Engage Your Students from Day One with an Art History Remix

Creative thinking is an essential skill for artists. However, it can be a challenge for art students to learn and for art teachers to teach. In my room, I like to build creative skills through games and challenges. Today I’d like to share one of my most effective lessons on creativity, the Art History Remix.

How to Run an Art History Remix in Your Classroom

Last Supper Remix

1. Divide Students into Groups and Assign Historical Works

The first step is to divide your students into groups. I find groups of three to four students work best. Next, pass out printed copies of famous paintings. I include things like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. After passing out the paintings, have students spend a few minutes studying them.

2. Introduce the Assignment

Tell the groups their job will be to “remix” their historical painting in some way. They will need to create a reimagined version that adds to or changes the meaning of the original work. Kehinde Wiley is a great artist to use during your explanation because he re-imagines classic paintings by adding contemporary figures and lush floral backgrounds.

In my classroom, I show an image of Jacques Louis-David’s Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, painted in 1801, next to Wiley’s version. You can see the side-by-side comparison below.

image via CBS NEWS
“Wiley reinterpreted Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 painting, “Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass,” with a black warrior. CBS NEWS/© KEHINDE WILEY” via CBS News

I ask students to think about how the images are similar and how they are different. I ask, “Did Wiley copy or did he add to David’s work to make something new and original?” This discussion is one that’s familiar and fascinating to kids who have grown up seeing images repurposed through memes and gifs. The discussion also addresses what this lesson is after– to build an understanding of the difference between copying and artistic appropriation.

3. Discuss Specific Guidelines and Have Students Brainstorm

To help students focus, I give the following three guidelines:

  1. Something fundamental about the work must be changed.
  2. When adding something to the work, be mindful of how it works with the original image.
  3. Keep enough of the original work so it is easily recognizable.

After discussing the guidelines, hand each group a large sheet of newsprint and some markers so they can brainstorm. Ask them to make a list of what could be changed or added to their artwork. You might even make it a challenge. For example, you might say, “Can you write down at least 30 possibilities in five minutes!?” This forces students to think beyond obvious ideas.

When time is up, have each group share their top three ideas with the class. From there, groups will need to come up with a plan including the materials needed and each team member’s role.

student work

4. Have Students Create and Share Their Work

Of course, the last step is to have students create their art history remix pieces. I love watching the students work. The assignment is challenging and requires quite a bit of higher level thinking. However, it becomes doable because of the power of group learning. Teams discuss ideas, give each other feedback, and work to solve problems as they arise. What might be a frustrating beginning-of-the-year task for individuals becomes a fun task to take on with others.

student work: remix of Arnolfini Wedding

I always use this lesson during the first week of school with my high school Art 1 students because it sets a standard for original art, previews the level of creative independence I expect, and helps develop a classroom culture of collaboration. I love this lesson because it’s engaging and fun, while at the same time full of challenging material. My students love it, too, and it helps them start to see how art history can be a visual conversation, with current artists building on the work of the past.

How do you teach students about issues relating to originality and creativity?

Have you ever tried a remix in your classroom?

Melissa Purtee

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Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.

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