mini-lesson)

1. The composition must be based on 1-point perspective.

2. The artwork must possess a sense of mystery created by shadows or other dark areas, silhouettes, etc. (Mystery can also be created by your combinations of objects (e.g. objects that might not normally go together.)

3. The composition must include:

  • Mostly hard-edged geometric shapes combined with one or two organic shapes/forms (like a plant, tree, bird, etc.). Note: some students didn't include the organic object, so it could be optional.
  • An object somewhere in the composition that is drawn from 2-point perspective (a suitcase, a television, a box, etc.).
  • A patterned floor, floor covering or walkway that follows the rules of 1 point perspective.
    a platform or stairs.
  • A door, window, half-wall or opening of some kind between the foreground/middle ground space and the background space.
  • An ambiguous spatial relationship somewhere in the piece.

    Note: you may include other objects of your choice AS LONG AS YOU AVOID CLUTTERING THE COMPOSITION.


Reproductions of Craig Blair's work (choose carefully as the quality varies)

Reproductions of other surreal images that emphasize ambiguous spaces, one- and two-point perspective and a sense of mystery (e.g. Giorgio de Chirico)





Manila drawing paper

Tempera paint

Brushes (+ water, cans to hold water, newspapers, paper towels)

If creating tempera batiks:
Black India ink

Cafeteria-style trays or clear pieces of acrylic or Plexiglas the size of the artwork or slightly larger

  1. Set the stage with an art criticism activity related to the inspiration artist being sure to define "surrealism."

  2. Incorporate an art historical surrealist antecedent such as Giorgio de Chirico by comparing his work with Craig Blair's.

  3. Explain parameters of this Creative Challenge.

  4. Teach a simple one-point and two-point perspective mini-lesson.

  5. Direct students in the creation of thumbnail sketches that fit within the project parameters; help them choose the most successful idea and composition, combining aspects into another thumbnail if necessary.

  6. Transfer thumbnails to larger paper.

  7. If creating straight paintings, instruct them in the painting of their compositions with tempera. Require students to use a limited color palette of mixed "ish" colors (see glossary); if desired, instruct them in the defining of edges through graphite or ink marks.
  8. If creating tempera batiks, students do the following: paint each area of their paintings using about three thick coats. They should NOT paint over the lines, but should leave the paper exposed where the lines are. (Tracing over the lines in light colored chalk helps remind them not to paint over the lines.) Once tempera is completely dry, they completely cover the ENTIRE surface of their paintings with black India ink. Foam brushes work well for this. Once the ink is barely dry--it should not sit on the paintings for an extended period--they should place their paintings on cafeteria-type trays or pieces of acrylic or Plexiglas and gently rinse the ink off using a slow stream of water or water poured from a container over the sink. They should control how much ink is removed by rubbing gently with their fingers. The ink will soak into the exposed paper where the lines were drawn but not painted over AND it will adhere in a random way to the surface of the tempera paint creating a batik-like effect.

Assessment: Score and comment on each piece using the "Sailing the Seven Seas" rubric. (Sometimes I have the students score their own work first using the rubric, explaining that my scores will "trump" theirs, but that it is important for them to evaluate their own work.)

IB-MYP Area of Interaction: Environment (physical and psychological)

Art Credits (top to bottom): Craig Blair; students: Cameron R., Ariel T., Kelly B., T.H.


  1. This is very useful, Thank you.

  2. I'm so glad if you found it useful; it's my pleasure to share.

  3. I came here looking for ideas on teaching surrealism to prep English students for a reading of Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold--I want to show some examples of surrealist art. I love your rubric--I want to adapt it to writing evaluation somehow. Great work and thank you!

  4. Just took a job teaching high school art after 5 years in the elementary schools. THANK YOU! I've been learning, trial-by-fire mostly, and reinventing the wheel is hard to do every week! I love how you link to "manageable chunks" of important art history and the lessons also give students a chance to learn something about themselves, without being hokey or trite!

  5. Rachel, my apologies for not responding sooner! Congrats on diving into high school! I love it--have never taught another grade level or even at another school--but I still often feel that I'm at the trial-by-fire stage, even after 9 years because I tend to add new challenges all the time. I am humbled that you feel my lessons aren't "hokey or trite"! I seek to avoid that at all costs! Please let me know if I can answer any questions as you feel your way along and best wishes!

  6. Hello! Just curious if you have done the new and improved version of the perspective challange since 2010? Did you post any examples? I'm not sure I understand what you were going to do but it sounded cool. Great lesson!

  7. Betsy, the high school visual art educators you so well serve with your blog may be interested in a whole new high school art project that students would love to dig their heads and hands into. 'Students as Editorial Cartoonists for the Earth.' The artists at Ucartoonit have developed this art project to allow students to create editorial cartoons to draw attention to the environment they will live in. And broadcast their cartons worldwide on CNN iReport and other major sites to get public action. See how it works at

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