art classes

Cal Create Lesson 4: Sculpture

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Not all of our lessons have to be two-dimensional. Found object sculpture gets your students to “tinker” with discarded small objects until visual ideas arise. You play the role of facilitator and cutting expert.

Photo of an adult holding a 24" long sculpture

This sculpture was made entirely with taped parts, proving cutting tools are not necessary.

Duration for Adults: Several sessions (2-4), depending on available time.
Adult Objectives: Complete a recognizable sculpture with found objects.

Duration for Teens: Two to six sessions, depending on the degree of “finish” the students want.
Teen Objectives: Complete a recognizable sculpture with found objects.

Duration for Children: At minimum, needs to last three to six sessions.
Child Objectives: Complete a recognizable sculpture with found objects.

General Preparation
Prototype: The success of sculpture with found objects depends on how much you help your students see the possibilities of the medium. In addition to several prototypes, you should bring books and images of sculptures done by the age group you are teaching.

For the lesson itself: Pliers, glue guns, masking or painter’s tape, small pieces of plastic (broken toys are ideal), pieces of EVA foam, twigs, florist wire, cardboard, foam board, small plastic and paper boxes, easter eggs, ping pong balls, small cylindrical containers, small pieces of wood, string, rubber bands, metal nuts, buttons, pom poms, toilet paper rolls and tongue depressors.

To finish the sculptures you can use spray paint or papier maché and tempera paint.

Materials Prep
Cover all tables and ensure that you have enough outlets for the glue guns (if you are using them). Use various cardboard boxes to make the sculpture pieces available at several stations, and plastic containers for the smaller parts. Instead of grouping materials by type, make sure you have enough of every kind at each station. Students cutting wire must use googles.

Children under fourth grade attach their pieces with tape, while older children and adults may use a hot glue gun to attach parts. To prevent conflicts, each child must have their own roll of tape. Kindergarteners can attach tape but have a hard time cutting it directly off the roll. Either precut all pieces of tape, use the tadpole tape dispenser, or make sure another adult can be around to help with this.

Photo of a 5th grader at a table with her sculpture.

A student shows her alebrije at the local library.

Cut large parts into smaller parts, so that the need to cut is eliminated or at least minimized for all age groups. Not only is it difficult to supervise multiple teens cutting, it is expensive (and wrong) to provide each one with a box cutter. Young students who wish to cut something can come to you for assistance. Carry your cutting tools with you, so that children are never alone near them.

Procedure for Children
Show your prototypes and pass them around, but also spend as much time as you can spare talking with the kids about the prototypes, showing images of sculptures, and if possible, showing books that include images of “sculptures with found objects.” This is very important, because most of your students will not imagine what’s possible until they are visually stimulated.

At this age, students don’t plan much and in fact, for this sculpture lesson, the more they are able to tinker the better. Allotting time to manipulate 3D objects into a sculpture is the best thing you can do for a young student. After they have made their first sculpture, you may give them some paper and ask them to plan the next one. The experience they had will guide their drawings and this context will make planning easier.

Divide the room into stations:

  • Choosing Station, where students can take the time hunting for and picking parts for their sculpture
  • Fastening Station, where students can tie, rubber band or tape parts together
  • Gluing Station, where students can use a glue gun to permanently attach a part
  • Finishing Station, where students choose small parts for the details in their sculptures
  • You may ask, “Why not a Painting Station?” Paint peels off most plastics. For paint to stay you’d need to paper maché the sculpture or spray-paint it.

If you have more than ten students you can have more than one of these stations. Lay down a few simple ground rules for your stations:

  1. Walk everywhere
  2. Use an inside voice
  3. Ask before you borrow
  4. No more than five students at the gluing station
  5. Share your tools
Photo of a few sculptures are on display behind a glass.

These sculptures were painted with tempera.

Finishing a sculpture might be difficult for some kids because they will be totally absorbed in the creative process, so you will need to agree on a signal that will let them know you are going to make a coupe of announcements, the announcements being the amount of time that’s left.

Procedure for Teens and Adults
Here too, it’s all about how much effort you place in introducing the concept of sculpture with discarded materials. The more you sound like you have a passion for it, the more intrigued they will be. The more images they see, the safer they will feel in trying it out. And the more prototypes you pass around, the more they will understand that this is not about creating a “pretty” product.

Teens and adults also benefit from stations because most enjoy being able to work at their own pace, creating their own design. Even though this is a loosely structured lesson and your students are older, placing a big cardboard box full of materials in the middle of the room can lead to friction or chaos. Take the time to find appropriate containers for each table (big boxes that stack) and bring them with you since the site won’t have them. For this lesson, the key to peace is to decentralize everything. Place a variety of materials at each table, along with tools, fasteners and a couple of glue guns (if there are outlets nearby).

At each middle school program, find out the rules about cutting tools at the site where you have been assigned. Can teenaged students use wire cutters? How about pliers? Dollar stores sell a mini-saw that is the perfect tool to cut balsa wood and foam board, but some sites do not allow them.

It will be hard to stop them so give them plenty of warning before their time is up.

Discussion for Children
Visual Thinking Strategies is an inquiry-based teaching method created by cognitive psychologist Abigail House and museum educator Philip Yenawine.  It is the leading method used to discuss art in museums across this country and it is also used in many private schools. After giving the students a chance to look at the art, a teacher will train the children in this protocol by showing a large image and asking questions. A good summary of the method can be found here. 

The reason I bring up VTS is that very often, when we do manage to save some time for a discussion of the children’s work, we are aware that the conversation could be deeper but we lack the skills to conduct a child-centered discussion that goes beyond the “so what.” From VTS, I have learned to

  • Ask three basic questions: What’s going on in this picture; what do you see that makes you say that; what more can we find?
  • Ask various types of follow-up questions to help the children find evidence for what they see
  • Prepare students to write about their art experiences
  • Help students switch to a hypothesis-claim-evidence mode
  • Summarize what my students have said

For this lesson, save a few more minutes so you can comfortably try using the three basic questions from VTS to help your young students discuss the sculptures made by their peers.

Photo of buildings made with styrofoam, tape and cardboard

Students used discarded materials to build this city

Discussion For Teens
Please read about Visual Thinking Strategies, the inquiry-based teaching method in the section above. While you can use this exact same approach with teens, I would suggest a variation, which is to have teens individually write what they notice about each sculpture, and then write one question they have for the maker. They have to write their names on their card. You read each post-it or card and ask follow-up questions to those observations, then the student who made the sculpture answers the question, for as long as the question is not evaluative (i.e. “what made you turn its head in that funny way?”)

Discussion With Adults
Discussions such as the ones generated by the VTS method might give some adults the impression they are on the “hot seat,”  but you could teach them valuable Visual Thinking Strategies by introducing work made by others (for example, an artist off the web) after they have had the experience of creating a sculpture. In this way their observations will be richer because they have some context to guide their thoughts.

Plein Air Wednesdays

Photo of a man painting

A sunlit path makes very dark shadows.

This Summer, spend time painting au plein air at several beautiful great East Bay outdoor locations. Whether you are a beginner or a more advanced painting student, you will enjoy discovering beginner-friendly painting spots, and improving your technique in the company of new friends. You’ll receive support through the difficulties of painting outdoors.

Learn how to paint the sights you love with as much or as little feedback as you desire. Use the media of your choice. I can help you with acrylic, oil, watercolor, gouache or pastel. We’ll spend two weeks at each painting location so that students can either begin a new painting or complete the one begun in the previous session.

This class is taught on Wednesdays, from 12-3 pm. Each class consists of a rotating 30 min introduction to painting concepts that may be a demo or a discussion with examples, followed by 2+ hours of painting.All locations are in Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond and Hercules in beautiful places. They will be announced on the first day of class. You will receive accurate driving instructions and Rebeca’s phone in case you get lost.

Do not register on this website, because the Plein Air Wednesdays class is part of the Richmond Art Center’s Studio Program.  Go to the RAC site instead and register soon as this class is very popular. They ask that you please register before the first class.

This is a rough outline of the class:

July 11, Session 1 at Blake Garden, Kensington
Get to know each other, review of materials, supplies and gear. Goals for the class. Aspect ratios. How to use a viewfinder.

July 18, Session 2 at Blake Garden, Kensington
How to begin a landscape painting part 1. Foreground, middle ground, background.

July 25, Session 3 Miller Knox Regional Park, Point Richmond
How to begin a landscape painting part 2. Focal point.

Aug 1, Session 4 at Miller Knox Regional Park, Point Richmond
Selecting pigments for a Bay Area landscape. Limited palettes.

Aug 8, Session 5 at Point Molate Beach Park
Priorities, planning your time. The dangers of overpainting

Aug 15, Session 6 at Point Molate Beach Park
The role of values in a landscape.

Aug 22, Session 7 at Fleming Point, Albany
The cell phone as a tool of the landscape painter.

Aug 29, Session 8 at Fleming Point, Albany
Revising from photos.

Bad Weather
Bad weather is defined as double-digit wind speeds, rain, cold temperatures in the fifties, all-day thick fog, or a dangerous heat wave. Please note that in the event of bad weather the session you will be notified via email and the session will be carried out in the painting studio of the Richmond Art Center, 12 – 3 pm. Please bring unfinished work and reference photos to work from.

Thinking About Color

Photo of a watercolor palette

A watercolor tray with a chart that shows how the colors behave on paper.

“I just start painting very excitedly and the last thing I think about is my palette. Most of the time, composition keep me so busy I completely forget about color.”
“I feel like an outsider during visits to the art store. I must be the only person in the universe that does not know what colors to buy!”
“My palette is so garish. Everything looks fine in the beginning but when I finish I see my colors are too bright for my taste.”

Color is one of the dimensions of design that seems the most inscrutable. While almost everyone can appreciate size, texture and contrast, color perception is highly individual. To complicate matters, as humans we have developed a series of terms to discuss color that vary enormously from person to person. Then there’s color theory. Some of us were taught color theory as a means to learn those specialized color concepts such as the law of simultaneous contrast. Others just remember the tedious exercises.

Photo of four flower still lives

Student Diane Platner tried out four different color harmonies for this subject.

Is there a way to make sense of color that is friendlier to the average art learner? I would say there are many, but what they all have in common is that they all involve today’s most precious commodity: time. “Serious” art students have for decades gravitated towards instructors with a mastery over color. Those instructors have in turn passed on their methods for making color decisions very much like passing on a recipe. Those students adopt those methods and use them forever.

Then there is the rare instructor who has developed their own teaching technique for helping students figure out color relationships on their own. Some host wonderful, meaningful studio discussions and others, like Josef Albers, have developed interesting exercises to stimulate this type of individual discovery. These two approaches require the context of a class in order for a student to have time to ponder what color is all about. In short, there is no quick and dirty method to “learn color” overnight.

Photo of a finished exercise with two limited palettes.

I send these exercises home as a way for students to experience a limited palette.

All of this would have no meaning if a students is not allowed to engage in the most important aspect of color learning for an artist, which is to integrate this new knowledge into the work they like to do. In my opinion, the only reason we learn about color is to develop and enhance our voice as visual artists. Questions like the role that color plays in our work, the mood that color variations bring to a painting, the importance that adopting a given palette might have or not have. This is why we would take a class, to engage in this type of thinking. No instructor can answer these questions for us. A good teacher will provide the space to answer them.

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Blake Garden Delights

For our first visit to the Blake Garden, I thought I should talk about its enduring appeal to east bay painters. While the garden “contains a large diversity of plant materials that grow in our Mediterranean type climate” as well as “new and historic garden design and structures” I’ve long suspected this is not why artists flock to this enclosed space. It is more because, unlike other (and perhaps more) popular gardens in the area, this one packs a lot into a relatively small and it seems to have been designed with the plein air painter in mind. No, there aren’t a lot of benches, but there is plenty of shade near its most popular attractions, and a high number of secluded nooks and crannies where one may paint undisturbed. If to this you add that it lies nestled in a very quiet neighborhood, protected from the worst winds, you realize what a jewel it is.

No matter what the result is, the garden encourages you to reflect on your work. This is a place where you can hear your own thoughts, where you can listen to your quiet artist voice. Seven years ago, I was able to write this after a day of painting at the garden: “I didn’t feel inspired by the reflecting pool or anything else. For some reason, i didn’t feel very talkative and retreated into the northern part of the garden. At the bottom, I saw a pool formed by creek water and then I saw a bench. It felt like the place was beckoning me, so I stayed. Onlookers had to leave the path to come see what I was doing, so I felt safe. I was going for the feeling of the place. I love this painting.”

I miss dearly a painter friend of mine, who often wrote about the Blake Garden on our East Bay Landscape Painter’s blog. Even though she was a fantastic painter, on some days she struggled, and let her frustration flow freely: “This painting was a struggle to work on, after my easel broke and I had to work on the ground. The colors developed in a way I liked but in the end I lost some of the composition and may work on it from memory. I like Blake Garden but never get a painting I like there.” But other days were better: “What a good idea it was to go to Blake Gardens this week. Every year when the fruit trees start to bloom I want to find a place to paint them. The cherry and plum are blooming on Thousand Oaks.”

What a wonderful assurance it must be to know that no matter how our paintings may turn out, the Blake Garden will always welcome us with open arms.

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