How to Help Students Develop a Body of Work

Amber Kane Scarf

Students often create a work of art, turn it in, and are ready to move onto the next project. As they move from one thing to another, they forget about past ideas. So, what happens when they’re asked to develop a body of work?

This is the reality for our AP students. They are asked to explore a single idea through twelve pieces of work. For many, this is the first time they’ve thought about making a body of work. They find it both challenging and exciting. So, how can we help our students learn to better communicate through their work?

In the same way it’s difficult to tell a powerful story or message in a single sentence, it’s also challenging for students to communicate through one work of art.

Consider having your students make mini bodies of work.

While twelve pieces can be a lot, having students create three to four related pieces is doable.

Introduce your students to the concept of carryover ideas, and help them begin to create a body of work representative of their voice and vision.

Here’s how.

Start by having students look at the last piece they created. If students dislike the last piece, allow them to select a different one.

Have them take inventory and reflect on the following questions.

  • What mediums did you use?
  • What techniques were explored?
  • What is the subject matter or concept behind the piece?
  • What is the color scheme?
  • Describe the style.
  • What is your favorite thing about the piece? Be specific.
  • What’s your least favorite thing about the piece? Be specific.

Amber Kane scarf

For example, here is how I might respond to the questions based on the piece above.

  • For this piece, I used cotton yarn and roving.
  • The techniques used are pattern weaving and free-form embroidery.
  • The focus of the piece is organic shapes.
  • The color scheme for the piece is analogous colors, purple, green and blue.
  • The piece is abstract and functional.
  • My favorite thing is the forest green embroidery with the roving. I like the texture it created. I also like that it feels integrated into the piece.
  • My least favorite is the chartreuse section at one of the ends. When I started weaving with that color, I had a different design plan in mind.

Once students finish answering the reflection questions, have them take a close look at their responses. Have students highlight the ideas they enjoyed and want to continue to explore. These will be their carryover ideas.

In the example above, the carryover ideas are:

  • For this piece, I used cotton yarn and roving.
  • The focus of the piece is organic shapes.
  • The piece is abstract and functional.
  • My favorite thing is the forest green embroidery with the roving. I like the texture that it created. I also like that it feels integrated into the piece.

Next, have students highlight, using a different color, their least favorite aspects. Give students time to think about how they will avoid repeating their least favorite thing. In the above example, it would mean I need to spend more time thinking about colors. It could also mean I need to be willing to abandon an idea and start over even after I’ve done some weaving.

Last, have students look at the items that remain. Those are things to which they have a neutral response. They don’t need to avoid them or make a focused effort to repeat them.

For this example, the neutral elements became a guide for going in a slightly different direction. Instead of doing a pattern weave, I switched to plain weave. Instead of working with color, I’m switching to neutrals.

Amber Kane Scarf

The goal of the process is to provide students with a formula that helps them to reflect and move forward.

When asked to experiment or come up with a new idea, students are often tempted to change everything. They’ll select a new medium they’ve never worked with, while also trying a new subject, style, and size. All of the changes tend to feel overwhelming, causing the student to give up or leaving them with another piece they don’t like.

The process of carryover ideas also helps students make connections from one piece to the next. They’ll begin to see their voice, as they reflect on processes, mediums, and the overall aesthetics they like.

Carryover ideas are also a great way to help students uncover their personal voice and develop a body of work.

For students who are having trouble with the concept, have them look at some famous works of art. As they look at the work, ask students to see if they can find the carryover ideas. For example, have students look at work by artist, Stan Squirewell.

images via instagram.com/ssquirewell/

Have students select two works of art from the artist. I recommend they select works created within the same time frame. Next, have them complete a Venn diagram, comparing and contrasting the two pieces. The items that land in the center, those that are the same, are the artist’s carryover ideas.

When looking at Stan’s work, students uncover that he continues to use many of the same materials. He also moves forward working with the figure in the center of the page. They’ll see that he stayed with a white background and a black figure. He’s changed the gender and taken the face from looking almost like a mask, to a photo of someone. These observations help students to see how artists develop their voice through a body of work.

Carryover ideas work to helps students push their work forward. They can also help students think about how to change or adjust past pieces they don’t like.

It’s possible to have one or two students who will tell you they don’t have any pieces they like. So how do you help them?

Students can learn as much from things they don’t like, as those they do.

If students are reflecting on a piece they don’t like, have them answer the following questions.

  • What story or emotion did you want to convey through the piece?
  • What was the idea behind what you were making?
  • What are five specific things you don’t like about the piece, and why don’t you like them?

Now you have a place to start a conversation. If the student didn’t convey the story, idea, or emotion they wanted, have a deeper conversation about what this might look like.

For example, if the student shares they were trying to convey the feeling of joy, help them walk through what joy looks and feels like. Encourage the student to describe a time when they felt joy. Ask, “What did it smell, taste, look, sound, and feel like?”

As students describe, record their answers or take notes.

Next, have students go back into their old piece or begin a new piece. As they work, have them explore the same story, message, theme, or idea as their last piece. For them, the concept is their carryover idea. They also, now have a list of things they don’t want to carry over.

Don’t wait until a student takes an AP course to introduce them to the idea of developing a body of work. Use the carryover idea to help students reflect on past work and develop new ideas.

How do you help your students develop bodies of work?

What’s your favorite technique to help students develop ideas?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Amber Kane

Amber Kane is AOEU’s Director of K–12 Curriculum and a former AOEU Writer and high school art educator. She believes questioning and a focus on the creative thought process helps students uncover their personal voice and impact others.

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