Figure Drawing for Beginners
This year I had the opportunity to design a new semester-long honors level advanced studio art class for students interested in building a portfolio. When planning the curriculum (if you are interested to see how I plan my curriculum check out this blog post and download this *free* Syllabus Planner,) I knew I wanted to include a unit on gesture and figure drawing. Figure drawing helps students develop fundamental drawing skills like observation, proportion, and perspective while also offering opportunities to create expressive and meaningful artworks. When planning I wanted the unit to include sketching exercises students could do on their own using reference images, gesture drawing from life and a field trip to a local art studio for a class with a clothed model.
Figure Drawing Exercises
To start the unit I really wanted to avoid overwhelming students with too much information about proportions or anatomy. While I think this is important for having a deep understanding of the figure, for this single unit in a semester-long class, I wanted to really focus on gesture drawing and observation from life.
I wanted students to instead focus on the gesture of the figure. I began with the question “what is the purpose of gesture drawing?” and showed my students examples of gesture drawings and the many forms they can take. We then practiced creating gesture drawings using the book Figure Drawing by Peter Jenny. This small book is one of the best figure drawing for beginners books, it consists of drawing exercises anyone can do (from beginner to advanced) using photo references or from life. There are many gesture drawing exercises to choose from and I chose a few that looked fun and approachable to begin with. I had a printout of figure drawing reference images that I found years ago on Pinterest and have been using in my classes for years- I tried to use Google Lens to find it and find the image source and wasn't able to locate it so if you know where it's from let me know so I can make the proper acknowledgements here. I like this reference because the folds and stretching in the drapery and the hoodie wearing figure shows how the body position changes as the weight of the figure is on different feet (contrapposto) it is pretty nondescript and not overly stylized so students can just focus on the pose of the figure and draping of the fabric.
Stick Figures: Figure Drawing Exercise for Beginners
The first exercise I chose for the students to try was one called "hold" where matchsticks were used to suggest the basic lines of the figure (essentially a stick figure) and then glued down and used to do a texture rubbing. The idea is that by using creating texture on the paper we can "see with our fingers." Instead of matchsticks because they are not readily available (or safe at school?) I chose to use wooden coffee stir sticks- these are easy to find and students don’t need many-I gave 2.5 sticks to each student. We conveniently have them stocked in the teachers lounge/ mailroom at our school.
I created a few demo figures so I could try out different methods of sticking the stir sticks down, I found that glue sticks work just fine and scissors cut the sticks easily. Using the worksheet I was able to easily copy the angles of the hips and shoulders and to then add the arms, legs and head angles. I also experimented with using crayons and pencils for the texture rubbing. Both methods worked well. I demonstrated using the document camera in class and told students to use their reference images but not to get too bogged down in the details and in trying to make an exact copy with measurements. In my examples I focused on hips/shoulder angles as a starting point but some students looked at the line of the spine to begin their stick figures. Either strategy works for this because the goal is to really look at the elements of the body and how the position/angles of the body impact the gesture of the figure.
Cross Contour Volume: Figure Drawing Exercise
I guided my students through an exercise focused on using cross-contour or wrapping lines to give volume to a figure. In Peter Jenny's book it is called "Form." First, I showed them how to create a rough figure sketch based on reference images, similar to the lines in our stick figure exercise. Then, I explained the process of envisioning the curves and directions of cross-contour lines for each part of the figure. I encouraged them to imagine a string wrapping around an arm, leg, or torso, visualizing the curves it would create. I demonstrated drawing these curving lines throughout the entire figure. Additionally, I showed a more loose approach, skipping the stick figure sketch guide and just drawing the cross-contour lines. As a class, we agreed that these looser, more spontaneous figures conveyed more life and movement. For the activity, students used pencil, ballpoint pens, and felt-tip markers, experimenting with the different types of lines each drawing tool offered.
Negative Space Figure Drawing Exercise
The next exercise we attempted was called "surround" in Peter Jenny's book. It is a figure drawing exercise that focuses on negative space, or the space around the figure. I demonstrated using the document camera how to draw a box around one of the figure reference images (a close frame) so that students could really see the shapes of the negative spaces. For example the triangle made by the bending of an elbow. This also helped students notice the foreshortening in the images or the effect of limbs looking smaller than one another because of their positioning in space. During this exercise the room became very quiet because of the concentration of the students. I provided the students with felt tip markers and pencils for shading in the negative spaces they sketched so that the figure itself was left the white of the paper.
Skeletonize: Figure Drawing Exercise
We concluded with the "skeletonize" exercise from the Peter Jenny Figure Drawing Book. This activity required some preparation as I had to locate figures in magazines and make photocopies for everyone to choose from. After providing each student with three figures, they traced the major lines and added a circle at the joint, creating a simplified skeleton effect. I supplied white gel pens and black felt-tip pens for better contrast, especially with darker photocopies. Despite the exercise taking a full block period (80 minutes), it proved to be valuable practice time. I noticed an increase in students' confidence as they experimented, took creative risks, and innovated on the exercise to create more stylized and simplified figure drawings based on the reference images.
Approaches to the Figure in Art History
Creating a slideshow exploring the figure in art is a tall order and there is just no way to cover the importance of the figure across time, cultures and different mediums/genres of art. I had to simplify the focus so I decided to compare a few of the different styles of representation of the figure from a sampling of cultures and time periods. I chose to focus on abstraction/simplification (symbolic figures), idealization and realism. This really helped to focus the discussion on what is conveyed through these different styles and through the poses of the figures themselves. The class that I taught this lesson to is an advanced class made up of only juniors and seniors in high school (16-18 year olds) and I asked ahead of time about their level of comfort with the unclothed form. I would recommend thinking about this before showing any nude figures in an art class. I chose examples carefully and made sure to reinforce the purpose of looking at these works of art, to learn about the way artists have represented the figures throughout time and not to objectify the male or female form.
This discussion took 30-35 min and I paused for students to journal ideas/ speak in pairs throughout the slides. Since our class periods are 80 min this left 45-50 min for the hands on art journaling activity following the slides and discussion.
Stylized and Abstract Figures in Ancient Art History
To explore stylized and abstracted figure art in the Ancient World, I decided to start with Venus Figurines, small carved stone or ceramic statues from the Upper Paleolithic that depict stylized female figures. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Venus of Willendorf, a small (11.1 centimeter/4.4 inch) tall figurine depicting a highly stylized rounded female body, which was found in 1908 in Austria. The artifact is estimated to be around 25,000-30,000 years old and is widely interpreted to have been a symbolic figure of fertility. I also showed students the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, which is another example of Venus figurine that is of the same time Paleolithic time period (25,000-29,000 years ago) but this one was made of fired ceramic (one of the oldest examples) and was discovered in what is now the Czech Republic. I chose to start with these because they are among the earliest surviving figurative artworks (along with cave paintings) that we have. It is fascinating to see the simplified curving forms of the female figures portrayed in these figures and think about why the artists may have chosen this style of representation. We also looked at figure sculpture examples from the Nok Culture in Western Africa from the Neolithic period (500 BCE). I shared some facts about the materials used to create these figures (terracotta) and we discussed the style and poses of the figures. I also shared images of figurative art from the “ancient world” including Egyptian papyrus paintings, Archaic Greek vases and Hindu temple statues from India and Southeast Asia. We discussed some of the symbolic meanings of the figures and how they were used to tell stories about gods, religion, mythology and heroics. The students noted the simplicity and abstraction of the representations and the rigidity of the figures.
Idealized Figures in Art History
We then delved into idealism in figure art, exploring examples such as Greek figure sculpture from the Hellenistic period, with a focus on Venus de Milo (150-110 BCE) to draw parallels to the Paleolithic sculptures discussed earlier. Students discussed with their partners what they observed in this idealized figure and considered the meaning of "idealize" in art and culture. In the discussion, we also examined Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504), discussing its subject (Hebrew King David) and why idealizing this form represented the grandeur of the Renaissance era and the significance of the city of Florence. A brief mention was made of contrapposto, a pose where the figure has more weight on one leg, evident in Hellenistic Greek figure sculpture and Renaissance artworks like The David. This pose gives a more naturalistic and dynamic look to the figure, mirroring how people generally stand. I presented a slide of early Archaic Greek sculptural figures known as kouroi, which have evenly distributed weight and appear more rigid and less lifelike. Students then compared the idealization of these past eras to the idealization seen today in magazines and social media figures. I was proud of my students for their ability to connect Art History with contemporary topics they are familiar with today.
Realism in Figure Art
The last style of representation in figure art that we discussed as a class was realism. We looked at the sculptural work of French artist Auguste Rodin. We started with The Thinker, 1902 to tap into prior knowledge, because most students had seen this figure sculpture before. We discussed the pose and how the texture of the sculpture is rough and the figure is represented in a quiet moment of contemplation rather than in a moment of heroic action as often depicted in idealized sculptures. Next we looked at “Celle qui fut la belle heaulmièr”/”She who was the helmet-maker’s once-beautiful wife”, 1885. This sculpture depicts an old woman, sagging chest bare with her head lowered in grief/exhaustion. The texture of the sculpture is very rough and the fingerprints of the artist can be seen. We talked about this style of representation and the humanity of the figure. Students expressed that although almost grotesque in its realism this figure evoked more emotion than the idealized figures.
Art Journal Pages Exploring Figure Art
To wrap up the discussion I assigned students a research page in their art journals, in which to explore how figures convey different moods/ emotions through the pose and style of representation of the figure. Students could take this research in any direction they wanted to explore and I made lots of resources available from Art History reference books to old art magazines to use for collage in their journals.
I was impressed by the depth of the art journal research pages students created in response to our Art History figure art slideshow and discussion. Some students chose to focus on a particular artist or series of artworks while others focused on particular poses and gestures seen across genres of art.
When students are working in their art journals I typically will walk around and have one on one discussions with students to get a sense of the ideas they are researching and exploring and offering suggestions when I can. I also encourage my students to include their own studies/sketches based on the artworks they are researching on the research pages along with the written information and reflections. It takes a while for students to grasp the idea of artistic investigation, often initially they will gravitate toward listing facts about an artist or artwork instead of analyzing and responding to the work. I was excited to see these pages because most students demonstrated deeper thinking and reflection on their pages.
What is Gesture Drawing?
Our next studio session was focused on answering the question “what is gesture drawing?” Many students were unfamiliar with the concept and I began by showing some examples of gesture sketches. I explained how they are created from observing a model from life and in short time periods anywhere from 15 seconds to 1 minute. Next I showed students a video from artist Carlin Peters in which she describes/demonstrates how to find the “line of action” in a figure and how to approach gesture drawing for beginners.
The line of action is a line that can be drawn to express the essential movement of the pose. It can be a hard concept to grasp because it is something the artist decides based on observation so there is no “right answer” so to speak, although experienced artists would probably agree on the lines of action of particular poses.
Another great video resource I found on this topic came from the artist Josh Papaleo on Youtube, his video Life Drawing: Line of Action shows him finding the line of action in a variety of photos of figures in dynamic poses, I like how all the photos are clothed models and that he times the gesturing drawing process the level of detail he is able to achieve in short periods from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. After watching a portion of each of these videos we practiced finding the “line of action” in our figure reference image pages (from the first figure drawing lesson) and I demonstrated over the document camera how to use the line of action to create a gesture sketch. Students created their own sketches using their figure reference images and I walked around and checked in with students individually, I encouraged them to draw quickly and the whole warm up exercise took only about 5-7 minutes.
Gesture Drawing from Life in Class
Next we transitioned from gesture drawing from 2D references to drawing from life. I had arranged the room in a U shape so there was space in the center for a model. I also prepared by giving each student a large drawing board with several pieces of newsprint and a few pieces of charcoal paper. Students also had vine charcoal, graphite sticks and white charcoal pencils to work with.
I explained to students that they would take turns posing for their classmates and would be holding the pose for 30 seconds to 1 minute to start. To make the process more fun and ease anxieties I prepared a set of silly prompts for students to base their poses on. I typed these simple prompts out, printed them and cut them into strips that could be selected at random by students as they got up to model.
The prompts vary from simple to silly, some examples include: “You are leaping over a puddle” or “you go pooped on by a bird.” I told students if they didn’t like the prompt they selected they could choose again. This worked out pretty well and took the pressure off of students to come up with a pose all on their own.
We started with short 30 second poses and worked our way up to longer 2-4 minute poses with a stool or chair to support the student/models. As we worked through the gesture drawing session students became more comfortable with both drawing and modeling and for the later long poses students didn’t need to choose a prompt, they simply used the chair or stool to support their pose.
Gesture Drawing for Beginners
The environment of the class was focused but also playful and supportive. I think this activity worked out so well because so much trust had already been built among the students. We did this project about 6 weeks into the semester and I think that was the perfect amount of time for students to build that trust and sense of classroom community. Building community has been a focus for me as a teacher the past few years following the remote learning days of the pandemic in 2020. I design structured interaction and collaboration opportunities into every lesson to help support students in building essential social skills and relationships with their classmates.
This activity brought the students closer and brought a lot of joy to the group. We ended up doing these gesture drawings for two class periods. The first was just 40 min since we did the warm up lesson and the second we took the full 80 minute block period to model and draw. I even took part in modeling and had a lot of fun!
Connecting Historical Figurative Art to Contemporary Art
In this lesson, we also explored the connections between contemporary artists and art historical representations of the figure. As an art educator, it is important for me to demonstrate to my students that art-making is a "conversation" across time and cultures in which they actively participate. Establishing these connections between art history and contemporary art practice serves this purpose. We often looked at a few contemporary pieces as the day's “warm-up” and students responded in their art journals and discussed ideas in pairs. Some of the pieces and artists we investigated throughout this unit include:
Figure Collage Activity
After two class periods of gesture drawing and taking turns being the figure model, students had several pages of gestural figure drawings. I wanted students to use these drawings to create a study in a different material and to take time to develop the gestural image into something more substantial. I decided to take one of my own gesture drawings and try making a collage inspired by the lines of the drawing. The process was challenging and engaging and required visual problem solving and although the completed collage lost fluid quality of the original gesture drawing it had its own visual complexity that highlighted the aspects of the form in new ways.
I also like how this activity directly connects to the work of Deborah Roberts and Bisa Butler, two contemporary artists that we discussed in class. Deborah Roberts works with collage to create figures often with exaggerated or distorted proportions because of the varied imagery she uses. While Bisa Butler’s textile work draws on the tradition of quilting and color and pattern are much more central to the compositions than proportions. A few students had even created art journal research pages about these artists so it was a wonderful opportunity to revisit this contemporary work and try our own collaged figures.
I demonstrated a few techniques using drafting vellum to trace shapes to use as templates for cutting out paper to fit the figure. We also have a light table in the classroom which several students found helpful in their process of collaging the figure. The finished collages were varied and students enjoyed developing their sketches into a more finished composition.
Life Drawing Class with Costumed Model
This unit also included a field trip to a local life drawing studio for a costumed model drawing session. The timing, right around Halloween, added an exciting twist as the class featured a model dressed as a witch. To enhance the students' creative exploration, we prepared individual kits containing an array of materials, including vine and compressed charcoal, charcoal/white charcoal pencils, graphite sticks, colored conté crayons, and kneaded erasers. Additionally, we brought various types of papers, ranging from newsprint to pastel/charcoal drawing paper with different tones. The three-hour drawing class mimicked the structure of a college art class, starting with short 30-second to 2-minute poses for gesture drawing, followed by a few longer 10-minute poses and culminating in two extended 40-minute poses with breaks.
Given that the model was clothed, we received permission to capture photographs of the longer poses for continued work on the drawings. The students actively engaged in the session, demonstrating enthusiasm from the outset. Despite being an optional weekend field trip, every student attended and stayed for the entire session. Their feedback at the end was overwhelmingly positive; they felt well-prepared for gesture drawing due to prior classroom practice, and the class seemed to fly by as they focused intently on observation and drawing. This unique experience provided a valuable peek into a college-level art class and left a lasting impression on the students' artistic journey.
I highly recommend taking your students to a life drawing class, if possible. Most cities have studios or community colleges that offer these classes with clothed models suitable for teens. I discovered the class we attended through a simple Google search, and the teacher was incredibly accommodating and enthusiastic about our participation. I suggest reaching out to the studio in advance to inform them of the number of students attending and to inquire about reserving space to avoid the possibility of being turned away at the door on the day of the class.
Final Thoughts on Teaching Figure Drawing for Beginners
Teaching figure drawing to high school students can be a rewarding and enriching experience. Focusing on the broader aspects of the topic, such as the purpose of gesture drawing and exploring the mood conveyed by different poses, allows students to delve into the world of figure representation without feeling overwhelmed. Introducing them to various historical styles of depicting the figure sets the stage for a more in-depth exploration in college, saving detailed discussions on proportions, anatomy, and musculature for later. Incorporating exercises that train the eye to perceive the figure as a whole fosters valuable observation skills. In-class gesture drawing sessions, where students take turns modeling, not only enhance community building but also provide a low-stakes and enjoyable way for students to draw from observation. While attending a life drawing session with a clothed model is a fantastic opportunity, it is not essential for the overall learning experience. This unit would work well in a first year IB Visual Arts class, offering a theme central to art across cultures and time periods. The discussion can seamlessly lead into the IB Art Comparative Study task, allowing students to practice visual analysis skills by comparing and contrasting representations of figures. For a more in-depth look at this lesson, you can explore the "Day in the Life" episode on the Art of Education University's YouTube channel, where I shared a full day of teaching during this fun and engaging figure drawing unit.
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.
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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