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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.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Tree of Life: Exploring line, shape, space, pattern and color with oil pastels and India ink

18" x 24" Tree of Life by an 8th grade student
Oil Pastel and India Ink on Paper

Stoclet Frieze, 1909, by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt filled his artwork with mysterious imagery and mythological references. He did not explain his pictures, instead leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the story. We do know that Klimt was inspired by Egyptian art. 

I have long been fascinated with the ‘Tree of Life’ at the center of Klimt’s Stoclet Frieze. Like many cultures, ancient Egyptians used the tree to symbolize the power of nature
and the cycle of birth, death and regeneration. Art historians hypothesize that the swirling lines of Klimt’s branches represent the Nile River, destroying everything in its wake in the annual flood while depositing rich soil upon the banks.
The Egyptian God most often associated with this cycle of life is Osiris, who was cruelly murdered by his son, Set, and then resurrected by his wife, the goddess Isis. Osiris’s son, Horus, visible in the picture, is represented both as a falcon and the ‘all seeing eye’. Horus’s real eye was gouged out by his
evil brother Set, as the sons battled for power in the wake of their father’s death. Isis magically restored the eye, imbuing it with magical properties. Rather than keep it, Horus offered it to his father, in the hope of bringing him back to life. The eye is symbolic of wisdom, loyalty, restoration and
sacrifice. I was eager to teach my new students about the expressive possibilities of the art element of line. ‘Tree of Life’ was an ideal inspiration.

Many of my new middle school students had little faith in their creative abilities. I knew I needed to start by teaching them how to use line, pattern, color and space so they could become confident artists. Wanting to avoid having them
merely copy Klimt’s stunning piece, I elected not to show it to them until after their own creations were complete. Instead, I focused on teaching the elements of art and principles of design, so each student could produce something unique.

Each student was told to draw a tree with a
trunk, roots and branches that fill the page. All the branches and roots had to go off the edge of the page. We used toy cars to test if the lines were wide enough, imagining the roots and branches were roads and the trunk a highway. Using
the ‘lines and patterns’ worksheet packet as a reference (found here) http://thehelpfulartteacher.blogspot.com/2012/07/rhythmic-line-designs-and-patterns.html
they filled each negative space on the page with patterns. I handed each student a color theory worksheet and color wheel (found here) http://thehelpfulartteacher.blogspot.com/2010/11/color-theory-101.html and briefly went over primary colors, secondary colors, warm colors, cool colors, tints and complimentary colors. This review took
less than ten minutes because I allowed the students to keep the reference sheet with all the definitions for the duration of the project and expected them to refer to it frequently. 

They picked any negative space and colored the design within using two complimentary colors, no mixing. in another space, they used one warm color and one cool color,
no mixing. They filled another space with all three primary colors, no mixing. Some other color schemes listed on the worksheet were; any secondary color and its
tint (see how many values you can create by gradually adding more white), any primary color and it’s tint (can you create a value scale and use it in your
design?), any two primary colors and the secondary colors they could create from mixing them, warm colors only and cool colors only.  In the last space I gave the students free
choice of color but told them to create tests on a piece of scrap paper first.
Once the oil pastels were put away, students used a square shading brush to line India ink along the edge of the oil pastel, rotating the paper while painting to minimize drips. If a student did drip on the oil pastel, they were instructed not to wipe it off. Instead, we allowed it to dry and chipped it off.

They then painted every part of the paper that did not have oil pastel with black India ink, filling in the tree. 

One 8th grader decided to leave the inside of her tree white after painting the lines, creating a beautiful sense of contrast. 
Once our creations were done, I showed my students Klimt’s artwork and asked them to discuss and write four reflection questions: 

1) Why did Mrs. Wintemberg have
you do this assignment? What did she want you to learn? 

2) How is your picture similar to Gustav Klimt’s picture? 

3) Gustav Klimt’s picture is mysterious. It uses many symbols. What are some symbols you can find in his artwork? 

4) Make up a story to explain what is going on in his picture.

We then proudly displayed the artwork, together with student reflections, in the hallway and at district art exhibits.

Below is a very thoughtful written response to this assignment by a 7th grade student.

Below are copies of the worksheets I gave my students:

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