In most works of art the composition – arrangement of the art elements line, shape, color, texture, and value – is informal, or asymmetrical. We do not see a pattern or radial design. And yet, the composition seems to be balanced and pleasing. Artists balance their compositions by instinctively adjusting the placement of each art element.
Patricia A. Renick, Garden Dancers, 1995. Welded steel painted black. Courtesy of the artist
When students experiment and compose with lines, shapes and other art elements, and then step back to revisit their work, they develop:
an intuitive sense of design, balance, placement, and spacing
the ability to use elements and principles of art in a composition
a descriptive visual arts vocabulary
analytical thinking skills
facility with line printing tools
movement and rhythm
Large line tools
Small straight line tools
Large curved line tools
Small curved line tools
Papers – 9 X 12” or 12 X 18” (30 X 46 cm) or larger – figure 2 papers per student
Dark color tempera paint in squeeze bottle
Found objects (in reserve if needed)
Trays for holding paint
Large and small curved line tools at each place to begin
Large and small straight line tools to pass out as needed
Found objects to make available if needed
Trays (in reserve) to hand out once students have practiced
Analyze a Composition
A guided discussion of a nonobjective work of art can help students understand the kinds of judgments artists make as they create. In order to describe the differences and similarities among lines, shapes, textures, colors and values, children and teachers alike must use descriptive adjectives and adverbs to describe the positions, directions, subtleties and effects of the art elements they see.
Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled (Drawing for “Diagram 17”), 1925. Black ink on ivory paper. Courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA. C2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris
Initiate a discussion by asking questions such as the following:
Can you point out and describe the lines that you see in this drawing?
What lines and shapes repeat? What effect does this have? (Repetitions are pleasing and tend to unify a composition. They can be a pathway through a work of art.)
Can you describe the ways in which the repeated lines and shapes differ from each other? (length, direction, thickness, solid, open…)
Why do you think the artist made them different? (Differences create contrast and variety, making compositions more interesting .)
Are there any lines that do not repeat?
*The artist who created this carefully balanced composition is credited with inventing a revolutionary new form of art known as nonobjective art. Nonobjective art is an arrangement of pure lines and shapes that have no recognizable subject matter. Kandinsky believed that lines, shapes , and other elements of art could be used as symbols to communicate.
Time to Practice
Practice using the line printing tools to break up and design the space of the paper. (no paint at first) Play with composition. Depending on the age and experience of your students, decide how many line tools to offer and when to offer them. It often works best to offer them one at a time. This is a good time to practice with the curved line tools.
What unusual lines and shapes can you create by connecting?
Discuss ways in which the organizing principles – rhythm or repetition, balance, variety, contrast, emphasis, and direction are concepts that help artists think about how to arrange lines and shapes in a composition. Post a list that students can use as a reference:
Emphasize physical actions relevant to the lesson.
To begin, experiment with just the curved line tools, or just the straight line tools. Add others if you need them. If time, try two different compositions.
Explorers often find that they can create other interesting effects such as dragging the small straight line tool to make a solid square or rectangle. Twisting or swirling the straight line tool can also create solid circles and other unusual effects. But, the emphasis should be on the act of printing, so don’t demonstrate these actions since they can easily distract! Children often discover these effects on their own! Their classmates are sure to notice and to try them too.
Rowen, age 5
Jake, age 7 twists his cardboard while adding to his pattern
You can see how carefully this child printed his initial composition. Perhaps he dropped some paint where he did not want it and tried to wipe it away. When that did not work, perhaps he started to cover up his design with fingerprints. As you observe children, try to thoughtfully catch them before this happens. Sometimes I will hold up a child’s work so that he can see what he has accomplished. If there is a problem, sometimes just stepping back from a work helps you see it in a new light. I might even enlist the help of the class to figure out what to do if something like this happens.
Be sure to play around with the line tools for a few minutes before trying this lesson with a group of students. See what works for you and what might be frustrating. You will have much more appreciation for the student’s work and for their compositions!
Here are some of my experiments. First I tried working on large paper with both straight line and curved line tools. It was harder than I thought it would be! Then I tried just the curved tools and I liked that. I added some found objects that I knew would print circles. Then I tried it again making stronger lines and more connections. Then I tried smaller paper 9 X 12” construction paper and that worked just fine. Now I feel much better prepared to offer this experience to explorers of any age.
Practice composing with the line tools – no paint at first.
Stand up so that you can really see what you are doing. Think about the placement of each mark before you print. Take your time and see what happens.
As you work check to see that you have used some of the organizing principles.
Get a new piece of paper and print again. You might offer the option of different sized papers, and papers of different colors. It can be the same composition as before, or something totally different.
During the next work time, add color!
*As students begin to explore, encourage them to repeat lines and shapes to unify and balance their designs.
Suggest that they think about changing a variable – the length, size, direction, spacing, and number of times they repeat a line or shape to add variety and interest to their compositions.
Share & Reflect
By Jake, age 6
Rabbit by Naomi, age 9
You will probably notice that children have created both nonobjective (nonrepresentational) and realistic compositions. Invite children to tell what gave them the idea for the composition.
Notice or have students point out interesting lines, shapes and ways of using the tools. You might consider having children demonstrate strategies for creating particularly unusual lines, shapes and effects.
Have students discuss ways in which they balanced their compositions. It is helpful to use the organizing principles as a reference.
Variations & Extensions
Texture: Appreciating a Work of Art
As you and your students become accustomed to using line as a tool for thinking and constructing, you will begin to notice and appreciate the unique ways in which other artists have used line in their work.
Paul Klee, Goat, 1925, 8 5/8” X 11 1/16”. Brush and watercolor, some applied with atomizer, on smooth coated paper laid down on beige woven paper sheet. Courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.
In this whimsical drawing of a goat by the Swiss artist Paul Klee, you can see many lines. Describe some of the ways he used the art element, line. Do you think you could create similar textures using the line tools?
Add Color to a Composition
What happens when you change one art element?
The composition of these silkscreen prints by the artist Susan Fentin are the same, but the color combinations change the way in which we perceive each composition.
Using a printed handout (click above link) can be very helpful for keeping students focused and engaged in a new space. Call ahead to plan your visit, and ask to have clipboards and pencils handy. Make a copy of the handout for each student.
The handout asks visitors to choose one of these basic lines to help them look at works of art.
I like to use a black marker to draw each of the lines on index cards and hand one out to each student or pairs of students. I have found it opens up a way to make a connection with a work of art, and to begin a drawing.