A unit that is continually adapting and changing throughout teaching it time and time again, is a unit I refer to as “Visual Thinking”. Yes, we concentrate primarily on optical illusions but not because of the “fun” aspect” – although it is fun…we concentrate in this area because I like to touch on why optical illusions work and what you can manipulate visually to create an effective piece of work.
My 7th graders do three studies. First is a line study, second is a value study, and third is a design study. While all three encompass many ideas, they do not cover all ideas. This always happens in art of course. The unit is unique in the fact that it’s broken into parts, keeping the students in a fresh mindset as they work through the projects. To begin the unit, I use a powerpoint regarding optical illusions that has more than enough information for students. We spend a period going through the illusions and figuring out the problems. While overwhelming for some, I’ve realized that showing them the magnitude of optical illusions and how they work helps them understand that the use of concentration will be key to keeping up – that they will need to pay attention to what “guidelines” I set to make effective artwork.
The first is a study applies a distinction of straight verses curved line and how this can help portray something in three dimensions even though it is clearly on two dimensional paper. We first trace our hand and then simply use straight lines on the outside of the hand (negative space), and curved lines in the hand and fingers (positive space. I have the students alternate with complimentary colors to create a visually appealing contrast between lines. This can also be down with black ink or colored pencils but I’ve found markers to be most effective.
The second study applies value into the mix. Using the wormhole technique, students first draw a wavey line, mirror it, and bulge the individual sections in and out in pencil. They outline it with permanent marker. Lines can never overlap/intersect, only lie on top of one another. Using black and white, this creates a general effect of three dimension worm holes – going back to the curved vs. straight – but to create an element of comparison, I have students cut down the middle vertically and color in one side using a color family (with three colors) and use value, like they previous learned in another unit, and color the section in going from dark to light to dark again, as if the pinched areas of the worm holes were darker. This lets the students discuss and decide why value can be so effective in creating realistic visuals. You can see this compare/contrast in the image.
Finally, the third study steps back from these simple concepts and discusses illusory line (line that is there but cannot be seen). Using bubble letters, students space their initials out onto a paper so that they touch (do not overlap) and hit the edges of the page. They use pencil to do this – very very lightly. They are then asked to regard their design as shapes rather than letters, noting how many shapes are in and around individual areas. Most students end up with approximately 10 shapes. Within the shapes, students create doodles with permanent marker (this could easily be adapted into a zentangle lesson). The are told to contrast the design and push them to the edge of each letter, being careful not to outline any of the letters. Once finished and refined, students will erase any pencil (carefully) and wahlah, they have their initials “hidden” within the designs. The image above is more than obvious set of examples but I chose this student work to show a basic example. You can intensify the requirements to be more illusory but with my time constraints, I want to them to grasp what makes the illusory line and how attention to space with contrast can really make work interactive and emphasized.
This isn’t all the visual thinking I could cover but it’s up beat, fast paced, and rewarding for students. It’s also a chance for students to get creative with their doodling and be told it’s okay to do so. Throughout the unit I include multimedia and photographs of optical illusions, references to M.C. Escher and we even watch a few clips from Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth”. A good M.C. Esher fan will know why. Students go away knowing more than they came in with and subconsciously (some more consciously), can pick out contrast and notice visual effects more clearly.