The Impulse to Art: Creation Through the Centuries
A lesson in art history
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
From the earliest record of human existence, we have evidence of people making art. Art serves both as an expression of emotion and inner thoughts and as a recorder of history and the events of public life. Explain to your students that different areas of the world have vastly different art-making traditions and that the traditions covered in this mini-lesson are from the Western world only, spanning from the ancient Greeks to the present day.
We are able to study only the art that has survived over the centuries. Many of the creative objects of the past have decayed, were stolen, or were demolished as cultures won and lost disputed territories — the victors destroying what they couldn't take. Because of this, the bulk of the remnants from the Greeks, Romans, and even the Middle Ages are architectural: Castles, palaces, churches, and monasteries endured because only very rich families and the church had enough money to create the kind of immense buildings that would stand the test of time. It is not until the 15th century that we begin to have paintings that we can study, and many of these were frescoes, which means they were painted on the wet plaster of the walls of a house or church and allowed to dry there. These paintings used albumen, a substance found in egg whites, as their base. It was during the flowering of what is known as the Renaissance that oil was discovered as a useful base for paint, and it is this kind of paint that helped to produce the many masterpieces that are in our museums today.
One of the other important discoveries of the Renaissance was perspective. This is the idea that our eyes are drawn into the center of a picture, just as they are drawn into the distance when we are looking outside. It also means that things get smaller to our eyes when the objects are farther away — a simple idea, but one that had not been represented in painting before. There are many ways to explore this idea, but the "disappearing square" (or circle, if your students are familiar with compasses) is one of the simplest.
- Students will need 8- by 11-inch paper, a ruler, and a pencil (graph paper is especially helpful, but not necessary).
- Begin by measuring 8 inches along on the longer side of the 11- by 8-inch page. Draw a line to form a perfect square.
- Next, within the borders of the first square, draw a square that is 7 1/2 inches on all sides (7 inches if you have less time).
- Continue this process, drawing increasingly smaller squares, until you have the final square, which is 1 inch all around.
- Have students take a ruler and connect the corners of all the squares — all the upper-right corners together, from the biggest to the smallest square; then lower-left corners, etc., until all four have a diagonal line running through them. Notice how the eye runs to the center! For an example, look at www.olejarz.com. This website has a drawing of the square, as well as animated examples of perspective drawing.
- Hang these creations on the wall and have students look at them from any number of distances. They may want to sketch in little objects in the center to see how the object looks within these fields of distances.
- Include a few prints of perspectival paintings (see Resources below) alongside the squares to help your students see how perspective works in painting.
For a number of wonderful and more complex examples of perspective drawing, explore the following sites:
Drawing in Perspective
See Perspective at Work in Paintings
Early Cave Paintings
Read an Art Adventure, Falling Into a Painting