How to Utilize Art History to Add More Variety to Your Lessons

Vincent Van Gogh’s textures…

Piet Mondrian’s lines and primary colors…

Pablo Picasso’s faces…

We all know certain artists make it easy to create wonderful lessons about their artwork. I know that when my students come to me as 5th graders they know several different artists because our elementary teachers do a great job of integrating art history into their lessons. However, they all know about the same handful of artists… and there are lots and lots of artists of which they have never even heard.

That is why I like to let my students explore art history when creating their projects. Having my students research their own artists helps them create unique projects and allows them to begin to develop a personal style.

Today I’d love to share things to consider when bringing art history into your lessons as well as some sample projects that incorporate the work of famous artists. 
 

Things to Consider when Planning Projects

 
First, you need to decide what your students will do with the chosen artist’s information.
Are they going to create something that reflects the artist’s style? Are they going to create something that mimics a specific image? Are they going to create something for their artist? Are they going to combine the work of 2 or more artists? There are lots of options.

Next, you must decide how your students are going to choose their artists.
Do you have a list of 20-30 pre-selected artists for them to choose from? Do you have a specific art movement, style or time period you want them to research? Do you have them select a specific subject matter?

Finally, you’ll have to decide where your students will find information about the artist.
Do you want to create a website or document with links to specific sites? Do you want to create and print out summary sheets about each artist? I don’t recommend a “just look online” approach as there is too much out there, especially for the elementary and middle grades.
 

Sample Lessons

 

1. Sneaking into Art Artist Cards

Sneaking into Art

I printed out 30 art images. Students selected their artists based on the images they liked best. We went to the computer lab and, using Wikipedia, they filled out the back of their artist cards with information about their artists. On the front of their cards they “snuck” themselves into the original art images using media of their choice. Note: If you are not comfortable having your students use Wikipedia as an only source, consider using the Getty, NGA or MOMA sites as well.

 

2. Artist Tree Houses

Artist Treehouses

Students randomly drew artists’ names from a cup. They were then given the task of designing tree houses for their “clients.” I had a summary paper for each “client” with artwork examples and his or her main information. Students used perspective drawing to create the tree houses then added unique details that reflected their artists. One of my favorite parts was having my students share their pieces, thereby teaching the entire class about 20+ different artists. You can find some examples here and the full AOE lesson plan here.

 

3. Personal Art Galleries

Personal Art Gallery

Students drew art galleries following the rules of perspective. When the students had a minimum of 3 blank canvases on their gallery walls, I handed out our old “Introducing Art” textbooks. I told them they could “collect” any artwork they wanted as long as it wasn’t a student example. When they finished re-creating their selection of artworks they created exteriors for their galleries, making the pieces interactive.

 

4. The Original Selfie

Original Selfie

We discussed how painting a self-portrait was the “original selfie.” I created a Google document with links to different artists’ self-portraits and students spent time researching before selecting an artist’s image they wanted to update. Students worked to recreate each artist’s self-portrait but updated the clothing, setting or other aspects to reflect modern day. You can see some other examples here.
 

5. Portrait Style

Portrait Style

I created a set of cards that described different art styles. Each student had to randomly choose one of the cards from a pile. Then, the students researched their art styles before creating self-portraits in those specific styles. You can see more examples here.
 
These are just a few ideas of ways to use art history to add choice to your lesson planning. If I was teaching high school, I would love to do a project based on one of my favorite YouTube channels, Epic Rap Battles of History. Note- make sure you preview first as some have adult language and content.

…and in honor of February, here is a link to a pinterest board of heart art projects, all based on different artists!
 
 

How do you add art history to your lessons?

Who is your favorite artist to teach?

 
 
 

Jennifer Carlisle

Jen is a middle school art teacher from Norfolk, NE who loves exploring and teaching art through traditional and digital art mediums.

Related

  • Dan

    My high school art teachers did a department wide “Art Madness” every March building a bracket with famous artists in it. Each week our teachers would give a brief bio on the head-to-head match-up (like Modigliani vs. Van Gogh) and all the students voted for their preference based off the info/pictures of the artist’s work. It made art history a lot of fun because sometimes spontaneous discussions would arise on who was better and we would find ourselves rooting for underdogs like Sandy Skoglund to take down the juggernauts like Michelangelo. When it got to the elite eight and final four teachers would sneak quizzes in on us because we had seen those artists multiple times (and as they were voted on, many students gained more interest in these artists)
    4 years of this actually helped prepare me for surviving all my art history classes in college!

  • Jeff Lahr

    I am curious if you use specific sites for research. I have had the experience with middle school students using the internet and coming across sites that their parents thought inappropriate.

    • Jennifer Carlisle

      If the search is more open my kids do a lot of Wikipedia. The small summary box is great for summarizing the artists life and most (not all) the pictures are okay. Whenever we do an online search we have the “there are people in art pictures who don’t have on clothes, their are called nudes. What you do when you see one makes the difference if you get into trouble.” talk. If we are doing a more limited search I will create a document with links to the websites I want them to use. Sometimes it is easiest to just print off information sheets for each artist and have them research that way. Hope that helps.

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