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The Still-Life Study … in Four!
by Debi West
The still-life study! Some teachers LOVE it, some do not. Some art students LOVE it and, again, some do not. So, how do we as art educators make this a lesson that everyone enjoys AND sees the value of being a part of?
I decided years ago to “AMP” it up again, using art history and media as the prompt to take this typical art lesson to a new, advanced level.
I begin by telling my students that the first lesson they will be doing in their advanced or AP course is the Still-Life Study … in four! That’s right, they will do a four-part still-life study and, in each piece, they will concentrate on several objects, an element, a principle, an art-historical reference and various media and the results are always incredible!
As my art II students recall, I am always appreciative when students bring in their own objects to add to our class still life, and they all remember that the more textures found, the better their final piece will be, so we have wood, glass, metal, cloth and any additional items they want to add to give their piece personal meaning.
We then discuss the importance of setting up the “right” still life and then practice some light sketches. I remind students that this year the technical should already be there so each artwork they complete should have strong drawing and “seeing” skills that then combine with their creative thinking and this lesson is perfect in allowing both to happen.
FOR PART ONE, students begin their “real” still-life drawing, which is drawing a creative composition of what they see in graphite, paying attention to line, shape, measurements, as well as value and light source. This is the most tedious of the four-part lesson and one that can take my students a week to complete using 12″ x 18″ white drawing paper and a lot of concentration. Once these begin to take shape, I then introduce the second, third and fourth part of this lesson.
IN part TWO, they recreate portions of their first still life in a complete contour line study—not lifting their pencils. They retrace their lines, then get creative with the line quality and the color of each shape that is created.
Students always love the freedom found in this part of the lesson. They primarily use outline pens over their graphite and color in using markers, oil pastels or colored pencils—really, whatever media they are most comfortable with.
Part three brings in the art-historical element, and having students select an art movement or master artist (preferably contemporary) that inspires them. With a little research, students have the ability to take their third still-life study and turn it into a piece of art that combines their ideas with the ideas and techniques of another artist.
Students have fun with this part—they get to research other artists and select the parts of their artists’ work that they have a strong reaction to, and then reflect on that reaction using it to enhance their own work. Again, I give them the freedom to select their preferred media.
Part four is a mixture of the three: a real still-life rendering mixed with contour studies and a touch of art history, but in this lesson, students begin to add collage so they are realizing the importance of experimenting and taking an ordinary still life to the next level.
Students are urged to deconstruct, experiment and play with their works. These always involve risk taking and a lot of excitement, in that students aren’t exactly sure what to do. So, as their art guide, I tell them to trust their marks. I push them to challenge themselves and see what happens when all of the parts come together to create a final piece that never would have been considered without the process of working on all three of the still-life works.
Students make copies of their first three, which helps them to not be as “scared” to play around and get creative with their work. The artworks that result are always amazing and set up the rest of the school year with a better understanding of the importance of pushing their creative buttons, which helps them to better understand the concentration portion of the AP exam.
This is the whole idea of an AMPed up curriculum, as it pushes kids out of their comfort zones and makes them realize what they are capable of when we teachers get out of their way and trust them to take art risks!
Once all four of the pieces are complete, students hang their work in the hall. We critique it with peer-written sticky-note reviews that discuss the glows (the parts that are the strongest and work well), and a grow (perhaps an area or piece that may need more thought).
We do this for all of our advanced work. The more students discuss the work, the better the work becomes!
Next up: “Get Buggy with Your ART!”
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A&A Contributing Editor Debi West, Ed.S, NBCT, was an art educator and department chair at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia. She is now involved with her two businesses, WESTpectations Educational Consulting and Crystal Collage Children’s Art Studio in Suwanee.