In this lesson, “Bold Like Basquiat,” students will create a mixed media artwork using Chromacryl Acrylic Essentials that is inspired by the techniques of Jean-Michel Basquiat and is filled with a rich visual vocabulary, personal symbols and words. This lesson works great for kids aged 10-14 years, but can be adjusted as needed.
SESSIONS 3 x 60 minute sessions
MATERIALS • 1 x 11” x 14” canvas or heavy paper per student
• 2 x 8.5” x 11” pieces of paper for notes and sketch
• 1 painting knife or small, flat cardboard strip to spread paint, per student
• tools for texture such as combs, Q-tips, bottle caps, bubble wrap, etc., to share
• 1 pencil per student
• Colored pencils in bright colors, to share
• Oil pastels in bright colors, to share
• Soft plastic table cloths to cover the tables
• 1 bucket to wash brushes in, per table
When asked if he had a specific style of working, Jean-Michel Basquiat famously responded, “I’m usually in front of the television.”
The Neo-Expressionist period of the 1980s is known for paintings with bright, intense colors, highly textured surfaces, and non-idealized imagery inspired by pop culture, graffiti, myths and personal symbols. Neo-Expressionism is considered a reaction to prior art movements such as Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is one of the best-known artists of this movement. His paintings are characterized by large areas of background color, stylized figurative elements and words. In 2017, one of his paintings, Untitled, sold for 110 million dollars – which was until recently, the highest auction amount for an American artist.
OBJECTIVE This project gives students experience with developing a personal artistic vocabulary expressed through drawing and painting.
VISUAL REFERENCES Your school library may have books such as Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Javaka Steptoe, as part of their collection, and curate more works for inspiration.
FIRSTSESSION Start with a review of Basquiat’s life and his artworks. What do the students see? Key elements to note are:
• Use of a few colors in the background • Bright colors • Figurative elements • Personal symbols and marks • Words – visible and obscured • Asymmetrical composition
Further the discussion with the question “Are Basquiat’s works pretty?” – because art does not need to be “pretty” to be powerful. With older students, discuss how Neo-Expressionism, as an art movement, was a reaction against the Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism – how artists of this time were consciously making art about themselves and their times, as opposed to exploring the materiality of paint, sculpture, etc., in a non-representative fashion. Neo-Expressionist painters made art that was raw and rough, textured and brightly colored, and referenced the culture of the times such as graffiti, television shows and pop icons.
As a group, have the students make a list of symbols of their time (emojis, memes, video game characters, tv shows, etc.). Individually, have students make a list of words that they associate with themselves, as well as a personal figurative symbol. Encourage the students to develop their visual vocabulary. Have them think about Basquiat’s words, “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”
On paper, have the students create a black and white or colored pencil sketch of their composition that includes their personal figurative element, some symbols of their times and words. Remind students that Basquiat said, “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
SECOND SESSION Arrange the room in small groups, with paint (Chromacryl Acrylic Essentials or Chromacryl Students’ Acrylic) accessible in the center. Students will choose personal meaningful colors.
On a 11” x 14” canvas or similarly sized surface, apply a background of 2-3 colors using a painting knife or a piece of cardboard to spread the paint. Use the back of a paint brush to write or draw symbols into the wet paint. Use other tools such as combs, bubble wrap, etc. to add textural interest. Let dry.
Next, following their sketch, paint the figurative element(s) using colors that will stand out against their background. Basquiat paintings are filled with lots of energy, so encourage the students to pay attention to what they are doing, but not to treat the work as precious. If they make a “mistake” just paint over it – or use that mark as part of their composition. Paintings develop and have a mind of their own! Let dry.
THIRD SESSION Now it is time to add their words and symbols. Have the students mix the paint with a medium such as Chromacryl Painting Medium/Varnish to make it more fluid (or use a fluid paint such as Chromacryl Fluid Acrylic). You may want to demonstrate how to get the right consistency and how to use a round brush with a nice tip for “writing” on the canvas. Have the students paint some words and symbols. Repeat some symbols/words; hide others. Make some big, some small. Let dry.
When dry, go over some parts of the painting with oil pastels. Some students may be more comfortable using pastel to draw and make marks on their paintings. That’s ok, because Basquiat frequently combined media to create his artworks.
REFLECTION Hang or display the students’ work around the room. Have your students reflect and answer these questions about their own and another student’s painting:
In 2-3 sentences, describe what your artwork is about. What do you think the other student’s work is about?
What 3 symbols have the most meaning to you? What symbols are repeated in the other student’s work? What do you think they mean?
Did you deliberately hide some words or symbols? Did you want to look more closely at words that were hidden in the other student’s work? Why?
Are the paintings pretty? Does art need to be pretty to be meaningful and powerful?
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