Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Why is it that when we walk into a museum so many people gravitate towards the same images? What is it that many of us find so sublime about a Caravaggio? Why do we often feel pulled into the domestic calm of a Vermeer? What is it about the rich and compact images of Frida Khalo that we find so irresistible? How do we know when a painting, a drawing, or a print "works"?
While it does not explain entirely the beauty—or the popularity—of any paintings or group of paintings, one of the most important components of paintings and drawings is its composition. The composition—the way in which a painting is composed and the way in which the painting's elements work together to form a coherent whole—is key to the success of a work of art in conveying its message and visually "hanging together." The composition is an important part of the foundation of the paintings we find so compelling. In this curriculum unit students will be introduced to composition in the visual arts, including design principals, such as balance, symmetry, and repetition, as well as one of the formal elements: line.
You may wish to begin preparing for this lesson by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This web site contains a guide for learning about and identifying composition, perspective, light, color, form, motion, and proportion in Emmanuel Leutze's well known painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Composition in the visual arts is a large topic and this curriculum unit is only an introduction. There are some aspects of composition that will not be covered in this unit, but it should help students to begin to think about the kinds of choices that artists make when placing objects, figures, and natural elements in their work. The placement of objects within the picture plane is not an arbitrary act, but is the result of calculated decisions. This curriculum unit will assist students in beginning to identify some of those decisions. In addition, this lesson will help students begin to engage with the question of why artists make particular decisions.
One of the main purposes of focusing on the composition of a piece is to help students begin to read the information contained within the paintings they are viewing. Quite often artists structure the compositions of their paintings in ways that will bring the viewer's attention to the most important elements of the painting. Works of art are often encoded with a series of visual messages, some of which are readily accessible to all audiences, and some of which are only available to smaller, more knowledgeable audiences. This lesson should help students gain an awareness of one of the most important elements of a work of art—its composition—as an initial step towards accessing more of the information within a work of art.
Some additional definitions which you and your students may find helpful are:
The names of the primary and secondary colors are often among the first words we learn to speak and write. Even very young children can identify the red object in a painting, or the blue object in a photograph, but there is a lot more to color than initially meets the eye.
In this curriculum unit students will be introduced to the importance and effect of color in the visual arts. Why do artists use particular colors in their compositions? The activities in this lesson will guide students towards a greater understanding of the ways in which color can focus the viewer's attention, give the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional medium, and affect the tone and mood of an artwork.
How do artists use color to create effects of perception and to set the tone of an artwork?
This unit is one of a series of EDSITEment lessons designed to help students gain the skills to better understand the visual arts. You may wish to teach this unit alone or as part of the series of EDSITEment lessons that includes the curriculum unit Everything in its Right Place: An Introduction to Composition in the Visual Arts and Portraits, Pears, and Perfect Landscapes: Investigating Genre in the Visual Arts.
There are a number of definitions that will be helpful for teaching this lesson:
Additional color definitions include:
The youngest and newest writers often have a deep interest in the origin of writing itself. The lessons in this curriculum unit will introduce young students to the history of our alphabet. First, students will learn about the Phoenicians, the great trading people of the eastern Mediterranean who invented many of our letters. We'll follow as the Phoenicians taught their alphabet to the ancient Greeks, and follow again as the Greeks taught their alphabet to the Romans. Finally, we'll learn that the Romans left their alphabet to us, and that we use the Roman alphabet to write in English.
By following this path through history we can establish a connection between these ancient civilizations and the youngest writers. We can show them that they are using the alphabet that was developed so long ago. The three lessons in this curriculum unit include short historical introductions to the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, hyper-links to selected illustrations, and suggestions for activities.
“Where does the alphabet come from?” This is one of those questions, like “Why is the sky blue?” through which children try to define something basic and important in their world. Although the very first writing is lost in the mists of time, we can trace the development of our alphabet for about the last 3,000 years.
As the students learn the history of the alphabet they will be introduced to three important ancient civilizations, and to the idea of cultural inheritance. The concept of chronological order will be reinforced through an emphasis on the fact that each group of people passed on the alphabet. In addition to learning history, the children will practice language arts and art skills.
After completing this unit, students will be able to:
Read through each of the lessons and select or download the necessary materials. A short list of necessary materials is given in the “Preparing to Teach this Lesson” section of each lesson.