Welcome to The Helpful Art Teacher, an interdisciplinary website linking visual arts to math, social studies, science and language arts.

Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

Please click on my page to see my personal artwork and artist statement: http://thehelpfulartteacher.blogspot.com/p/the-art-of-rachel-wintembe.html

Please contact me at thehelpfulartteacher@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Composition 101: The Thumbnail Sketch: How Taking Cell Phone Photographs and Reading Comics Make You a Better Artist

How Taking Cell Phone Photographs and Reading Comics Make You a Better Artist

If you want to become a better artist, my advice is to take lots of photographs with your phone and read a ton of comic books. There is no quicker way to improve your sense of visual composition. 

Wait, what? That sounds too easy. There has to be more to it than that! 

 Composition is a visual language that all good photographers and artists know. In 2018 I explained the different types of camera angels in this post. I showed my viewers how they could take excellent, interesting photographs with their cell phones and become better photographers. 

Today I will explain how, after becoming a better photographer, you can also create fantastic, dynamic drawings just by paying attention to composition. The key is to start with a thumbnail sketch!

The ability to draw what you see, while useful, is only a small part of the 'how to become a better artist' puzzle.  You need to know how to draw your viewers into your artwork and lead their eyes around the page.

I have created these two videos to show you exactly how to be mindful of composition when creating art. The first video shows how to create a thumbnail sketch to establish your composition. The second video covers inking and adding details. 


Below are the sketches I created in the above videos. Feel free to print them out and use them as a reference. If you are an art teacher, you will notice an immediate improvement in your students drawings after teaching this lesson, but please be sure to credit The Helpful Art Teacher when you share your great results.

Below each page, I have included samples of some of my cell phone pictures that inspired the drawings. All of the original photos used in these drawings may be found embedded in my Photography 101 post.

When you try this yourself, it is imperative that you take your own photographs first and use them as reference when creating your own drawings. 

If you are a teacher, have your students create sub-albums on their phones with different types of shots. Here is a document with descriptions of some of the most commonly used camera angles.

Remember, the goal of a good art teacher is to help your students to become better artists. They aren't going to accomplish that if you start them out merely copying the creative work of other people. A good art teacher will help students to develop their own ideas. The best place for them to start doing that is the camera roll of their cell phone.

 Each person carries in his pocket an electronic diary of everything that truly interests them. Let that be the place to have them begin creating. Most students take photographs of things they are interested in without even thinking about the fact that they are actually creating art. This lesson will help them to become more intentional about the images they create and it will provide them with a path to taking more interesting photographs.


Full Shot of my daughter


At the beginning of this article, I encouraged you to read comic books. Why? 

Do you actually have to go out and buy some comic books to get started? Nope! Here is a great resource for reading real comic books online, from the 1930's era to contemporary. All the greats are here!

Please let me explain how becoming an avid comic book and graphic novel reader can improve your visual storytelling craft tremendously. 

The same camera angles used in photography are used by all great comic book artists. Lets look at one example of Action Comics together and you will see what I mean.

Please click on this link to begin.

Start scrolling through the story. Before you read the comic book, take a look at the compositions. What do you see? How many different types of 'camera angles' can you identify?

Over the Shoulder Shot

Close Up

Extreme Close Up

Rule of Thirds. Also Wide Angle Shot

Leading Lines (One Point Perspective)

Up Shot or Worm's Eye View

Wide Angle Shot. Also Two Shot and Up Shot

Dutch Angle Tilt

Notice, in the story, how each subsequent image uses a completely different camera angle. Each image invites the viewer into the story and draws the viewers eye to the most important details. In fact, it is possible to understand much of the story without reading the words, just by picking up on the visual cues.

Commercial artists are visual storytellers. Their goal is to use their artwork to communicate stories and ideas through the art of visual storytelling. 

My advice will also help you be more successful if you are a fine artist and plan to sell your work in galleries. 

 The best fine artists in the world are also aware of the language of good composition. Here is a great article from My Modern Met that gives examples of famous paintings that utilize the rule of thirds.

This article shows how all artists, from commercial artists and abstract expressionists, utilize the language of good composition. Click here to read the book Creative Illustration by  Andrew Loomis. He gives invaluable advice on the rules of composition and pictorial space. You can easily find the original version on the Internet Archive. The version linked here is edited (by me) to make it school appropriate for my high school students. 

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Build A Paper City and Decorate it With Abstract Designs Using Photoshop

Today we are going to learn about abstract art and how it has influenced all modern designs. You can see it's influence everywhere, from packaging to fashion (and textile) design to furniture to architecture to advertising. 

Since abstract expressionism has had an undeniable effect on modern designers, it's important for us to learn about it, so that we can both recognize it's influences and apply the concepts we learn to our own artwork. 

Here are some excellent videos that explain modern non-representational (or non-objective) art and the Abstract Expressionist movement.

It's possible to use the Elements of Art and Principles of Design and Composition to make a strong, original design, without your artwork being representational or containing recognizable images.

 Here are some useful worksheets that will help you create stronger, more interesting abstract designs:
The next five black and white printable worksheets come from a book called Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis. It is out of print but you can still find online PDF free copies of the original text online through the Internet Archive. 

The original book contains nudes, but if you click here you can access an edited PG version of the original suitable for high school students. 

Abstract expressionism began its development in the early part of the 20th century but gained broad popularity in the post-war 1940's. It's influence was everywhere, throughout the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's. 

Movement 1, 1935 by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky often named his paintings using the same conventions that classical musicians commonly use. This is not a coincidence. He felt that, just as music does not have to have lyrics, paintings do not have to have subjects. Just as music can be beautiful in its own right, art can be comprised of beautiful shapes, colors and lines without having to tell a specific story.

 Here are some photographs of Jackson Pollack creating his action paintings in the 1940's and 50's.

Let's now take a look at some commercial artists and designers who were influenced by mid-20th Century abstractionism.

Mary Blair was an artist, designer and animator for Walt Disney Studios in the 1940's. She worked on many famous Disney productions during the Golden Age of Animation, including Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, but she is most often mentioned nowadays for her design work on the Disney theme park ride "It's a Small World After All".

 Mary Blair has been credited with introducing modernist art styles to Walt Disney and his studio by using primary colors to form intense contrast and colors that are unnatural to the image they are depicting.

Mary Blair also designed the Tomorrowland tile murals at Disneyland. Above you can see her standing before one of her concept sketches. Although her artwork depicts recognizable imagery, the influence of 20th Century abstract art on her work is undeniable. I particularly see a similarity between her colorful flat shapes and Kandinsky's abstract paintings from half a century earlier. 

Above are some of her concept sketches for the "Small World" ride at Disneyland. Her original idea was to use shapes from different types of architecture from all over the world. Notice how she deliberately chooses a different color scheme for each painting. 


Get into small groups of 4 or 5 students. Use the house templates below to create a paper city. Create buildings of various heights and forms by using the templates as modules and combining them. Consider building both out to the sides and up to create interesting and unique building designs with varied rooflines. 

Work collaboratively and cooperatively to create the most colorful, interesting, imaginative city that you can. Use Adobe Photoshop to decorate every side of every building you create. Experiment with different techniques. 

Please do not copy and paste photographs and images created by other artists onto your houses and skyscrapers. Instead, take the time to learn how to use Adobe Photoshop to create your own patterns and original designs.

 Experiment with filters, symmetry settings, blending modes, layering, and smearing colors. Adjust the hue and saturation of colors and use contrast to make your brightly colored designs pop off of the page. Consider creating a unified color scheme for each building, so that your designs look cohesive. 

If you do not have access to Adobe Photoshop, you can use the website Photopea instead. All my instructions for Adobe Photoshop should also work in Photopea.

I have created a video to give you some ideas and show you some techniques to get you started:
Once you have created your designs, upload them to Google Classroom. I will print them out for you on cardstock and then you can assemble them. We will then practice photographing them using lighting from various angles. Finally, we will try photographing your buildings in front of a green screen so we can remove the background and transport your work into various imaginary settings. We can even take photographs of each other and shrink ourselves down in Photoshop so that we can explore our abstract paper cities in person. 

The Templates:

Assignment 2:
If you are interested in complete abstraction and would prefer to decorate non-representational forms instead of houses, you can try the same lesson using this tetrahedron template instead:
Just decorate all the triangles using abstract designs. Create multiple versions with different designs or simply print out several copies of the sheet with the same designs onto cardstock. Assemble your three-dimensional tetrahedron forms and glue them together to invent brand new geometric shapes. Assemble groups of shapes on a table and set up interesting, dramatic lighting before photographing them.

Delete the background and use Photoshop to paste your sculptures into new background settings. Take a photograph of yourself and shrink yourself down in Photoshop so you can see how your sculpture would look on a grand scale in different settings.

How would your abstract geometric sculpture look hanging from the ceiling?

Below is are templates for a fold, cut, and glue tissue box design. Try using Adobe Photoshop to create abstract designs on the surface of your own original tissue box.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Create a Character Sheet for your Original Cartoon (and invent a world that tests them in every imaginable way)


Creating original cartoon character drawings,
 using the random character trait generator:

It is human nature to want to tell our own stories and to create characters like ourselves. 

 But there is a danger in creating a character that is too much like you. If you become too attached to your cartoons, you'll be afraid to do anything bad to them. This could kill your story before it's even begun. 

If your audience is never worried about your characters, they'll also never start caring about them.

We also yearn to create characters that have admirable traits, failing to consider that what makes a character likeable and relatable are their imperfections.  

Using a random trait generator is a wonderful exercise for artists of any skill level. If you inadvertently generate a character with only positive traits, all strengths and no weaknesses, try again. 

Nothing kills a story faster than a character that is too perfect or a plot where nothing overwhelming or insurmountable happens. Your audience wants to see what your character does when they are destroyed and completely broken by impossible odds. How does your character deal with grief, tragedy or, at the very least, the knowledge that they messed everything up? If saving the day were easy, if anyone could do it, why does your story need your particular character to get the job done? 
Assignment: Create an obstacle course, maze or torture chamber for your character:
In this next exercise, create a drawing that throws everything bad you can possibly think of at your character. My character is very proud of his strength and he is overconfident in his ability to meet any challenge. I want to create an obstacle course that is going to shake him to the core. 

Imagine that you are creating a video game based on your character and his story. 

Create a drawing that puts your hero through their paces and don't forget to have fun doing it. As you draw you will develop more ideas about your character, who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are. 

I created this short video to explain the process:

I did not realize that my character would be afraid of snakes and bugs until I started drawing the obstacle course. I think it would be fun if this phobia turns out to be his dirty little secret. He is very proud of how brave he is and doesn't want anyone to know his Achilles Heel.

Most of us cringe a bit when faced with creepy crawlies, but what about an imaginary bug that feasts on human flesh?

Carnivorous plants and imaginary spider bat monsters are always fun to draw

Finally, don't forget to provide a sliver of hope in your drawing. Your hero needs a reason to enter the maze and test his fortunes. What are his goals? Is he trying to find something? Rescue something or someone? Get to a better place? 

I am not sure I trust these 'doves' but I had to give my hero a reason to go through the maze. Maybe he is trying to escape a super villain's torture chamber? The church window with the beam of light shining through gives Floyd a goal and provides a sliver of hope for our hero.

Drawing an obstacle course/maze/torture chamber for your hero hopefully enabled you to discover new things about them. For instance, when I first created Floyd, I had no idea he would secretly fear snakes and bugs. 

I also added another plot twist as I was drawing: unbeknownst to Floyd, he will be unable to fly if his magic cape gets too wet. That should be fun to watch.

This brings us to another truth: What is fun for your character, will not be fun for your audience. What is fun for your audience will most certainly not be fun for your character. Recognize that they are two different things and you'll see the wisdom of not getting too attached. 

This does not mean you shouldn't eventually come to care about your character, it just means, let him earn it and don't make it easy on him. 

Now that you understand your character better, it's time to design a character sheet for them. 

Your character sheet should include a turnaround ,
a walk cycle and some poses that are emblematic of your hero's personality. You should also include a variety of facial expressions. The entire sheet does not need to be colored in or shaded. Just color and shade in one or two feature poses for now.  Then add in a description of your character. Include any powers, strengths and weaknesses that are pertinent to the story.
Let's talk about adding color, light and shadow to your artwork. I have created tutorials on this subject before so, for my students, the video below should be a review:

Here are some great references that I used in researching this art lesson:
This is a great video on Pixar storytelling from Bloop Animation:

Art of Looney Tunes is a treasure trove of Warner Brothers character sheets.

The Random Character Trait Generator is an indispensable tool. If you are looking for a little more autonomy, click here for a comprehensive list of character traits.

Pixar in a Box, introduction to storytelling:

Pixar in a Box: Character Development

Pixar in a Box: Visual Language: