People often assume creativity is a natural gift – you either have it or you don’t – when in fact it is a process one learns over years of practice. After years and years of training even the most experienced visual artist can find herself stumped by a blank canvas. Give a room full of new artists that same canvas and they are bound to struggle. As a result, I’ve wondered how I could help students approach a blank canvas with purpose, not confusion.
In attempting to resolve this challenge, I designed a lesson plan based on F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook. During this project students (ages 5-9) illustrated and wrote their own futurist recipes. Once finished, these recipes were not only unique, but also playful, engaging, and free of any reliance on popular student tropes.
Step 1: Show something unexpected
The beginning of my lesson served two purposes: expose students to the bizarre recipes of the Futurist Cookbook and show students that anything goes. We looked at several illustrations and recipes. A few of the students were enthralled but most of them were puzzled. How is this food? What is a ball bearing and why would you stuff it in a chicken? In asking these questions students began coming up with their own answers. One student suggested that perhaps the ball bearings were meant to help cook the chicken from the inside or make it crunchy. Another student proclaimed, “well this is art!” After giving the students time to process, ask questions, and come up with their own answers, I asked them to brainstorm some crazy ingredients that they might use in their own futurist recipes. At this point the blank canvas emerged.
Step 2: Explore the “blank canvas” and leave a little room for discomfort
For the next few minutes I allowed students to sit with their “blank canvas” – to really feel its depths and its challenges. Sketchbooks and pencils in hand, students sat, mostly quiet, mostly still, trying to think up crazy ingredients that could compose a recipe. During this time, I left students alone so that they could feel the discomfort of being without an idea. After a few minutes I introduced tools to resolve the tension of generating something uniquely new.
Step 3: Provide source material
Before students could get too uncomfortable, I brought out some materials and began the next set of instructions. Showing students a pile of images (old stock illustrations of everything from roses, to lions, to hat boxes, and wooden chairs) I encouraged students to begin looking for any objects that appealed to them. Fascinated by the images, students forgot their previous unease and began forming a group of interesting items.
Step 4: Give students time to plan
Next I detailed the project timeline, giving students 3 one hour and 45 minute classes to complete their work. Showing students how to piece together cut out ingredients, collage onto paper, add context with pencil, draw in additional elements, I explained that we would use this as a reference for our final painting. Instead of having students jump right into a final painting, students had time to think without the pressure of making perfect marks.
Step 5: Let students talk-out their ideas
As students sketched, I met with each child individually to talk out their ideas. Using a tablet to record their explanations, students explained their recipe in a candid and playful manner. Because they did not have a visual record of their ideas, the students were not shy, hesitant, or afraid to think outside the box. Also, since this was done at during their sketching time, students often came up with additional ideas to add to their drawings. At times I asked the students to elaborate by asking non-leading questions like: How do you prepare the dish? Where do you eat it? Who eats it? Can you tell me more about that? This encouraged students to create recipes with detail and expressiveness.
Step 6: Provide the context without the content
Part of the success of this project relied upon the ready-made format. Although students created all their own content, they were each given a piece of watercolor paper with two vertical rectangles drawn side by side. This provided a planned space for each part: the illustration and the written recipe. Using carbon paper and painters tape, students transferred their sketch/collage onto this final paper. These new lines were easy for students to change, develop, or decide to leave the same. Once satisfied students penned their new lines with black sharpie and began to paint.
Step 7: Do not create unnecessary challenges
Because my students were mostly in the primary grades, I did not ask them to hand-write their recipes. Knowing that writing a long recipe filled with unknown spellings would frustrate most of my classroom, I instead relied on the videos. After transcribing each video, I asked a friend to hand-letter these onto each student’s work. Because the point of the project was to highlight the creative and playful recipes, this decision helped clearly frame the ideas of each student without unnecessarily frustrating them.
Through these design choices, I asked students to be creative and flexible with their ideas without the fear or anxiety that often accompanies the “blank canvas.” This resulted in some beautiful and unique student artwork. Although I can visually measure the success of their final works, I can only hope that the students gained a new confidence to help them when given a future “blank canvas.”