Cubism from Scratch

and DISCOVERY to foster Independent Creative
Work Habits. Students practice the
construction of knowledge.
Students to not imitate.  They INNOVATE.
They do not work from examples.
They CREATE their own ideas.

by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. © 2001

On the right is a practice drawing using a three-dimensional paper
duck as a study.  Note that it has been drawn from different distances
and from different views all within the same space.

The Objectives: 
Practice observation drawing
Learn to compose shapes, lines, and colors

Learn about principles of composition including time, motion, emphasis, and unity

Encourage creative divergent thinking and experimental work habits

Change habits of work and thinking

Foster a collaborative art studio atmosphere
Avoid becoming dependent on imitation and copywork
Avoid dependence on teacher demonstrations
Build self-confidence, natural curiosity, and focus
Encourage playfulness, connectedness, and appreciation of nature and human history
Learn about an important art style (a way of seeing), art history, art criticism, and aesthetics

Age and Grade Level
This is a good lesson for adults and children who have mastered some abstract thinking ability.  This lesson is best above second grade, but advanced kindergarten children enjoy it. 
Teaching the Lesson
Do NOT show artwork or say the word cubism until near the end of the lesson.
Do NOT demonstrate. Students learn by doing.

Have students practice from the motivations behind cubism without first seeing cubist images. Just like real artists are inventors, guide students to make discoveries, we help students discover cubism themselves. Celebrate with them. Help your students develop the habits of thinking used by highly creative people rather than teaching them to emulate artists by copying the mere look of their work. In order to do this, the teacher has studied cubism and has a working understanding of the theories and aesthetic motivations of historic cubism.

Traditionally, art historians have supposed that cubism represented a way of seeing our world from multiple viewpoints simultaneously, but now we have strong evidence that Braque and Picasso were influenced by the invention of motion pictures.

In 2007, there was a ground-breaking exhibition: Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism at the Pace Wildenstein in Brooklyn, New York, April 20 – June 23, 2007. Arne Glimcher and Bernice Rose invented and curated this very innovative exhibition that illustrates the influences of early motion picture film on minds of Picasso and Braque. Numerous art historians and painters have studied cubism for nearly 100 years and have never seen what has long seemed very obvious to Arne Glimcher. See sources below: #1 Micchelli, #2 Rose

Subject Matter
The teacher guides the students who learn to set up a large still life in the middle of the room or several small setups in the middle of their work tables.  They bring in sporting stuff, stuffed toys, musical instruments, some cloth, a few dry weeds, and so on.  

Depending of the season, some teachers bring large sunflowers, grapes, gourds, squash, onions, eggplant, apples, and so forth from the garden.  Cut a few of these in half.  Taste and smell are excellent multi-sensory motivation.

Another variation uses one or two student models that move according to teacher prompts to simulate a dance motion or an athletic action. In the variation below, two chickens move about while the class draws them.


The pencil drawing on the right was made in the author's
adult drawing class.  It is a practice observation drawing
of two chickens in motion drawn with the instructions to keep
drawing in the same space while the chickens are moving.
The instructions included the use of a blinder and
not looking at the paper while the pencil is in motion.

Drawing © Donn Odle 2008


Distribute the materials before discussing the process and giving drawing directions.  This avoids disrupting them when they are ready to start working. 


Use any drawing media that students are already familiar with.  Otherwise use a warm up to familiarize students with the material. Select paper that is large enough for the drawing tools and art media being used.  For charcoal, pastels, oil pastels and paints you could use 12 x 18 or larger.  If they work with drawing pencils, ink, ball point, or with small brushes, use a smaller size so it does not take too long. This might depend on the the age and prior experience of the students.

Instructions for the Creative Process

  1. If working at tables (observing a still-life or animal), encourage students to stand up while drawing so they use arm motions instead finger motions.  Ask them to begin by selecting an interesting area in the setup and drawing very large so things go off the edges.  Cardboard viewfinders (or empty 35 mm slide frames) are helpful in finding and sizing things. If it is a still-life, students work for few minutes until the teacher has them move to a completely different position and continue drawing the same objects on the same paper overlapping with the drawing they started (or move the still-life).
  2. Ask thinking questions and experiment questions. "What happens when you change the size or scale when you change position?  For those that have been drawing large: "What happens when you add small detail?" For those that draw small: "What happens when you make the next part very much larger? How does it seem to move in and out in from your paper?" As much as posible, try to use open questions and "what if" questions rather than commands or suggestions.
  3. Repeat drawing and moving to a new position until the paper begins to fill with overlapping and transparent drawing content. 
  4. After a few moves, invite students to slowly walk around to see how other students have worked at the problem.  Affirm a diversity of approaches. Ask them a series of open questions to make them aware of motion and time. "How do the drawings suggest motion? Does anything in the drawings look farther away or closer to you? How does this happen? What things are repeated with variation? Can you see things about the drawings that move you into the drawing or away from the drawing? Do you see the effects of size change, of repetition, of gradation, and so on?"  
  5. As the paper begins to fill with overlapping shapes, ask them what happens when you shade in and color the drawing to create an overall pattern.  What is the effect of gradations? What if they include some recognizable places here and there? Can the evaluation is to be more on overall design and movement than on realism?  Ask them how they can make adjustments in the compositions to achieve unity and harmony so that no one area becomes too dominant or different than the whole.
In-Process Critique
  1. When most of them appear to be nearly complete, or when the first to finish feel they are done, have them all stop and form groups of three.
  2. Prohibit negative responses. Encourage the use of questions that analyze and speculate. 
  3. Using six eyes instead of two, ask them to look at each other's work and tell them what parts of their pictures they notice first and why.  What parts are showing most emphasis and what parts show the least emphasis.  Encourage every student to participate, to form questions, to describe what is noticed, to analyze, and to speculate.
  4. Ask them to discuss time and motion in the works.
  5. They are not to use judgmental terms like good or bad, just say what they see that shows the most and try to give some reasons and explanations.

Continue the Creative Process
If a student asks the teacher to tell what to do next or if it is good enough, the teacher asks them a question that gets them remember the process or to look at parts that they may have missed.  The teacher refrains from telling them what to do.  The teacher does not make a suggestion.  The teacher gives them open choices rather than commands or directions.  The product is not supposed to have a certain look, but the students are supposed to learn to make their own artistic choices based on criteria the teacher gives.  Resist the temptation to make specific suggestions. Student thinking is cultivated better when the teacher honors the student ideas and does not do the thinking for the students.

Ending Critique

  1. When they are done, have them post the work for all to see.  Discuss the work by again asking what they notice first. Do not allow negative comments. 
  2. Follow the initial response by asking for explanations of  why they notice certain things.  This is not judging, it is describing and analyzing. If students miss things, the teacher asks about them. "Why do I see motion in this drawing?"  
  3. Sometimes it is also interesting to speculate about the meaning of their pictures (interpretation).  Making up titles helps with this.
Art History 
  1. Show one or more example(s) of Georges Braque and or Picasso who invented cubism (use any general reference art history book, library books on artists, slides, reproductions, posters, and/or the internet).  It is quite easy to print color pictures from the web onto transparencies blanks made for ink jet printers (footnote web sources). These can be shown in a class with an overhead projector if your class does not have a computer projector to show them directly from the web site. Kennedy - Rose
  2. Ask them to speculate about the process the artist(s) must have used to come up with their compositions.  Ask them how they think the artist was looking at the work.
  3. Ask them to speculate about the reasons the artist decided not to simply show a simple picture of the subject matter. 
  4. Ask them to remember the way motion pictures move from clip to clip to tell a story.Kennedy - Rose
  5. Explain the word Cubism and give a bit of background on how innovative it was in the art world at the time it was invented.
  6. David Hockney is a contemporary British artist who has played with these concepts by using photography to make many pictures of of the same thing and putting them all together in a composition that gives what he feels is a much more realistic impression of how we perceive the world.  He likens the typical camera's photograph to the view of one eyed single impression Cyclops.  He claims that as humans we really see the world by mentally composing reality from many visual  impressions of a subject or scene.  Which is realism?
  7. Ask the students to write a short paragraph about what kind of art they think Picasso and Braque would invent if they where living today with cell phones, high speed Internet, and space travel.
Art in Everyday Life
How does all this connect to our lives outside the art room?  How is art and life connected?  How are the events of a day connected to each other and overlapping with each other?  Students are asked to make a list of everyday experiences that could be represented cubistically. 
  1. Students are asked to make sketchbook entries that cover a portion of a typical day all in one overlapping and transparent composition.  For example, each sketch combines several aspects of the morning trip to school or the afternoon trip home. 
  2. Aesthetically, they are encouraged to reflect on the differences in their feelings in the morning compared to their feelings in the afternoon.  How does is difference in feeling represented in their cubist time sequence compositions.  Could it be done with color relationships, with size, with line type, or another device?
Review is very efficient use of class time.  After reviewing something several times, it is much more apt to be remembered and used beneficially in another project.  Sometimes there is a minute or two after cleanup time before the bell rings.  Even if the bell rings before a question is answered, it is still good to raise the question.
  1. Ask a review question. 
  2. Ask an art vocabulary question.  What does "emphasis" mean in a composition?  What does "unity" mean?  What are the differences between "unity" and "harmony"?
  3. How are artists similar to inventors?
  4. Is cubism more or less realistic than realism?
  5. How is the passage of time be shown in a drawing?
  6. Which is more beautiful, movement or symmetry and stability?
  7. What are the ways to show motion in a drawing?
  8. Which of you previous projects would be more fun if they included what we learned about motion today?

Review is even more effective if it is done again at the beginning of the next session a day or more later.  When a teacher expects students to remember things from session to session, students thinking habits are gradually trained to remember. They learn to expect that what is being learned has a purpose and it is to be incorporated into the next project. Ask questions that connect previous learning with today's questions and artwork.

To encourage creativity, pose questions that will be coming up in art class in the near future. I try to respond with enthusiasm to unexpected results--even when they are unexpected by me. "Wow! How did you do that?"

<><> END OF LESSON <><>

Credit:  This lesson was inspired by a similar lesson developed and taught by Judy Wenig-Horswell, Associate Professor of Art, Goshen College.

Not enough time to do this lesson? Do not take shortcuts. Think of it as a unit that continues for as many sessions as are needed to do it well. Start each session with warm-up and review. Many more things are learned when we take the time to do something well.  Teaching many short lessons leaves the impression that art is quick and easy. Art is not a bunch of products.  It is a way of thinking and working that materializes and expresses ideas. Artist know that things worth doing take time and may require lots of experimentation.


Kennedy, R. (2007) “When Picasso and Braque Went to the Movies.” New York Times, April 15, 2007
[retrieved 12/14/2010]


  Rose, C. (2007) “A discussion about Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism with Bernice Rose and Arne Glimcher in Art & Design” Friday, June 8, 2007 ” Charlie Rose, © 2010 [retrieved 12/14/2010]


Art Education HOME page

Creativity Killers
Teaching Idea Generation
Teaching Creativity
Art Lesson Examples

Art and National Tragedy
Creativity Killers
Creativity Links
Creative Teaching
Collage Lesson
Drawing Lesson
Everyday Life Art Choices
Good and Bad Art Teaching
Learning to Learn to Draw
Lesson Planning
Motivating Non Drawers
Multicultural Art
Observing in the Art Room
Rituals in the Art Classroom
Rubric - Assessing Artwork
Rubric - Assessing Art Talk
Sixth Grade Sketches
Sketchbook Evaluation
Sources of Inspiration
Successful Third Grade

Syllabus - Art for Children

Syllabus - Secondary Sch Art
Art Department
Bartel Courses
Marvin Bartel Home
Bartel Artwork

All Rights reserved 2001, 2nd edition in 2008, by Marvin Bartel, Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College. All text and photo rights reserved.
You are invited to link this page to your page. For permission to reproduce or place this page on your site or to make printed copies, contact the author.

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Emeritus Professor of Art
Adjunct in Art Education
Goshen College, 1700 South Main St., Goshen IN 46526
Author Bio

updated: December 2008

A link to lessons on Cubism from New Zealand


Goshen, IN - USA