Alter-Ego Books

By Trish Klenow and Slater Mapp, posted on Aug 3, 2023

What if there was a way to connect all of the beginning art exercises like perspective, value scale, and faces into a cohesive story? What if there was choice and depth from day one of your first art class? How can learning to draw be fun, original, driven by personal narrative, and still be rigorous? Presenting the Alter-Ego Altered Book curriculum!

SchoolArts magazine, The Groundwork Issue, September 2023, High School Art Lesson
Vivian L., Face Off, a twist on Betty Edwards’ vase/face assignment.
SchoolArts magazine, The Groundwork Issue, September 2023, High School Art Lesson
Cami C., alter-ego character book cover made with papier-mâché, air-dry clay, and reductive carving.
SchoolArts magazine, The Groundwork Issue, September 2023, High School Art Lesson
Left: Tara B., silhouette title page using the postmodern principle Interaction of Text and Image. Right: Michelle K.
SchoolArts magazine, The Groundwork Issue, September 2023, High School Art Lesson
Sravani E., alter-ego book finale made with mixed media.
SchoolArts magazine, The Groundwork Issue, September 2023, High School Art Lesson
Sam N., 9th grade, perspective drawing of alter-ego character's room.

Learning from Betty Edwards
In the late 1980s when we were in ninth grade, we learned to draw using Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Tarcher Books, 1979). It worked great. Following the book’s exercises, we noticed clear portfolio growth in just one month. When we started teaching high-school art, we used a lot of Edwards’ methods, as did many of our colleagues.

This curriculum is good; it’s like taking drawing vitamins—students build up a great foundation, learning to see like an artist and imitate life. In short, it works, but after years of teaching this way, it seemed like there were missed opportunities and missed depth. So we decided to reinvent the “Betty” curriculum.

Alter-Ego Characters
Our first goal was to create a personal connection to our drawing exercises. On the first day of class, we did preliminary drawings (taken right from Edwards’ method). But instead of just drawing a figure, students were asked to draw an original alter-ego character from memory. There were fairies, robots, animal hybrids, and villains. We loved the visual variety we got on the very first day of class.

Altered Books
Next, students created an altered book using upcycled books, gesso, and mixed media. They began the book work with a title page featuring a silhouette of their alter-ego character drawn from a source using Edwards’ upside-down method. Students then added text to their silhouettes—information about their fictional character such as their backstory, relationships, powers, and more.

A second major goal for this unit was experimentation. During the first week of school, students made a variety of backgrounds using materials like instant coffee, shaving cream resist, and Bubble Wrap in their altered books and on 12 x 18" (30 x 46 cm) paper. Not knowing what the backgrounds would be used for encouraged a sense of play and experimentation.

Students had to draw and build on top of these backgrounds. They created chapters for their characters, including a vision board collage, and brainstormed characters’ aesthetics while practicing composition. Later, I added a reinvented vase/face drawing activity where students incorporated a self-portrait profile facing off against their alter ego.

Students also created a chapter featuring blind and continuous line contour drawings of their character’s clothes and food, a chapter featuring a perspective drawing of their character’s home, and figure studies using continuous line contour.

On and Beyond the Book
After all of the work inside their altered books, students finished up by designing the front covers. Students could choose papier-mâché or other sculpture methods. They took impressive risks, wanting to show strong design and skill to advertise what was waiting inside their custom narratives.

Beyond the book, students created a stand-alone piece using one of the 12 x 18" grounds they made at the beginning of the school year. They chose their favorite book study or method and took it to the next level, showing off new skills in line weight, life drawing, and value. Students loved the free-choice option, and teachers loved seeing the results displayed in our hallway gallery.

At the end of the unit, there were two formal critiques—a blind book swap where students were given the book of a student from another class to evaluate, and a hallway sticky-note critique. Students loved seeing other students’ books and observing different creative solutions for the same challenge. In addition to the critiques, the everyday problem of how to connect the lesson to the individual characters drove students to seek out informal WIP feedback from their peers in small groups during class.

In the units that followed the alter-ego curriculum, students sought out themes, narratives, and meaning for the rest of the year. Every time we started a new unit, they asked, “What’s the title of this unit?” “Why are we doing this?” “How can I make it mine?” They created cover pages and thumbnails without prompting, wanting to plan ahead and see the bigger picture.

We were thrilled to see a positive ripple effect from the alter-ego curriculum. After they had put so much into their books, they could not be parted from them—they carried them everywhere. For us, there’s no going back to traditional drawing exercises where everyone draws the same prompt.

Trish Klenow and Slater Mapp are art educators at Green Level High School in Cary, North Carolina.

National Standard
Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.

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