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Teaching Abstract Design
One of the most difficult things to teach young people is abstract design. In fact, there are those who would say we shouldn't even try...that it's somehow bad for them, that it's much too difficult a concept for such tender minds to absorb. I suppose before we get knee-deep in this thing I should define just what's meant by "abstract design." I define it as two or three dimensional design having little or no recognisable involvement in reality other than its own existence as art. Now, having said that, I don't mean that it should necessarily be totally devoid of recognisable subject matter, only that the design elements dominate the content. You could easily say that's a tall order even for an adult artist.

Yes, it is, and it is in this child-art, versus adult-art syndrome that causes some artists to fear comparisons; and thus they push to avoid them by limiting children's art to a reality-based set of visual standards. And as a former art instructor, I would have to say that opinion has some merit, though perhaps for all the wrong reasons. In many art skill-building activities, it's the only rational that makes any sense. But the fact is though, children's art, especially that of young children, is abstract. It's their world filtered through their minds and that's abstract art by any definition. The expression of that abstraction may be hampered by a lack of technical skill and design expertise, but that doesn't make it any less abstract.

When I taught eighth grade I developed an abstract design painting activity that I feel taught both valuable art skills and abstract design fundamentals. I started each student with a Speedball lettering chart (or book) and a piece of tracing paper. Instructions were to weave together by tracing and erasing as necessary, three letters from a single font (to encourage some degree of design unity) in such a way that part of each letter was covered by part of another letter and that no one letter dominated the others. In effect, the letters were merely shapes, though the students often resisted seeing them that way. First efforts were little more than monograms. Gradually though, these tiny, traced elements began to develop into amazingly complex designs--sometimes too complex, in fact (for their purposes). Once a combination was arrived at which met the structural limitations imposed, I helped the student decide on an outside shape and size for the painting, which was done using tempera on either oaktag or posterboard.

The second phase of the project was to metrically enlarge the design from their tiny traced rough draft, two or four time larger for painting. This taught scaling, measurement, and ruler skills to students I found to be woefully lacking in this area. Once the design was enlarged to the painting surface, the students were limited to two primary colours, the corresponding secondary, black, and white. Anything they could mix within this limitation was acceptable. And of course the final skills were to be gained by painting a basically geometric design neatly, in colour mixing, brush control, etc. And in the end, the results were often startling to the students, and sometimes even to me even though I taught this project again and again over perhaps twenty or more years.

Lots of limitations...yes, you got that right...abstract design without limitations, without some structure, without standards imposed by self or others is chaos. That type of painting is what gives abstract painting a bad name and makes those who cherish this type of work cringe. And in protecting the sanctity of their home turf, it's also what makes abstract artists question teaching abstract design skills to young people. But taught correctly, with the same type of quality standards we routinely demand for art that is reality based, students very quickly come to grasp the degrees of difficulty arising from a lack of reality content in painting; and in the process, gain a high level of understanding and appreciation for abstract art. And say what you will, you can't arrive at that unless you try to create in that mode.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 August 2000

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