Figural Drawing [A 5th Grade Unit]

One of my more involved units with fifth graders is our “George” unit and I promise you that it’s not only educational but extremely fun for the students.  This is a lesson I adapted into 5th grade from a cooperating teacher’s (TJL) 4th grade lesson.  After my Color Theory with Kandinsky, this unit fits right into previously learned knowledge and a plethora of new knowledge.  This unit encompasses line, types of drawing, negative and positive space, color theory, and a lot of movement…you heard me, movement and I’m not just talking about the principle.

It starts with the basics of drawing.  I have students sit at their tables with a large white piece of paper and colorful thin tip markers ready to go (no yellow as it’s hard to see on the paper).  As a class we discuss what a line is.  We don’t pull out the dictionary because that would be too easy and students don’t truly grasp the meanings when they just look at the words.  So, as a class, and it’s always the same general consensus, we go through different definitions we can come up with.  The usual include, “a segment”, “straight mark”, “it starts and stops” but of course…these are very limiting definitions.  We usually end the first part of the conversation with “It’s a…oh shoot, I don’t know!”  So then I ask; “Okay, we know we’re on the right track.  Let’s break it down. What is the first think we make when we are attempting to draw a line?” It takes a few moments but someone usually pipes in with “we touch the paper” or “a dot!”.  Going with the dot I continue with, “What a perfect way to start a line.  We start with a dot.” On the board I write “Line: A Dot…” and draw a dot.  Then I Ask, “What happens to that dot as we create the line?” And students talk about how it continues and eventually consent that it moves and can or cannot end, overlap, close, etc.  That lines make shapes and can vary to so many degrees.  I end this conversation with, “So, for our ‘art’ definition of ‘line’ we could say it’s a dot…” and students reply with “that moves!” And I finish the board’s definition and move our dot. And yes, I know this isn’t scientific but it helps the students understand and move forward.  It also helps the problem solve and figure out the meaning of something without using complicated dictionary answers.

Our next step is introducing the types of line/drawing we are going to cover in figural drawing.  I tell them that in just a couple days they will meet a very good friend of mine, George.  He loves drawing and appreciates line more than anything.  He especially loves to be drawn by my students but before he can come to class, he wants to make sure students understand how sensitive he can be.  He wants to make sure students know that it’s important to pay attention to proportion and the body basics of a human.  Students get excited knowing that we will have a visitor and are ready to work.

The first type of figural drawing we cover is “gestural“.  We break the word down (what a great lesson on vocabulary), and realize that it’s base is “gesture” and we hear that a lot when people are doing things and moving, i.e. “He gestured his friend to come closer.”  Students then know we are talking about a fast, almost messy, line that shows movement and energy.  And this is when it gets really exciting.  We have to show them how to draw a gestural human figure but of course, George isn’t with us yet and we need a model! I then tell them that sometimes art class gets to break the rules because one by one we would be modeling for the class! And thus begins our “show” where one student at a time can stand on a table and the rest have to quickly draw a gestural drawing of the pose. (See example).  Students are timed and as the period goes on, less and less time is available for students to think about their drawings.  They get so excited, I promise! I use lots of colors and remind them to switch it up so that they may leave with a colorful page of “dancing” classmates”.

Our second step is the next class period to review, of course, and introduce structural line. This is a *great* science connection.  We talk about proportion of the human body and what our main structure is.  We decide the skeleton is best and stick figures are close to structural drawing but that if we do a typical stick figure, we can’t physically walk like that.  So we break it down into bones and joints.  We talk about how to remember that the “humorous” is the “funny bone” and so forth.  We stand  up, move around, and even measure how things are similar (length of arm in reference to the forearm).  We divide our faces and we ultimately use dots for joints and lines for bones.  See example.
Finally, students are introduced to contour lines, or the outline of something.  That’s when the students meet George.  Well, 6 of him anyway.  They learn that George is not a real person but an art room friend.  Students get very imaginative and create stories about George.  But moving on, we talk about how proportionate George is and how his different body parts resemble tubes and shapes…something we could outline and using our previous knowledge we start to pose George and draw him throughout a page using outlines.  We also talk about positive space being George and the negative space being around George – and that our goal is to find a balance between the two.  This ends up with large small and medium size Georges throughout the page and coming off the page.  We talk about how if we can’t see the arm because it’s face us then we should draw it just because we think it’s there…that this should be realistic.  In other words, we cover a lot!  When we have 5-6 Georges, we outline him in black so that we’ve separated the negative space from the positive space.  A good way I’ve gotten kids to remember neg/pos is through the analogy of a negative bank account means no money, none at all.

Then comes the review of color theory.  It is a general agreement that George needs to stand out.  After all, he loves attention and the white negative space fails to help him get any.  So, after a review of color theory, students pick one color family (primary, secondary, cool, warm, analogous, complimentary) and using geometric designs, carefully color in only the negative space and not the positive (“George doesn’t want people to lose him in the background!” I say to the students). The black outline around George is a good “stopper” for students still grasping the concepts.

When it’s time to display their fantastic work, I typically enlist my window hanging method because the colors really pop through the sunlight.  With my constant review and reuse of concepts, students really remember these concepts.  I have to say, after the large amount of units I do with my grades, 5-8, this is one of the most rewarding.  Kids are excited to be moving around; they’re excited to understand concepts and terms in a simple way; and they’re excited to get creative and imaginative within class but have no problem staying within the guidelines.  Not only do students walk away with a few formative assessments (drawing exercises and vocabulary), but they walk away with a summative assessment that truly encompasses art education – terms, concepts, techniques, practice, and combining it all together.

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