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Dedicated to Denim: Composing with Fabric | Arts & Activities
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Nov 2017

Dedicated to Denim: Composing with Fabric

Dedicated to Denim: Composing with Fabric

Creating art work takes a lot of dedication. Finding inspirations and ideas to encourage a high level of dedication among my students can be challenging.

Each semester, I search for engaging ideas for the fiber portion of my Fibers and Glass course. High school students in this course have completed a basic drawing and design class as a prerequisite, so their knowledge base is well set up.

I was on the search for something new. I wanted to expose them to a new material or approach. My research led me to discover British artist Ian Berry, who creates intricate collage style images out of denim.

At first glance, his work looks like intricate paintings done with a wide range of blues. Upon reading about his process and seeing the details of his work, I knew that this was an inspiration that would bring out a level of dedication I was searching for.

RESEARCH AND IMAGE DEVELOPMENT. I began the lesson by introducing students to the art of Ian Berry. We studied his website (www.ianberry.org), we watched promotional videos on YouTube that showed him in his studio and talking through his process.

We don’t often study artists who are still creating art, so to see a current, young and successful artist was a great motivator for my students. Many students connected with him on social media to see his latest work and were able to send messages directly to the artist.

We had a discussion about his work, his process and his use of an unusual material such as denim in art. Students then searched for an image they could use. Many chose images that they took themselves and some went out and took pictures to find the perfect composition. Reference images ranged from vacation pictures to pictures taken at a concert of their favorite band. Once images were submitted, we began to simplify the details in Adobe Photoshop. If you do not have this program, similar effects can be achieved through other photo editing programs or can also be done by hand by tracing the different value levels.

In Photoshop, open the image and resize to fit the largest size you can print. For me, it’s 13″ x 19″. To convert the photo to a blue monochromatic image, choose Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, then choose Cyanotype from the Preset dropdown menu.

Next, you will want to intensify the blue, so choose Image > Adjustments  > Color Balance and drag the Yellow/Blue slider all the way to the Blue side.

Then, you need to simplify the image, so you are going to apply a filter. Choose Filter > Artistic > Cutout. Once you are in the filter gallery, you can adjust the number of levels and the amount of details in each level. Edited images were then printed on a cardstock paper.


Kayla, grade 12. Clockwise from bottom left: reference photo, work in progress, final denim artwork.


PLANNING THE APPROACH. At this point, I let the students determine how they would approach the project. This is where I began to see each one develop that dedication I was aiming for. They were stressed, worried and confused about how they would complete it, but not one student complained or acted like they wanted to give up. The struggles were their motivators and they figured out what would work best for them.

Most students took the altered monochromatic image and cut it up like a puzzle, pinning it all down to a piece of cardboard so they could keep it organized. Once they determined how many different levels of blue they would need, they began to sort through the piles and piles of old, donated blue jeans.

One simple email to all the staff in my district brought in about 200 pairs of jeans. Medium tones were easy to find. We struggled to find very dark washes and very light washes. Some jeans are darker on the inside so we had to flip a few pairs to get the right value. When it came to areas where they needed very white washes, we took the lightest pairs we could find and soaked them in bleach.

PIECING IT ALL TOGETHER. As pieces were cut, some students saved them to glue down at the end and others glued as they cut. To glue down pieces, use fabric glue, as it is thicker and will not soak through the layers of denim.

Each student was given a piece of cardboard as a sturdy base to glue the pieces on. If they noticed they might have gaps, they covered the cardboard with large areas of denim and built upon that, or they painted it a blue to match that area. This helped camouflage any imperfections they had when cutting their pieces.

The concentration and motivation that evolved during this portion of the project was very rewarding for me as a teacher. Students poured themselves into their work and were dedicated to getting it right. Most projects took approximately three to four weeks in class, on top of most students taking them home to put in many additional hours.

FINAL PRESENTATION. Once the collages were complete, students were required to finish off the work to be ready for display. They could frame or mat it so that it was prepared for hanging at the art show or ready for competitions we enter each year. 


Luke, grade 12.


Kelsey, grade 12.


Alexis, grade 11.


Raeanna, grade 12.


Alexandria, grade 11.


Danielle, grade 11.


High-school students will …
• research and learn about the artwork of artist, Ian Berry.
• convert a photo into a monochromatic image by hand or using editing software.
• select a range of denim washes to coordinate with the levels in the monochromatic scale of their image.
• accurately cut and glue pieces to a backing.
• prepare the work for presentation (matting, framing, etc.).

• Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

• Digital image, editing software, printer
• Cardboard
• Old blue jeans
• Fabric glue, scissors

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Tracy VanBuskirk teaches art at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Ohio.


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