Exploring Composition through Abstraction

By Ruopp, Amy | School Arts, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Exploring Composition through Abstraction


Ruopp, Amy, School Arts


Sixth grade students arrive at the beginning of each year with many ideas for making art but they rarely give much thought to the composition. My first goal with each new group is to provide them with an art experience that focuses almost entirely on composition with an emphasis on four of the art elements: shape, line, texture, and value.

We begin by creating many studies from observation (indoors and outdoors). Students spend a day or two doing thumbnail sketches that concentrate on one element at a time in their sketch hooks. Because all the elements overlap in some manner, students often struggle with ways to create emphasis. I ask them to think about how they could have a shape or texture without line or how we know that shape or texture is the primary focus? This challenges students to find creative ways to establish an emphasis such as filling in shapes or having a variety of types of line to create rich interesting textures.

Building Blocks for Success

After exploring each element individually, I introduce the idea that these concepts are the building blocks of all compositions. I use the analogy of building a house with each element as one of the raw materials. Based on that analogy, I ask the students to think about which of these four elements might play a key role in setting the foundation and structure of their composition. As a result of their first sketches, they discover that everything can be built off shapes. It is at this point that I introduce a few of the principles of design--our construction tools. We work with ideas such as balance, weight, variety, unity, and contrast. We examine how shapes can have weight through variations in size and value and how decisions and choices about placement of elements influence the balance of the composition.

Their next task is to to go back to their sketch hooks to create two to four half page compositions from observation of an outdoor environment. They are to combine all the elements into a composition, paying special attention to exploring the design principles and their role in the composition.

Abstracting Design

With this as ground work, I introduce abstraction to them. Groups of six students are assigned a work by an abstract artist such as Dove, Motherwell, Rothko, etc. to analyze using the design principles. Questions that help guide the analysis include: How does the artist use variety to create balance and an interesting composition? How is contrast used? How is the composition unified?

After analyzing the first abstract work I give them each a realistic image and a view finder. Their task is to use the view finder to isolate a section of the realistic master work in which the composition makes interesting use of elements and abstract principles of design. During this task students often turn the master work upside down to keep subject matter from interfering with their search.

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