The Shape of Things

posted on May 7, 2019

Have you woken up in the middle of the night, fretting over what you will teach on that last day of school? I am frequently awake from 2:00 to 5:00 a.m. with my restless, anxious mind performing its mental gymnastics with no singular focus. However, on the last day of school of the most recent academic year, I was wide awake with a very specific focus: What in the world was I going to do with three classes of students on their last day of school before three days of exams followed by graduation day?

The Shape of ThingsPravesha Ramesh, grade ten.

I believe in meaningfully engaging students right up until the end; if they have to be at school, there ought to be a good reason. But I also believe in not crushing myself with work to grade that I cannot possibly get to—or return to students—at this most hectic time of year when we are administering and grading exams leading up to commencement exercises at the end of the week. Plus, I wanted students to take their last piece home if, in fact, there was to be another piece.

Making Art in AP Art History
I was most concerned about my high-school AP Art History class. It has been said that our subconscious minds chip away at problems to solve, even when our conscious minds are otherwise engaged. That seems to be the case, because this idea seemed to crystalize out of nowhere.

I decided that students would use motifs from art history as the components of a composition created from spray paint and stencils they cut themselves. They would complete the entire piece in our 90-minute block.

Choosing Motifs
Students perused our Art Through the Ages art history texts looking for three to five motifs with interesting outer shapes. I encouraged them to look at architectural or sculptural objects including textiles, masks, vases, as well as details of those objects along with two-dimensional pieces. I suggested, but did not require, that they consider a combination of both ancient and more recent pieces as well as pieces from diverse cultures.

Spray-Painted Compositions
Students drew each motif on 9 x 12" (23 x 30 cm) white tag board, varying the sizes, and cutting out their stencils using scissors and craft knives. They were free to use the positive or negative parts of their stencils, though most used the positive. On the back of each, they placed a little roll of masking tape so that their stencils wouldn’t blow around as they spray-painted.

Next, students taped a border, narrow or wide, on their 9 x 12" pieces of white tag board and headed outside with their support, stencils, and bins of spray paint in a wide range of enticing colors. Some used sheets of plastic and others painted right on the grass in our courtyard.

The Shape of ThingsMiranda Davis, grade twelve.

There was no one way to complete the compositions, but I gave students basic instructions of choosing only three or four colors of paint; spritzing lightly and not necessarily across the entire surface; and moving the stencils around, keeping strong composition in mind, between each layer of paint after a minute or so of drying. It is best to work from darkest value to lightest so that the last layers of paint do not overwhelm the earlier layers.

Students let their pieces dry a bit outside and then blew their pieces dry to prevent fume build-up in our workspace. Next, they removed the taped border and signed their beautiful works. The end results were so successful that I ended up presenting exactly the same creative challenge to my remaining AP Studio and Art Foundations classes.

There are many reasons why this challenge is such a rich one. The finished artworks are virtually successful, regardless of the student’s skill level, though an understanding of color and composition is helpful. I left the parameters open, but the period of art or the culture could be specified, as could the color harmonies, for a more focused investigation. While we were at the end of the year and I did not have time to provide much new or reinforced content before or after, this approach could be used to introduce or review concepts such as figure-ground relationships and positive-negative space.

Though the resulting paintings stand on their own, students could be given the option of gluing one or more of their stencils on top, using the spray painting more as a prepared ground. They could even draw or paint on top. Finally, while we worked small and individually for the sake of time, I can imagine that these pieces could be made quite large as a collaborative artwork for the school or community.

While my AP Art History students had more of a personal connection to the motifs they chose, even my Art Foundations students achieved inspiring results. Reaching back propelled all of us forward.

Betsy DiJulio is a National Board Certified Art Teacher at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. betsy.dijulio@vbschools.com

Creating: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.

Author Website: thebloomingpalette.com/betsy-dijulio-art

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