A Look at an Engaging High School Visual Arts Curriculum

When you have the chance to design your own curriculum, it’s easy to get stuck. There’s just so much you could include, but what should you include? Of course, that “should” depends on your teaching philosophy and your student population. No matter which direction you go, it can be nice to have a concrete example. That’s why, today, I’m sharing the entire curriculum for my Visual Arts course.

This year-long course is mandatory for all sophomores at my school, many of whom have never previously taken art. It aims to build on their rookie skills while simultaneously developing their capacity to make their own artistic choices by tapping into their interests.

Below you’ll see all 6 units broken into 3 different categories: the materials you’ll need, the scaffolding exercises students do to build skills, and the more involved summative assessment assignment that asks students to put together everything they’ve learned. I hope you find it helpful!

A Sample Visual Arts Curriculum Map

Unit 1: Graffiti-Inspired Design

Materials

  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Colored Pencils
  • Markers

Scaffolding Assignments

  1. Dry-erase board lettering experiments
    Students practice different kinds of graffiti lettering and font styles on dry-erase boards. The low-pressure materials allow for lots of practice and encourage student experimentation.
  1. Graffiti Alphabet
    Students design each letter using a different technique or artistic concept being studied (warm/cool/neutral colors, complementary colors, one-point perspective, overlapping, and gradation).
  1. One Word and One Image Design
    This is a formative assignment where students choose one word that reflects some aspect of identity. They design that word and combine it with a drawn and colored image, using artistic conventions studied.

Summative Assessment: Code Name Design

The Code Name assignment asks students to invent and design a name that represents some aspect of their identity. Along with the design of that name, students are required to implement a symbolic image and a visual metaphor to reflect who they are. The artist statement that follows engages students to explain the meaning behind their name and artistic choices.

summative design


Unit 2: Painting

Materials

  • Acrylic Paint (Red, Yellow, Blue, Magenta, White, Red Oxide, Yellow Oxide)
  • Brushes
  • Cups for Water
  • Palette Knives
  • Palettes (cardboard works well)
  • Rags
  • Paper
  • Cardboard or other painting surface

Scaffolding Assignments

  1. Value Scales
    Using white on one side and a formula of 4 parts blue, 2 parts red, and one part yellow to make the darkest value on the other, students must paint a value scale.
  1. Analogous Color Value Scales
    After choosing three analogous colors, students create value scales of between 5 and 9 values for each color in their analogous scheme.
  1. Painting an Orange
    Students draw and paint an orange noticing the light and shadow and building upon their value scale lessons. Photocopies work best for reference materials so students can use them from class to class.
  1. Painting an Orange II
    This assignment is the same as the previous except students are asked to paint the background first and move into the foreground last.
  1. Painting an Apple
    Students draw an apple and paint it in, including the background. Photocopies work best for reference materials so students can use them from class to class.
  1. Painting a Flower
    Students draw and paint a flower. Photocopies work best for reference materials so students can use them from class to class.

flower painting

Summative Assessment: Painting with a Purpose

Students create a painting on a piece of cardboard that expresses some sort of message. The message can be of any kind, such as personal, serious, humorous, or political. Students are required to implement a painted frame of some kind into their piece, as well as symbolic imagery. Words are optional. Students must also apply at least three artistic conventions studied over the year.

student painting


Unit 3: Create a Cartoon Character

Materials

  • Acrylic Paint (and supplies)
  • Markers
  • Colored Pencils
  • Paper
  • Cell Phones

Scaffolding Assignment

  1. Cartoon Character Mash-Up
    Using a cartoon characteristic face guide, students practice drawing various characters using different styles of facial features.

Summative Assessment: Create a Cartoon Character

Students create a new cartoon character. The character can be based off existing characters, but must be altered significantly to be an original creation. Students must use paint for at least half of the piece and can choose to use colored pencils and markers for the other half. I also ask students to create a 30-second story for their character that they present in front of the class.

student work


Unit 4: Portraiture

Materials

  • Acrylic Paint (and supplies)
  • Markers
  • Colored Pencils
  • Paper

Scaffolding Assignment

  1. Face Drawing Challenge
    This is more of a weekly event where I do drawing lessons with the students who want them. Others will practice drawing various photocopies of faces on their own during class.

Summative Assessment: Portrait Piece

Students draw and paint a portrait of their choice. Many students use their phones for visual references. I also have various photocopies of faces as well. Students must paint at least half of the composition with the option to use colored pencils or markers if needed. Application of two or more artistic conventions studied is also required.

student portrait


Unit 5: Paper Plate Mask

Materials

  • Small Paper Plates
  • Tin Foil
  • Hot Glue Guns and Hot Glue Sticks
  • Newspaper
  • Flour
  • Water
  • Painting Supplies

Assignment: Painted Papier-Mâché Mask

Students engage in the process of three-dimensional work through a mask. Facial features are created using tinfoil including eyebrow ridges, a nose, and lips. Using hot glue, students apply the features to their plates. Papier-mâché is then used to cover the facial forms and create a mask. Students draw and paint the face however they like incorporating artistic conventions studied throughout the year.

paper plate mask


Unit 6: Independent Final Project

Materials

Everything you have PLUS whatever is left in the budget for purchase. Some examples from my class would be: plaster, painting supplies, cardboard, canvas board, clay, wood, paper, colored pencils, markers, and pastels.

Assignment

Students have 7 weeks to create a proposal sketch, get that approved by me, and then generate their best piece of art. There are three requirements to this project: 20 or more hours of work, completion of at least one art piece, and a final presentation to the class. I keep track of time each day by making hourly tallies in my grade book. Students choose to work individually or in groups of 2 or 3, and the media they use is their own choice. This final project always leads to high levels of intrinsic motivation and quality work.

summative project

Throughout this year-long course, my goal is for students to see themselves as artists while building basic skills. This course map has transformed countless students from believing art has no relevance in their lives to knowing they are truly artists.

What are your most successful units throughout the year?

What further questions do you have about the units and assignments discussed here?

Matt Christenson

Contributor

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

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