Thursday, September 9, 2010

Oh, what a RELIEF!

6th grade Egyptian "cartouche" carved in sheetrock
Patty, at Deep Space Sparkle admits she struggles with form-based (3-D) projects, especially due to the space/storage considerations etc. It was a conversation she began about this very topic that got me to start my blog last May (thanks, Patty!), and my first five or so posts were all papier-mache and other 3-D projects. I'm a freak for working 3 dimensionally. The kids love it. Patty posted about this topic again today, inspiring my writing of this evening. (Patty, you're the momma of art teacher bloggers!)

I am the granddaughter of a Russian immigrant woodcarver/sculptor, but I only realized my "inner sculptor" a dozen or so years ago when I discovered I enjoyed the 3-D projects at school as much as my students! The big thing with 3-D work is planning - it's kind of like choreography - if the 2nd graders are making teddy bear chairs, the 3rd graders shouldn't be doing a papier-mache project and the 6th graders making altered books at the same time, or there's no place to put them. So I carefully schedule the 3-D work by grade level to make maximum use of my storage.

But one kind of form-based work that doesn't require the massive storage challenge of the stuff mentioned above, is any kind of relief project, and that's the topic of this post. One of my FAVORITE relief materials is tooling foil - I do a project with this material each year with my 6th graders, but we probably won't get to it until late winter or early spring. It is not messy, really easy, and the kids think it's really fun to work with. If I can locate some photos from prior years, I'll post them soon, otherwise you'll just have to wait until I have this year's project later this school year...

In the meantime, here's two favorite relief projects from last year:

First up, Egyptian cartouches. Students in 6th grade study ancient Egypt, so I do a related project in art class. We discuss what a cartouche is, and learn how to read some hieroglyphics. The students discovers that hieroglyphics can be written from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom, and they learn how to determine which way to read it. I give them stickers for solving simple words I leave around the room written in a hieroglyphic alphabet (I'm not sure why, but the older kids love stickers as much as the younger ones.).

Then we get to work. Using a variety of hieroglyphic sheets, they plan how to write their own name for their cartouche. Some use nicknames, some whole names, etc - I really leave it up to them, though the carving process is different for the more complex projects. (If they are doing something with many characters, their work will be more of an engraving than a relief, due to the limitations of the material.)

The art materials:

  • Leftover sheetrock (also called Drywall) can be easily cut/broken into whateve size you want. I usually find a teacher who has done a home construction project over the summer and has leftovers to donate. Make sure you do NOT use the type that is fireproof - that has fiberglass in it. It has nasty little 'fingers' that get into your skin and hurt or itch. I believe the paper coating on the fiberglass stuff is a blueish or greenish color, rather than the regular gray paper, but check to make sure. You can actually SEE the little fiberglass hairs sticking out on the cut sides.
  • Carving tools - V gouges, U gouges, and liner tools are all good.
  • Sponges cut into small pieces
  • Paints as desired - acrylic, watercolor, tempera, gloss, etc. It all depends on what kind of look you want.
The steps:
  • Students should write their name with a Sharpie on the heavier cardboard side of the sheetrock, and then need to remove the paper from the other side.

  • To remove the paper, moisten with a small sponge, and let wait for a minute to soak in (we sing the theme song from Jeopardy to determine whether it is ready). Then peel or use thumb to roll off paper coating. Repeat until all layers of paper are off. This will take a bit of time. Use just tiny sponges to prevent over-soaking the sheetrock. If it gets too too wet, it will break.

  • Let dry until next art class, and then draw design what you plan to carve w/pencil.

  • Get to work carving, moistening one area at a time with the tiny sponge. Students will need to understand relief vs engraving to determine what to carve. (Do I want the characters engraved IN, or do I want to carve around them so that they stand OUT?)

  • Sheetrock is not thick, so discourage kids from carving down to the cardboard base. Oops! It's broken!!

  • Sometimes, sheetrock that has been moistened or carved too much will crack. We tried to make our cartouches look ancient, so the kids didn't mind the breaks at all; actually they encouraged them, to my chagrin. Let all moisture dry out before gluing with Elmer's Glue-All (I usually glued them after school).

  • Students painted in a variety of ways - some used gold paints, both tempera and acrylic, rubbing different golds on with fingertips for a richer look. I offered a limited selection of colors traditionally found in Egyptian carving, plus some students rubbed black into cracks and rubbed it back off for an antique look. The white carving above was not complete when I took the photos, so you can see what an unpainted piece looks like.
You can also use sheetrock for other carvings. We've made African mask relief carvings, engraved landscapes, and abstract relief designs.
Here's a second relief project:

These images are 4th grade relief sculptures created in homage to Louise Nevelson. We looked at and discussed her work, and students had a great time building these. We discussed the process of assemblage, and the prevalant themes of rhythm, movement, and texture in Nevelson's work. Each student brought in a shoe box lid, and then went to work with just a few basic parameters.
  • The box lid had to be divided up somehow into smaller sections. Some divided them with wavy lines, others with straight. I provided cut strips of cardboard and tagboard for this purpose.

  • I provided a bunch of random scrap materials to use. Their goal was to use these materials to create repeated rhythms, movement, and interesting overall design.

  • One big rule was that nothing could stick up higher than the top edge of the box lid, or stick out beyond the sides. That way, we were able to store work-in-progress on the drying rack normally used for paintings. And because nothing stuck out the sides, we were able to hang them up side-by-side to display, which made them stay on the bulletin board more securely.

  • When gluing, we discussed the meaning of the word porous, and used that word to help determine what glues would hold best. We mostly used Elmer's since lots of the objects were cardboard or wood, but also used some low-temp hot glue and some thick Tacky glue for hard-to-hold objects.

  • And finally, each student could was able to select the paint color of his/her choice, but only ONE color, so that the shapes, rhythms, textures, and overall design became most important and obvious. This project was NOT about color.

I know this was a LONG post, maybe too long to read, but I hope it was worth reading! By the way - you don't necessarily need sheetrock for the first project. Instead, you can also use cardboard box lids for molds and pour casts of plaster of Paris to use for relief carving. And
Patty, thanks for being the inspiration for me becoming a Happy Blogger!


  1. Great projects! I'd love to do the Louise Nevelson project, but I'd never be able to collect enough things to glue down for a whole grade level. Maybe if I start now...

  2. Oh my goodness, it's easy. Pop sticks, toothpicks, cardboard rolls, packing peanuts, cereal box cardboard, wooden ice cream spoons, wooden beads, acorns, pine cones, pieces of egg cartons, macarone, rice, $1 store bags of wooden cut-outs, and wood shop mistakes end-cuts. Have fun!!!

  3. I love the relief sculptures too! They look great all together. I did similar Egyptian cartouche lesson too (with plaster).

  4. I'm so happy to see your Nevelson project! I have cardboard relief sculptures planned for 4-6th grade in the spring and was planning to use her artwork as inspiration for 6th grade! What kind of paint did you use to cover the cardboard? I'm trying to figure out what would be best. I have house paint leftover from our mural last spring so I might end up using that.

  5. Katie, I used school-grade acrylics (most of mine are Nasco brand Bulk-krylic paints). The black paint, or colors with white added had the best coverage. House paint would probably be great. We used old bristle brushes to get into places, and also used Q-tips for corners. I suppose spray paint would look great, but is unfortunately not practical for an art class.
    I think with 6th graders this project could be super-succesful, as they could use the low-temp glue guns for tough stuff. Maybe you can have them bring in stuff that is meaningful to add, or just fun (old Happy Meals toys, broken jewelry, etc.). I think if I did this with this age kids I'd make it an assignment to bring in items for the assemblage - something with texture, something that shows rhythm, and so on.
    OOh here's some more items we've used in the assemblage that I left out of my list I wrote yesterday - paper straws, corrogated cardboard, bottlecaps
    Anne, your student cartouches are terrific. I tried to find better photos since some of my pics are of unfinished work, but I don't think I ever took pics when they were all complete.

  6. I love the cartouches! I don't teach sixth grade but I know I could adapt the drywall idea into another project. Have you done this drywall relief with any other projects???

  7. Fun. I have done them before with off-white! Love the color.

  8. I love Nevelson & I think I will do this project with my 4th grade art club kids! :] thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Erica, I'm slow responding so I don't know if you'll see this... but yes, I did the drywall for an African mask relief (they were very cool) and I did some layered landscapes that we painted with monochromatic color scheme, with one accent of a complement (for example, a whole landscape in tints and shades of blue, with a bright orange tree). Abstraction is also a great choice for drywall relief, because carving gone-wrong can be easily adapted in an abstract design.

    1. Do you have any pics of the landscapes? I'm inspired!

    2. Crayon Lab, the only pictures I have of the relief landscapes are my sample, and a couple that were made in a teacher workshop last year. They were not posted anywhere, but if you want me to send you the photos, please reply with your email address (write out 'dot' and 'at' to avoid spam) and I'll send the pics to you.