Ah, the Abstract art lesson–the lesson some kids love because of its great departure from everything else they’ve been learning about observing reality closely! Designed for week 4 of the drawing unit for Classical Conversations, this lesson uses students’ faces–realistic or cartoonish representation–as inspiration.
I’ve done this exact lesson with both my class of 9-12 year olds (Masters), and my class of 8-10 year olds (journeymen). I gave them the option of either approach (realistic or cartoon). This could be done as self-portraits if you had mirrors for every student, or classmates’ faces. I chose to have kids draw each other.
To understand one style of abstract art, we looked at some cubist faces by Modern artist George Braque (who, with Picasso, created the Cubist art movement):
Braque had become consumed with the idea that “everything in nature is based on the sphere, cone, and cylinder.” (For more on cubism, check here.)
Yes–basic geometric shapes! Ha ha, coming back around to lesson one!
In both these, we discussed what students observed: most notably, that the faces were very simple. One is broken down into geometric shapes. The other combined the side view with the frontal view. both are examples of an abstraction.
Step 1. I passed paper out to students. I described that we would make such faces as Picasso did–out of our neighbors’ faces in the class. Yes, that s followed by an apostrophe was purposeful–students can draw multiple sutndets’ features in this project. It works best if kids have access to seeing classmates who are both facing them as well as situated near them in profile (such as in sitting around tables).
Step 2. I ask students to draw maybe the nose of the person on their left, one eye from someone across the table, an ear from a person on the right, etc. A fun mix and match. And they may draw with very simple, bold lines as in The Sailor. Or students can go for photo-realism. Either way.
But in either case, I’m asking the students to look at the student they are drawing at the moment, from whatever point of view, to find recognizable BASIC SHAPES. (As I laid the foundation in lesson 1, I continue asking students too look for the basic shapes as described in OiLs as well as simple geometric shapes that are formed by the OiLs.) Below, my cartoon version really captures the spirit of this. (This version of the project is easier and really drives home the way of abstract artists to distill complex images into extremely basic shapes.)
Below, see how the hair is made of sections I saw as triangles. The nose is a simple angle. I had fun making each eye with a different way of overlapping circle shapes. (I wish I had simplified the basic shapes of that hand more.) I pointed out to students how some of the features are in profile, some are from straight-on. I also wish I’d finished this and put color all over it, as I’d started. In fact, I think I will before I do this lesson again; this is as far as I got in my example in class last time I did this
Here is one where each feature is drawn realistically–but not put together realistically. I would save this for a more advanced group of drawers or perhaps if I had the same kids more than one year. This would be a second/harder version to try.
In my experience, most kids like the abstract week–they feel it’s easy to succeed with. (Although there are always a few who feel uncomfortable with it! They’d prefer to stick with realism.) Encourage your students to have fun, try new things, and experiment! Note: Just be mindful that because you are asking students to draw classmates, make sure that is attempted only if you’ve established the classroom as a respectful, safe place for all students and you are reasonably assured that students are of a maturity level to not draw in a way to ridicule others or be insensitive about students’ features. If you have a class where this is an issue still, I’d do abstract self-portraits with mirrors, not drawing other students.
Below are other lessons I used for Classical Conversations classes, for cycles 1 and 3.