At the beginning of each school year, I present assignments that allow my middle-school students to immediately connect with the art lesson. In this project, students’ initials are the starting point for developing the assigned work, and they discover how they can turn something as simple as their initials into a visually complex artwork.
Before INTRODUCING this assignment, we discuss cave paintings—how they are a universal language that can be interpreted today by people from around the world, regardless of their individual languages.
We also discuss how hieroglyphics and other early forms of lettering began as simplified drawings of objects or representations of ideas and concepts. Then we look at written language and its further evolution into widely differing and distinct symbols.
Everyone learns something from these discussions. At age 12–13, some students presume all languages use 26 letters—until they see examples of Greek, Cherokee, Japanese, Chinese and Eskimo alphabets (and more)!
This assignment asks students to demonstrate the design principles of balance (symmetry/asymmetry) and rhythm (with a repeated motif). Using the art elements of line, shape and color, they are to create an entirely new design from the combined and repeated letters in their initials.
At appropriate points in the assignment, I demonstrate the steps or techniques for creating the motif and transferring it to final drawing paper. Visual aids are displayed to remind students how to proceed with each technique, and examples of partially finished and finished drawings serve to illustrate the steps.
Understanding what one can do by manipulating positive and negative space is an important concept in making the motif for this assignment. Students draw upon prior learning: their first assignment in sixth grade was a black-and-white drawing in which they redirected attention to the negative areas between and around their initials by creating letters that touch or overlap a border, causing the negative areas to be enclosed, thereby creating new shapes from those negative spaces.
To spark interest and help students develop a motif design, dozens of examples of type styles (and different kinds of letters) are available, and students narrow down their letter choices, preferably two styles for each initial.
The design problem posed to students requires that the motif be changed from identifiable initials to pure design by taking away some of the lines in the overlapping letters, changing colors in the new shapes that are created where two letters cross, forming new shapes from the original positive and negative areas.
The resulting motif should not look like the original initials and students cannot add any line outside the letters. They must use only the lines that are already in the overlapped letters of their motif. Letters must be designed as shapes, not as lines.
Using tracing paper, students experiment with different combinations of the lettering styles they invent or select—by overlapping letters, combining letters, erasing lines, using different colors or designs where two letters intersect, combining positive and negative areas, showing letters forwards and backwards. Ultimately each student narrows down the combinations to a single motif—or “little artwork”—which will be repeated on a 14-inch square or 12″ x 16″ rectangle of 70- or 80-lb. drawing paper.
After the motif is created, students measure out and draw on the back of the 14″ x 14″ or 12″ x 16″ final drawing paper: one line that divides the paper in half vertically, and one line that divides the paper in half horizontally, making four equal squares or rectangles.
On the front of the paper, using a light box, the motif is traced in each quadrant, so that the horizontal and vertical lines are not visible in the final art. How the motif is positioned along the midlines is determined by the student’s choice of symmetry or asymmetry (asymmetry may or may not stay with four repeats of the motif). A light box is preferable for transferring the repeats of the motif to the paper, but if no light boxes are available the motif and final drawing paper may be taped to windows for tracing. 4H–6H pencils are used with light pressure to avoid any smudging. The motif is carefully transferred to the drawing paper, relying on the vertical and horizontal lines to align symmetrical layouts or to help students balance asymmetrical repetitions of the motif.
Students plan the use of color on a separate, single copy of their motif before any color is applied to the 14-inch square. There is experimentation with adding color using permanent markers, crayons and colored pencils, or a combination of both marker and colored pencil.
Differentiation of this assignment is built into its design. Students in heterogeneous classes are successful with this assignment at varying levels of understanding. The use of a vertical/horizontal axis as a framework for repeating the motif helps individuals understand the lesson concepts and create the artwork. Successfully demonstrating understanding of lesson objectives may range from very basic letter combinations to quite complex outcomes.
While deciding on a color scheme (trying out various colored pencils or extra-fine markers on the copy of their motif), students often don’t yet recognize how gorgeous the repeated motif artworks have become – from something as simple as repeated letters. Only when students start to apply color choices to the repeated motifs on the final drawing paper do they realize how amazing their creations are!
Middle-school students will …
• demonstrate the design principle of balance in a symmetrically or asymmetrically composed artwork.
• manipulate the art elements of line and shape in a drawing to create a unique “motif”
• demonstrate the design principle of rhythm through the use of repetition.
• effectively use color to demonstrate the selected type of balance, and rhythm in a final artwork.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas, demonstrating deliberate choices to generate a unique design.
• PRESENTING: Demonstrating age-appropriate craftsmanship in applying media and techniques.
• PRESENTING: Analyzing and interpreting Design Elements and Principles in a work of art.
• RESPONDING: Evaluating the use of Design Elements and the demonstration of Design Principles.
• CONNECTING: Synthesizing and relating knowledge and personal artistic ideas in making art.
• Tracing paper cut into small (3″ x 4″) pieces for individual letters and larger (4.5″ x 6″) pieces for making the motif design
• 9″ x 12″ white drawing paper (to make an individual copy of one’s motif, used when selecting colors for the final drawing)
• 70- or 80-lb. drawing paper cut to 14″ x 14″ squares or 12″ x 16″ rectangles
• 18- or 24-inch rulers
• 4H, 5H or 6H pencils
• Ultra-fine/Extra-fine permanent markers in a variety of colors
• Colored pencils in a variety of colors
• Books/copies/website addresses of many different lettering styles in a variety of languages (that are also translated to show their English equivalents)
• (Optional) Derwent blenders for colored pencils
Joann Hospod-Stanford teaches art at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor, Connecticut. All photographs were taken by Anne Marie Curtis.
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