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Doodles to Design: Gilliam's Improvisations

Like to doodle and improvise? Explore color field painting in the style of African American artist Sam Gilliam.

  • Grade 6
    Grades 7 and 8
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. Sam Gilliam is a contemporary African American artist who has become well known for his large-scale, abstract paintings. Although he was born on November 30, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam lives in Washington, D.C., where he operates a large studio in the city's historic Shaw district. He has received many awards for his work and is exhibited extensively.
    2. Gilliam received a B.A. in Fine Art, and a M.A. in Painting from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He includes other objects in his work, ranging from computer-generated images to steel. His art, which uses form, design, color, and scale in improvisational paintings, relies heavily on the principles of design. Although they are abstract works (having no recognizable subject matter other than the colors and shapes mentioned), they are active, harmonic, and decorative because of their strong composition (see The Power of Love, 1993).
    3. To create an abstract painting using Gilliam's method of combining colors, shapes, and design, first use Crayola® Markers to doodle on white paper. Fill your paper with colors, shapes, and lines. Design everything to be unrecognizable.
    4. Use Crayola Scissors to cut out your favorite part of the doodle. Which area of your doodle has the most compelling composition? The section you cut out should stand alone, be interesting and colorful, and cover the entire section you cut away.
    5. Cover a table with recycled newspaper. Use Crayola Tempera Paints and Paint Brushes to reproduce the section you chose on a larger sheet of paper. Paint the shapes, colors, and lines you drew earlier. Cover your entire sheet. Dry.
  • Standards

    LA: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

    LA: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

    LA: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade level topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    LA: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

    SS: Describe ways in which language, stories, folktales, music, and artistic creations serve as expressions of culture and influence behavior of people living in a particular culture.

    SS: Explore factors that contribute to one's personal identity such as interests, capabilities, and perceptions.

    VA: Intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.

    VA: Select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas.

    VA: Describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts.

  • Adaptations

    Possible classroom resources: The Artist's Toolbox by Sam Gilliam: The Secrets of Creative Genius (a video available for a fee of $1.99); Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective by Jonathan P. Binstock

    Students research the life of artist Sam Gilliam. Organize research onto a chart. Research the lives and works of other African American artists, poets, and writers. What connections can be found among their lives and work? Students post their chart in the classroom for viewing and discussion.

    Encourage students to experiment with several different color combinations, using the same original doodle as their beginning patterns. How does the color affect the overall look of the final painting? Students choose their favorite painting of Gilliam's and be prepared to explain why the colors used are most attractive to the individual.

    Prepare student artwork created in the Gilliam mode for a formal display in the school building. Students prepare a summary paragraph to accompany their artwork, describing their process and connections to Gilliam's technique.


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