Pattern Design Fundamentals
Teaching pattern design offers valuable lessons to art students, enabling them to transform basic elements and sketches into intricate compositions. Pattern design encompasses a wide array of techniques and approaches for students to experiment with. Also, pattern art and traditions can be seen across the globe within numerous cultural contexts. This makes it an excellent topic for students to explore and connect with diverse artistic traditions from around the world. This topic could also be a great opportunity for students to research the pattern traditions from their own cultural backgrounds.
In my teaching practice, I incorporate a pattern design unit within both my advanced studio art class and digital art classes, utilizing software like Photoshop to craft unique repeat pattern designs. In both classes students explore the technical elements of pattern as well as the conceptual meanings patterns can convey and carry. We talk about the connections between traditional patterns and popular branding design, for example how Scottish tartan patterns are used by luxury brands like Burberry but also office supply company Scotch. It is fun to trace the history of patterns like Paisly or Boteh which traveled across the Silk Road, through Europe and into the American West to be used on bandanas.
Patterns are endlessly fascinating both to design and study. I’m going to share some of the concepts I like to teach for these units in the hope that you can design your own pattern unit that fulfills your learning goals for your students.
Types of Repeat Patterns
To start off the unit I teach students the most common types of repeat patterns and show visual examples of the unit (the element that repeats) and the repeat pattern (created by the repetition of the unit). This will lead into the second part of the lesson when I teach them how to design patterns step by step.
Discussing Pattern Traditions in Global Cultures
There are so many wonderful examples of pattern design in cultures across the globe. This can include textile patterns, ceramic tile patterns, decorative patterns and even tattoo patterns
Some of the pattern traditions I like to share with students are:
Creating Handmade Repeat Patterns
If you have access to a copy machine or scanner (phone)/printer it is really easy to create quick but visually impressive handmade patterns with your students. Even simple brush strokes, textural rubbings or paint splatters can look sophisticated in a repeat pattern so it is a fun and low stakes activity where beginners can be successful. I like to start off with some simple techniques and demonstrate the pattern design fundamentals.
Materials and Tools for Pattern Design
I love to create the first patterns in a way that is less controlled so I avoid rulers and pencils/erasers and opt for crayons (for texture rubbings), india ink, or markers so that students don’t feel like they have to be so precise as they are creating their motifs.
For latter activities like the continuous pattern I provide students with design vellum (which is a bit thicker than tracing paper) and thin markers like these sharpies and these Crayola SuperTips markers are great and affordable.
Students will also need glue sticks, scissors, XACTO knives, cutting mats, rulers and paper.
Designing a Pattern Unit
For our first pattern design I provide students with a piece of mixed media paper and India ink and rough brushes of assorted sizes to create textures or I set out crayons and textured items for them to create rubbings. Students fill the page with markings and then I give students a rectangular and square template to trace (I just cut these on the paper cutter using a thicker cardstock so they are easy to trace).
Students trace the templates and give me a rectangular and square selection to photocopy to serve as the units for our first patterns - half drop and rotational repeat patterns.
I fit as many of the extracted squares/rectangles as I can on a piece of regular copy paper (to save paper) and photocopy 10-12 copies. I roughly cut them out using the paper cutter to pass back to students. Then students will then cut them out more precisely and place in repeat patterns on a larger piece of paper and glue them down to form the repeat patterns.
This is where the magic happens, really simple motifs become beautifully complex and students begin to see the power of repetition in their artwork. Following these exercises we move on to creating a continuous repeat pattern with a bit more intention using the design vellum and markers
Continuous Pattern Design
To create a handmade continuous repeat pattern students need to begin by creating a drawing within a square format where the elements do not touch the edges of the paper. This concept can be a bit difficult for students to understand so I typically provide an example and lead them step by step. For my students it can be difficult to come up with a theme for their pattern so I assign an observational drawing in their sketchbook as homework to draw an object they find visually/conceptually intriguing and then when they come to class they can use the design vellum to trace aspects of that sketch. But any theme will work here. I have also in the past brought in natural forms like flowers, shells and leaves for students to be inspired by for their pattern designs.
As long as the elements are not touching or going off of the paper this technique will work. Once students are happy with their drawings they will begin to create the offset that will make the pattern continuous.
The first step is to find the middle of the square vertically, students can fold the paper to find the center if the measurements are not even. I supply my students with a 5” X 5” square so it is easy to find the center at 2.5”, then students should carefully cut the square along that vertical line and switch the piece that was on the left to the right side and tape it on the back side of the paper to create the square again.
Then they do this process again with the horizontal axis, cutting it at the halfway point (again folding is fine to find the middle) and switching the pieces (what was at the top goes to the bottom and what was at the bottom goes on the top) and taping the back.
If students followed instructions and didn’t draw their design to the edge of the paper there should be a bit of space in the center of their new square. In this space students should add another element/motif. Adding this extra element in the new center space is key to creating the look of a continuous pattern. If students didn’t follow instructions and filled the paper edge to edge they will not have the space to add the element (this has definitely happened in my class before and I just let the student follow along in the process but explain that this technique is not really necessary for their design because it will just repeat as it would without creating the double offset).
Once students add the extra element I photocopy their units again (we are lucky to have a color copier so I do this design in color.) Just as before I pass back the units and students line them up in a repeat pattern by hand seeing how the element they added after cutting their square creates a sort of bridge between the elements and breaks up the square format, making more of a diagonal half drop pattern.
Now that students know how to make a unit for repeat they can think about how they can create patterns without using the copy machine and instead use printmaking methods. In my classes these exercises can lead into a printmaking project where students use relief printing or silkscreen to create patterns. This Tile Pattern Printmaking project inspired by Portuguese Azulejos and Mexican Talavera tiles is a great follow up to this activity!
Creating Digital Repeat Patterns with Adobe Photoshop
In my digital classes the pattern design unit follows much the same progression as in the traditional media classes. I like to begin with traditional materials because we spend so much time on the computer in this class and it is great to take a break from screens and work with our hands.
We start out with a piece of mixed media paper and india ink and rough brushes of assorted sizes to create textures. I also set out some natural forms to inspire students like flowers, leaves, acorns, pinecones, and shells.
Students created marks using the india ink inspired by the natural forms. Students were given the instruction to make their elements “islands” or to not have any marks overlapping or touching one another. This is key because students will be extracting these elements from the background to recolor and use in a variety of pattern compositions.
Once students have a few pages of elements created using black india ink that have white space around them (islands) then they are ready to photograph their papers using their phone (I found this works just as well as a scanner because phones have such great cameras nowadays!)
How to Import the Design into Photoshop
wStudents then email or airdrop the photos they took on their phones to themselves. These will come in as HEIC files which they can export to JPGs or just open as is in Photoshop. If they come in as “smart objects” all they have to do is right click the layer and “rasterize.”
Once the photos are open in Adobe Photoshop students can use levels to adjust the white/black (I teach them to simply use the white eyedropper and black eyedropper for a quick white balance). Then they can use selection tools like the magic wand selection tool to select out the black from their design. As long as “contiguous” is left unchecked the magic wand will select all black pixels then I have students select the inverse and delete the white background, this leaves the elements on transparent background and preserves the gray tones in the elements that they created with the ink.
From this point students can simply use the lasso tool to circle elements (that is why making them “islands” is so important!) they want to copy/paste into their pattern unit.
To recolor the elements students use the layer effects “color overlay” which preserves some of the subtleties of the original brush painting. If you would like to purchase the full Pattern Design in Photoshop lesson which includes step by step video tutorials, visit my TPT Shop.
Defining a Pattern Tile
I guide my students to create a seamless/continuous repeat by starting with a square because it is the easiest to measure. I tell them to create a new canvas that is 4”X 4” or 1200 X 1200 px. This even number is easy to divide by 2 and that will come in later on when we use the offset filter.
Students fill this pattern tile with elements and recolor as they like, some students leave the design black and white. I tell students not to let any elements go off of the canvas / touch the edges. I also tell them not to make a gradient background because this will interrupt the continuous pattern later on.
Creating a Seamless Pattern
Once they have a design tile that fits this criteria we simply apply the offset filter which is located under Filter-Other-Offset. But it is important that before you apply the filter that you use the crop tool on the tile, not to crop the tile but to make sure there aren’t excess pixels outside of the canvas. So click on the crop tool and hit return and then apply the filter. On the offset filter we set the dials to half of the size of our tile which is 600 px. This will create the exact same effect that we created by hand in the other class. Now students will have some empty space in the center and they must add at least one more element to that space to create the bridge for the continuous pattern. This element should span from one section of the tile
Refining Your Pattern
Students can see how their pattern looks in repeat by going to EDIT-DEFINE PATTERN and saving their pattern there. Then they can create a new document that is large enough to see their pattern repeat, I recommended 12” X18” to my students, and reminded them to keep the resolution consistent at 300 ppi.
Once they have the new document they will simply go to EDIT-FILL and choose “pattern” from the menu and select “custom pattern” scrolling down to find their pattern tile. This is the really fun part because students will see immediately what the pattern looks like in repeat.
From here students can revise their pattern tile if they would like or use this repeat as their final design. There is also a tool called Pattern Preview under the View menu that allows students to preview and adjust their pattern in real time. Not all versions of Adobe Photoshop have access to this tool but it is really neat if students can access this tool because it allows students to view and refine their repeat in one step.
Saving and Exporting the Pattern in Photoshop
Once my students have completed their Digital Pattern Designs I guide them to export the patterns into PNG or JPG formats for easy sharing and printing. Students also save a PSD file in their Creative Cloud so they can preserve editing capabilities. To export as a jpg/png students go to FILE-EXPORT-EXPORT AS and choose the desired file.
This is such a fun lesson and easy to make several different patterns. In my digital classes we discussed color schemes along with this lesson so that students could recolor their patterns in multiple ways and explore the impact that color, tone, and value made on their finished repeat patterns.
Getting Started with Creating Patterns
My biggest takeaway from teaching these lessons is to not be intimidated by the process, since there are many steps to both of these lessons, there will be students who miss part of the sequence and have less than perfect results but this is to be expected and those students are still learning through the process and will absorb the lesson even better because of their mistakes.
I would say the most important thing you can do to help your students be successful in creating patterns step by step is to take the guesswork out of the measuring by providing materials or size guidelines that are simple even numbers and to begin with square shapes for the continuous pattern designs.
Once students grasp these concepts they can take the ideas and run with them. Following this lesson my advanced class created their own pattern art projects based on ideas they are exploring individually in their art journals. Some of them purposefully broke the “rules” of repeat patterns and some adhered to the principles we discussed in the lesson. Both approaches led to visually compelling and personally relevant designs. To see their work and our pattern critique check out this Instagram Reel.
More Artful Ideas Here
If you have additional questions about this lesson idea or are looking for more ideas you can use today in your art classes follow me on Instagram at @artfulideasclassroom, where I share weekly videos and art teacher tips. You can also email me at email@example.com to continue the conversation. If you’d like to see the exact materials I purchase for this lesson and others download my FREE ART MATERIALS GUIDE here.
Intro to Art Lesson
I love to start off the semester with my advanced classes considering the (unanswerable) question "What is Art?" in a discussion and reflective Visual Art Journaling activity. I find this is a great way to begin the class because my students are coming to the class from a variety of backgrounds and art experiences and this discussion allows students to share those experiences as well as create a foundation of understandings as a class group. Some of my students have traveled the world and have visited many museums while others have never set foot in a museum or left our city. I love this lesson because it creates a level playing field- each student regardless of their background has a valid opinion to share and the artists/artworks that I selected for us to discuss are often unknown/surprising to most if not all of the students and push all the students to question their assumptions of what art is. The guiding questions for this lesson come from IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) so it ties in beautifully with the IB Diploma Program if you are teaching IB Visual Arts-(which I taught at my former school for 8 years) but could definitely work with any high school art class as an opening activity.
Reflection Activity for Art Students
The lesson begins with students reflecting individually prompted by a series of questions that I give to students at the start of class. Once they are done writing down their own ideas, students begin discussing their responses with their peers. The questions on this questionnaire are more focused on the student's individual experiences with art and beliefs about art, for example "how does art play a role in your life? and can art be taught?" This reflection activity is helpful for students to begin thinking about their connection to art and their beliefs about art and art making . Some of the students include these reflections in their art journal page collages later on in the lesson so I encourage students to hold onto the questionnaire or paperclip it into their visual art journals (I like to provide my students with hard cover spiral bound sketchbooks to use as visual art journals).
Contemporary Art Slideshow and Discussion
Following that discussion we look at a series of slides with examples of contemporary artwork that challenges ideas of "what is art?" and I share background about each of the artworks. The slide also has a question for students to consider and I have a few follow up questions related to the artworks to pose as well. Then students discuss the questions at their tables with a partner and I call on students using equity cards to share out ( to make sure all voices are heard). There are some artworks that always get a big reaction: Duchamp's Fountain, Paul McCarthy's Complex Pile, an installation of larger than life inflatable dog turds or Patricia Piccinini's unsettling sculptures that combine human and animal anatomical elements in a hyperrealistic stye. This year I updated the lesson to include a slide with two sculptural works:Damien Hirst's For the Love of God a platinum cast of a human skull covered in flawless diamonds and Maurizio Cattelan's Comedian, a banana duct taped to a wall to discuss questions about the inherent monetary value of artworks and where that value comes from. Does it come from the materials? The labor put into the work? The idea itself? The prominence of the artist? It is fun to see the students assumptions being challenged as we go through this discussion and I am always struck by the thoughtfulness students bring to this activity. The slideshow I created has several slides and examples and each year I go through and choose which ones we will discuss based on the group and what I've observed of their interests and the time we have for the lesson. While this part of the lesson is valuable, I want to leave time for students to research and reflect on their own as they create their visual art journal pages.
Art Books for High School Students
To prepare for the art journaling part of this lesson I gather some of my favorite art books to share with students that explore a range of artworks from different time periods. Some of my favorite staples to have are: Isms: Understanding Art by Stephen Little
The Annotated Mona Lisa Third Edition: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present by Carol Strickland and The Art Book (mini) by The Editors of Phaidon Press. I also include exhibition catalog books from exhibitions I have visited and some of the books I think students might find interesting from our class library. It is important when showing high school students contemporary art books to preview the books prior to putting them out. Some of these books contain challenging/disturbing/sexual imagery that is not appropriate for this age group and would require parental consent for students to view so make sure you preview all of the pages of the books before giving them to students. I always make the announcement that there might be nudity in the art books because the human figure has been an artistic subject for all of time, I typically cite the Venus of Willendorf, which is a prehistoric sculpture of a woman. But I make sure that if nudity appears in a book it is not in a sexually explicit manner. Some of the topics I include in the selection of art books are: Land Art, Street Art, Pop Art and examples of ancient artwork or folk art from a variety of world cultures.
Tips for the Collage Process
I provide a wide range of imagery and collage tools/materials for students when we do this activity. I curate the printed materials they can use in this lesson and avoid the typical magazines (sports, fashion, NatGeo) instead I put out the art school brochures, old art magazines the library was going to throw away and I even print out collections of images from art history for students to cut up. To find these images I just google image search "art history collage" or "art history artworks" and I find ready made grids with several well known artworks. I also like to set out Xacto knives, shape punches and colored paper. The Visual Art Journaling process is an artistic process so I typically will demonstrate some techniques like how to use an Xacto knife safely, how to use the negative/positive space of an image (see example in the image above) and ways that they can combine text and imagery in a more aesthetically pleasing way on the journal page. It is especially helpful to include white gel pens among the materials so that students can write on darker paper to contrast their collage elements and the white of the page.
Written Reflection in Visual Arts Journals
Most art students really enjoy the collage process in this lesson and sometimes it can be a challenge to balance imagery and text (reflections) on the art journal page. Students will often ask "is this enough writing?" when they are working on their pages. It is important to guide student away from this kind of thinking, that there is a certain amount of writing they need to "check that box." Of course this activity comes with the expectation that students will include written reflections on their art journal pages but I don't want students to just write to fill space. The quality of their writing reflects the depth of their thinking around these complex philosophical questions. So it is important that students don't get so caught up in the collage process that the writing is an after thought. To facilitate the writing process I project a slide with guided questions on the board while students are working and frequently refer students back to the questions as jumping off points for their reflection writing. It is also okay for students to use these pages to ask additional questions about art, and I encourage students to include questions in their text. I also require that students choose one of the art books and take time reading about an artist or artwork (I usually do this as a warm up on the second day of the project). This exploration is really helpful for IB Visual Art students prior to beginning their Comparative Study project.
What is Critique?
Following the discussion and making the Visual Art Journal pages we come up with a list as a class of the "standards" by which we can judge art. Some examples of what my students have come up with include: "how well conveys the message- can you get meaning from it," "if there is evidence of skill or effort in the artwork" or "base it on what the artist was trying to achieve in the beginning- is it successful?" I keep these responses on a list in the lesson slideshow to refer back to during the discussion. Then we watch the video: How to Critique on Youtube by The Art Assignment by PBS Digital Studios. The main idea of this video is that critique is a gift to the artist and that we should offer the artist insight into what their work is conveying to us as viewers both conceptually and visually. There is a beautiful line in the video when the host Sarah Green shares a quote from artist/writer Matthew Goulish who says to "let us look instead for the aspects of wonder." I love this idea for critique that we should be looking for the "wonder" in the artwork and describing what we perceive to the artist. Following the video we have a partner discussion and then we take our standards from the earlier brainstorm and discuss them a bit more narrowing them down into categories. The categories that I put forward are: Media, Composition, Conceptual and Technical. Each one of these has a different definition that we look at together and edit to express the understandings of the group.
Creating Critique Cards
I learned this critique strategy at an IB (international baccalaureate) conference in 2014. The presenter explained the procedure and then we were given an opportunity to create our own artworks and use the strategy for a critique. I have been using this strategy in my classroom since and have made only minor adjustments to how it was presented to me at the conference.
Following this activity where we generated our group definitions for the four critique categories: Media, Composition, Conceptual and Technical, students are given 4 index cards. On one side of the card they write the word (media, composition, technical, conceptual) and on the other side they write the definition. These cards are used for our critiques as a way to comment on the strengths of these categories in the students' artworks. The process goes like this: A student places their work on the table for critique or pins it up on the critique wall and arranges their cards in front of their own piece in the order of the elements they think are strong in their own work. For example if a student thinks their use of media is particularly strong they will put the card that says "media" at the top of the arrangement of cards (closest to the base of the artwork). And if that student thinks that the conceptual qualities of their work are the least developed they would put that card underneath the others (farthest from the base of the artwork.) see in the photo above how students place their cards in preparation for critique. If two criteria are equally strong in the piece they can be placed side by side.
The next step in the process is for students to gather around the work and look at the arrangement of the cards that the artist has put out. Students can then ask questions about the artwork and make adjustments to this arrangement by moving the cards. If a student moves a critique card to a new position they must give a justification as to why they are moving it. For example they might say "the drawing in this piece is highly detailed and demonstrates skill and sophistication using the elements/principles, so I'm moving 'technical' up in line with 'conceptual' here." The cards give students an opportunity to participate in the discussion and share their points of view without the repetition of statements "I like" or "it's really good" which was what I used to hear in critique discussions before implementing this strategy.
Revisiting the Question "What is Art?"
I have found that this "What is Art?" lesson and discussion opens up a dialogue that we can revisit throughout the year with each new unit or topic we explore as a class. I love that my students have a visual record of their thinking and beliefs around art and the philosophical questions people have been grappling with for centuries and still confront today. I find that my students often refer back to these pages and find connections to their work and visual investigations throughout the school year. I hope you try this lesson with your students, it is a great way to build classroom community and set positive norms around classroom discussion and critique!
Art for Hispanic Heritage Month
I have long admired the work of Mexican printmaker and political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (b.1852 – d.1913). Printmaking is often referred to as the “democratic art form” because the production of multiples makes printed art more widely available, but also because in Posada’s time the populace was largely illiterate and relied on imagery to inform them of current events, and political issues. Posada’s work was especially impactful because of his use of symbols that conveyed meanings easily recognized by his audience. The most iconic of these are the calaveras or skeletal figures that are so prominent in his work. These calaveras have ties to ancient Aztec culture as well as the important holiday in Mexico, Día de los Muertos where families honor their departed ancestors and the natural cycles of life and death are celebrated. Calaveras can be used in art to convey a variety of messages, and are a intriguing topic to explore with Middle School and High School art students and a great way to learn more about Día de los Muertos artists and printmaking in art.
Bringing Calaveras to the Classroom
I wanted to design a culturally rich lesson, letting students use symbols akin to Posada's illustrations to convey messages relevant to their lives. Calaveras, or skeleton/skull symbols, have deep roots in Mexican culture and art, tracing back to the Aztec empire. Teaching this history is an important step so that student understand how symbols evolve and how artists can reshape them to create new meanings. To set up this lesson it is also important to convey the complex web of meanings surrounding calaveras. Since José Guadalupe Posada’s work is our guiding inspiration, I chose to use his work as a starting place.
José Guadalupe Posada is considered the father of Mexican printmaking. He popularized calaveras in his Hojas Volantes (translated as “flying sheets”) or broadsheet illustrations. The idea behind using skeleton figures is to strip down all the trappings of a person (their wealth, status, social rank) and to show that we are all equal in our mortality.
La Calavera Catrina
The most famous of Posada’s calaveras is La Calavera Catrina, or the elegant lady skeleton. Posada created La Catrina to criticize the Mexican elites of his time, specifically in their European manner of dress and customs and their scorn of the indigenous roots of the country. Today La Catrina has become a symbol of Día de los Muertos, a holiday that honors the lives of departed family members and ancestors. In Mexico, La Catrina can be seen on ofrendas or altars, in parade floats and as a popular costume for revelers in Día de los Muertos festivities. La Catrina also appears in one of Diego Rivera’s murals, “The Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” She appears in the center of the mural holding the hand of a young boy who is the young Diego Rivera. La Catrina even appears in the 2017 Disney film, Coco about a young boy who after a series of events is transported into the afterlife on Día de los Muertos.
Calaveras de azúcar, or sugar skulls are another example of skull imagery associated with Día de los Muertos. These small intricately decorated confections harken back to the skull designs seen in ancient Aztec art. Aztecs held a yearly celebration to honor ancestors and the goddess of death/rebirth Mictecacihuatl who the Aztecs believed guided souls into the underworld. Día de los Muertos as a tradition represents the melding of Aztec and Spanish Catholic beliefs.
The Art of Día de los Muertos
Calaveras serve as joyful symbols of the cycle of life and death, embodying the idea that death is an integral part of the human experience to be embraced rather than feared. During Dia de los Muertos, celebrated November 1st and 2nd, families create ofrendas (altars) adorned with images of calaveras and other offerings to honor and remember deceased loved ones. Calaveras are meant to evoke a sense of playfulness and are often depicted dancing or playing music. Students can draw inspiration from a wide variety of calaveras imagery for this lesson and incorporate traditional symbols of Día de los Muertos like candles, marigold flowers, butterflies and a special bread roll called pan de muerto. Students can also incorporate symbols from their own lives or interests into the design. For example in the photo below, where the calavera has symbols of weath and social media fame. This concept is criticizing the cultural focus on accumulating views, likes and money instead of family and relationships.
Students should spend some time researching symbols and sketching out ideas in their sketchbooks before drafting their final designs. Every symbol carries specific meanings so it is important students consider the message of their piece and the ideas they want to convey. It is also fine for students to include decorative elements that are more abstract and connect with the decorations seen on calaveras de azúcar and have mix of meaningful and decorative motifs in their design.
I present the idea of “stylizing” imagery or breaking it down into simple shapes and lines, this works well with relief printing and makes for a more successful design than drawings that are highly detailed with shading and subtle value shifts. Students should begin thinking in terms of layers and considering what will be “flats” or filled areas and what will be “line-work” or outlines. I created a worksheet and image reference guide to help students stylize their calavera designs and plan out the composition. All of the planning should happen on paper because you can only transfer the design to the block one time. Designs do not have to be symmetrical but the skull imagery lends itself to balanced designs.
Sketching a Block Print Design
Reduction Block Printing
Reductive printmaking, where a single block is carved multiple times to create a multi-colored print is a challenging form of relief printing but it is also visually impressive and teaches students valuable lessons of being decisive in their work (since you cannot go backwards in the process), and the importance of composition planning. The process requires careful planning and precise execution.
Here's a brief overview of the reduction printing process along with some tips for success:
Reduction Printmaking Tips
Connecting to Contemporary Art
I was first introduced to the power of the Mexican printmaking tradition while a student at Mission Gráfica printmaking studio in San Francisco, California. There I had the opportunity to study under renowned Chicano (Mexican-American) printmakers Juan Fuentes and Calixto Robles. The most amazing part of that studio is that like printmaking itself, it is a space accessible to the general public. The classes are on a drop in basis and affordable and the teachers are masters of their craft. If you are interested in visiting Mission Gráfica, it is located in the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in the Mission District of San Francisco. Both Fuentes and Robles employ calaveras in their work and draw from a long lineage of Mexican printmaking traditions from both Mexico and the United States. Including the work of these contemporary artists brings the lesson into the present day and helps students understand how symbols can be reinvented and repurposed to approach contemporary issues in artwork. Both Fuentes and Robles create artworks that address current events and social/environmental issues in their work, much in the tradition of Posada.
Get Students Thinking About Art
This lesson, while challenging teaches students about the robust history of Mexican printmaking and the artists who continue that legacy today. Students also learn important studio habits of mind Engage and Persist as they work through a complex process.
As the closing part of this lesson students write a reflection about their artistic choices and the meanings their calavera design conveys. They can also do a print exchange with their classmates and take home a variety of images since each student will print an edition of 7-10 prints. The final prints are vibrant and visually complex. If you are interested in the full lesson plan with slideshow and step by step instructional videos it is available on my TPT shop.
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Sketchbook Front Cover Ideas
Creating sketchbooks as a first project is a great way to start out middle school and high school art classes. When students design their own sketchbook covers they take ownership over them and each time they take out their sketchbook it is a reminder that they can create art. Designing and creating personalized sketchbook covers is also a great way to assess students' skill levels early in the school year and a way to get to know students and their interests. I love to keep these project prompts open-ended and low stakes so that students can showcase their styles and artistic abilities.
I will share 3 easy and imaginative mixed media sketchbook ideas that require minimal prep and encourage creativity. I will also show you my “no-bind” system of creating sketchbooks that students can easily add pages/worksheets to throughout the year. All 3 of these ideas only require the simplest and often recycled art materials: magazines, copy paper, card stock, pencils, markers and glue sticks. To get the full list of the supplies I purchase for these projects, download my *Free* Art Materials Guide.
Mixed Media Self Portrait Collage Cover Inspired by Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian Renaissance artist who is known for his bizarre portraits of the Hapsburg court. Arcimboldo, like many artists of his time, was fascinated with hidden images, puzzles and visual illusions and he created portraits of the Austrian nobility using fruits, vegetables and objects standing in for the various features and volumes of the face. He often included visual puns in his work in the arrangement of the objects and their placement. For example using an “ear of corn” as the actual ear in a portrait. Arcimboldo was classically trained and had a sophisticated understanding of facial proportions and because of this his portraits look uncannily like the subjects even though the style is far from realistic. He also used these portraits as a way to subtly criticize the opulence of the nobles he painted, for example he represented a book collector with his face filled with books, but he also included several dusters to highlight that this wealthy man collected books only to gather dust.
I love to share this Art History with students but to also relate this artist with contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu whose mixed media collage work is more closely tied to the medium students will be using for this project. I find that this style of mixed media self portrait is far less intimidating than a realistic portrait and allows students the freedom to express their own interests and offers a clear achievable entry point for beginners. It also allows me to assess some basic skills like using scissors, pencil control/tracing, using glue sticks, recognizing shapes/colors and visual problem solving.
Steps to Creating the Sketchbook Cover
I give students two options for getting started on this project. They can either let me take a photo of their face in profile and trace the image or use a generic profile outline that I have available. Both methods can lead to beautiful results, but I try to encourage students to use their own silhouette because it is much more personalized that way. The generic profile is a great option for students who do not want their photo taken or to use their own face and I like to have it available knowing that not all of my students have the same comfort level in art class and I definitely don’t want to exacerbate any discomfort this early in the year.
I typically introduce the proportions of the side of the face and students follow along with a simple drawing demonstration. Although they will use the proportions to guide the placement of the objects, there is room for exaggeration and distortion in this project. Following the demonstration I pass out an illustration guide handout (see above) for students to reference when sketching out rough outlines for the features of the face. If students traced their own silhouette for this project they can use their reference photo to guide their sketching. This part of the project is tricky, it is necessary for creating the Arcimboldo style which has a connection to the facial anatomy but some students lean too heavily into this more realistic part of the project and it prevents them from embracing the visual problem solving aspect of this lesson which is to substitute the features for images, shapes and textures. My advice is to demonstrate a very roughly sketched example so students know what to aim for. Also, when students are sketching keep an eye out for students spending too much time on this part of the process and guide them back to your rough sketch example. I have this full lesson up on my tpt store including the slideshow, handouts and step by step instructions.
I make a wide variety of materials available for students for this lesson including several types of magazines (Nat Geo, Design/Architecture, Popular Science, Sports) I make sure to look over magazines thoroughly before putting them out to make sure that there isn’t any imagery inappropriate for the grade level of students. I collect these magazines from reuse supply stores in my area, but if you don’t have that available you could ask your school community for donations. I also provide drawing tools: pencils, sharpies, gel pens, colored pencils and markers. Some students prefer to draw all the elements in their design. This is more labor intensive but it comes out beautifully if a student has the dedication to follow through.
It is important to show a demonstration of how to place images, shapes, colors, and textures into the silhouette to suggest the facial features. I like to show this on my document camera so students can see my hands trying out different arrangements before gluing anything down. I also explain that the face must be built up in layers, laying down the background and layering the features on top. The best method is to wait until the design is mostly figured out before gluing anything down. Because of this I provide each student with a gallon size ziplock to keep all their collage pieces together during the process.
Often students will have an object for the “eye” early on only to change it at the last minute when they stumble upon something that just works better for their portrait so waiting to glue is key!
These sketchbook covers are incredibly creative and give students the opportunity to work through visual problem solving and to see images, textures and shapes in a new light. They often look like the students themselves and that is so fun to see! Below is a student work gallery showing a variety of approaches to this project.
"Open Mind" Collage Sketchbook Cover
This “open mind” sketchbook cover idea originated from images I saw on Pinterest a few years ago. These images depicted a head opening up to reveal a series of images and shapes, some of them are titled "head explosion" but I would rather use the term "open mind" because it relates more to the way artists see the world. I love the metaphor of showing what is inside the head as a sketchbook cover because I always tell my students that their sketchbook is essentially their “brain on paper.”
I’ve used this idea in my advanced level drawing and painting classes and students have either used a photo of themselves (they email it to me to print out on regular copy paper) or draw themselves on a separate paper to collage into the cover design. Then students simply cut the top of the head off and position it in another location in the composition. They can make it look like the top is hinging open or blowing off in an explosion. I’ve even had students cut one side of the face and separate it from the other to create the design. The main idea is that the student shows some of their interests or just the style aesthetic they are drawn to by what they choose to include.
Once again, I encourage my students to wait till the final stages before gluing anything down so they can play with compositions, angles and overlapping to achieve a more dynamic and intriguing cover. Some students like to print images at home to bring in and I will often let students print a few personal images on our classroom printer, keeping it limited to the students own photos and not internet search images.
As a final touch students can embellish these designs using the drawing tools. I also provide shape stencils and drafting tools for this stage of the process. The final sketchbook covers are so unique and tell a story about students’ experiences, identity and interests, it is a great way for students to introduce themselves visually to the group!