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Lesson 6: Creating Background Details with Shapes and Symbols


Students will identify symbols or objects that express more about the subject of their portrait and make small printing plates to add to the background. 

Grade Level



Drawing and Collagraph Printing 

Theme/Big Idea

Artists can use collage techniques to create collagraph prints of someone they admire.

Essential Questions

  • How can we honor someone through our artwork?  
  • How can we represent the unique qualities of an individual through full-body portraiture? 
  • Unit & Lessons
  • Slide Deck

Materials and Tools

  • Scissors, 9 x 12″ oaktag, glue in cups, popsicle sticks 
  • Nicole Appel. Burgers, Heels and Dresses (Slide 17) 
  • John Mullins. Bicycle (Slide 18), Phones, Radios, Tape Decks (Slide 19)
  • Joey Center. Guitars and Bass Drums (Slide 20)


Students will:

  • Identify symbols or objects to express more about the subject of their portrait. 
  • Make two to three printing plates of these elements to add to the background of their print, considering size and composition. 


Note: Teacher language is italicized.

Introduction: Close Looking (10 minutes)

To finish our portraits, let’s think a little more about the people we chose. How can we use symbols or objects to express more about the people in our portraits? 

Let’s look at some artworks for inspiration.

  • What might each of these objects tell you about a person? 
  • What might some of the objects symbolize? 

Think about the person you’ve chosen as a subject for your portrait.  

  • Are there specific objects that they need to do what they do, such as sports equipment, musical instruments, or tools? 
  • Is there a symbol that can tell us more about who they are? If they are a mathematician, it might be numbers; if they’re a writer, it might be words; if they’re a musician, it might be musical notes. 
  • Is there a symbol of your subject’s culture that you can think of? This might be a flag or even the shape of the country they’re from. 

Brainstorm a few different ideas and choose two to three. We will make small printing plates to add these to the background of our portraits when we print. Remember that images will print backwards, so words or numbers will need to be reversed. 

Briefly demonstrate cutting, layering, and gluing to make a small printing plate of an object or symbol. (15 minutes to cut; 10 minutes to arrange and glue)

Group or Independent Work (25 minutes)

What objects or symbols will you add to your portrait? What shapes will you cut to make these? 

Return the printing plates students completed in Lesson 5 so they can have a reference for the size of their background elements. Students can add object or symbol printing plates to their portrait or save to print in the background.   

Students can also continue working on faces and bodies of portraits before making additional plates.

Reflection Questions for Discussion (10 minutes)

Turn to a person sitting near you and share your work, discussing the following questions: 

  • What did you make to add to your portrait?  
  • Why did you choose to make that object or symbol? 

After students reflect with their partners, have some students share their partner’s work and their answers to these questions with the whole class.  


Background, symbols


Nicole Appel via LandGallery.org

Joey Center via Artsoflife.org


Alternative Ways of Working: 

  • Students can tear shapes if cutting is difficult 
  • Students can also use precut shapes to arrange 
  • Students can feel their printing plate to notice the different shapes and edges 
  • Use alternative cutting tools, modified scissors, or punches to create shapes 
  • Students can draw shapes and have a support person cut for them 
  • Brainstorm ideas as a group using graphic organizers

NYC Blueprint Strands Addressed

#1 Artmaking 

#2 Developing Visual Arts Literacy 

#3 Making Connections through Visual Arts