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Whether in the familiar and ubiquitous smiley face or in the computer emoticon made up of a colon and closed parentheses : ), a face can be defined by an assembling of very basic shapes and elements: a circle for a head, two dots for eyes, a single upturned line for a mouth. While these faces may not look like any “real” face, their similarity to the faces we see each day in the world and in the mirror, allows them to be read as a graphic example of a face. This abstract face may not only have particular character and expression which resembles us, but can seem alive and “aware” of us.

The classroom activities below allow students to consider the human figure from the simplest graphic depiction of a face or body to how the body move and through movement can communicate. The three activities can be approached individually.

Learning Objectives
Students will:

  • Discuss what enables us to read a face: features, expressions, standards of beauty, age and gender
  • Discuss what enables us to read motion: repetition, sequence, changes in form and scene

Estimated Time
1 classroom period


  • Colored paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Comic Books
  • Pens, pencils
  • Small bound blank pads

Grades 9-12

National Standards for Arts Education

  • Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes.
  • Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their works and the works of others.

Classroom Activities

    In this exercise, students can explore the transformation of simple shapes into signs of character and life by creating collaged faces out of simple shapes, lines and symbols. Further, beyond producing basic faces, students can use these designs to suggest emotions, intentions, and ideas.

    In the same way that a face can be defined by basic geometric forms, a sense of motion can be achieved by simple drawings like stick figures arranged in a sequence. The stick figure may not look like anyone in particular, but its limbs and stance can be shown to behave like us. (See Image Gallery “Rock Paintings of South Africa”) The concept of animation is in turn built on the development of shapes and images which change in sequence over time. Artists like Eadweard Muybridge used photography to study the elements of human and animal motion by taking pictures as an action was performed. See the website below for basic information and some images by Muybridge.

    Comic book artists use the individual cell illustration and the text descriptions of dialogue, location, sound to create the impression of action in time and space. In this exercise, students design a short comic book sequence with a title, characters, dialog and a defined beginning and end. Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics provides an ideal guide to the language and conventions of comics and makes broad connections to the ways in which people tell stories.

    The FLIP BOOK is a rudimentary project that allows students to directly explore both motion and storytelling. This design requires that students sketch out simple bodies, characters and locations which can be arranged into a sequence of events in which things move, grow and change. An essential aspect of picturing a story in time is to define the way things appear to change. For example: Things can change from big to small, fat to thin, young to old, clear to blurry, dark to light, near to far, indoors to outdoors, animal to human, up to down, left to right. Discuss the general ways in which these shifts suggest growth, change and time passing. Then have each student sketch out a simple character and sequence which can also include captions and text, in order to produce their own flip books. Instructions for a flip book can be found at

Online Resources

About the Authors

Toby Tannenbaum is currently the Director of Education, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She was previously Associate Director of Education at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Tannenbaum has served as part-time faculty in the School of Critical Studies, California Institute of the Arts, as adjunct faculty in the School of Fine Arts and the School of Education at the University of Southern California, and as an assistant professor of art education at California State University, Los Angeles.

Paul Zelevansky is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. He has published widely on the use of text and image, web art, popular culture and educational and aesthetic theory and has taught at several schools in the Los Angeles area on visual culture, artists books, design and art history. His website is a collection of flash animation loops which explore language, philosophy, and storytelling.