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Abstract Relief Sculptures | Arts & Activities
Apr 2018

Abstract Relief Sculptures

Abstract Relief Sculptures

If you’re an art teacher, then you are also part hoarder. Let’s be honest, you keep everything! You save every scrap of mat board, cardboard and paper. If you think there is a remote possibility that it might be useful it gets put in a box, labeled and put on the shelf for later. Eventually these boxes overflow with hoarded bits of materials you never use. This is the perfect storm for a great “problem solving” lesson plan.

What to do with all those leftover scraps of mat board? They are too small to use as canvas for drawings or paintings and are much too irregular to make a large sculpture. However, they are perfect for layering and a wonderful way to introduce your students to the difficult concept of abstract art!

I’VE SPENT ALL YEAR TEACHING MY STUDENTS the fundamentals of art, such as the elements and principles, as well as good technique with varied mediums. We converse about proportions, light, form and function, then apply these ideas to recreate what we see. What about the more difficult concepts such as emotion, and expressing abstract ideas through visual form?

Abstract art seems to be that elusive subject my students just don’t understand. “I don’t get it” or “I can’t do that” are common responses when I introduce my students to the abstract expressionists or the minimalist artists. I challenge my students to create a work that focuses on pattern and movement resulting in a rhythmic design based on an emotional or instinctual response to the materials, rather than trying to depict life as they see it.

Creating “Abstract Relief Sculptures” is a great way to introduce my students to abstract and minimalist work while also using scrap materials I have been saving all year. I find this to be a great end year project that allows their creative juices to flow and lets them be free and fearless with the materials.

I BEGIN BY INTRODUCING MY STUDENTS to artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Calder and Nevelson. Students make observations about their art and we converse about what abstract art is and how it differs from representational art. We talk about composition and how these artists use both elements and principles of art in their work.

We then discuss processes and techniques used for collage and assemblage art. We talk about how incorporating other mediums (such as paint, colored pencils, markers) can give the work further depth and texture. I demonstrate my process and how I would tackle this project, and my approach to the materials.

Once my demo is complete, it is time for students to start scavenging through the collected pieces of mat board. They find this to be the most fun part of the project, as they hunt through the seemingly endless pile of colorful mat-board scraps. I encourage them to allow the pieces of mat board they find to influence and dictate what their compositions will be.

Students are allowed to cut and alter the pieces to fit their design composition. Many of them comment on how difficult cutting mat board can be, which leads to an important teachable moment: showing them the safe and proper way to use a utility knife with a metal straight edge.

BEFORE STUDENTS BEGIN TO ASSEMBLE THEIR SCULPTURES, I suggest using drawing materials and/or paint to add visual texture and design to their pieces of mat board. This step allows students who love to draw and design to really get into a sculptural project.

They use hot glue or white glue to construct their relief sculptures, creating several layers. We finish the lesson with a class critique and discussion. I ask the students what their least favorite part of the project was as and what they felt was most successful.

To assess their understanding of abstract art at the end of the unit, I have each student write a rationale for his or her work on how the design utilizes the principles of design, such as rhythm, movement and/or balance. Students also present their compositions and rationale to their classmates.

“These sculptures really say something about who we are,” says Hannah, one of my senior Studio Art students. She observed that each student’s tendencies and personalities really come out in how the works of art are composed.

THIS LESSON, WHICH TAKES ABOUT FOUR 45-minute sessions, is an easy way to contrast a unit on observational drawings. The students will love the opportunity to be creative without trying to represent their subject so obviously.

One student, Jackie, expresses that she, “loves the process and specific parameters,” in which she must work. She likes having step-by-step directions, which help direct her creativity. Aside from using up leftover materials, this is a great project to start off a unit about abstract art or relief art.


… student’s tendencies 

and personalities really

come out in how the works

of art are composed.


I generally use this project with my advanced classes so that we can really dive into the depths of abstract art, but I have used this assignment with grades 7–12. At the lower levels, we focus our conversation around geometric shapes versus organic shapes and the use of pattern and balance to create fun compositions.

With older students, you can introduce more concepts and restrictions to increase the depth of learning. For cross-curricular ideas, I add math and geometry concepts to the lesson, as well as a writing component with the written rationale.

As with any lesson, this can have its fair share of difficulties and challenges, but, as I tell my students, “It is in failure that we learn and overcome challenges that we succeed as artists.”   












High school students will …
• define shape, abstract and collage.
• design and organize an abstract composition.
• define rhythm and movement in a composition.
• demonstrate an understanding of how the communication of their ideas relates to the media, techniques and processes they use.

• CREATING: Generating and conceptualizing artistic ideas and work.
• RESPONDING: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• CONNECTING: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

• Mat board or cardboard scraps (or scraps of any stiff material that is easy to cut)
• Hot glue or white glue
• Craft knives or utility knives
• Drawing media or paint.

Michael Wade teaches art at Beckman Jr./Sr. High School in Dyersville, Iowa.



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