Tour + Workshop = DESIGN: Space

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, October 26, 2006

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Other

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Mathematics

Lesson Time

One or two 50 minute class periods


(To the class): Space is the area around us. It’s the area between us and between objects. In real or physical space, objects have height and width and depth. You can move around in real space and you can move objects around in real space.If you look around the room (or garden) you will notice that objects that are farther away look smaller than the same objects up close. We know the object that is far away looks small, but that it is actually the same size it would be if we were close to it.  In a painting or picture, it is the same way. (Use the blocks or objects you have of a similar size to illustrate this point. Hold or set them close together showing the students that they are the same size. Then position them around the room. Have the students look through their thumb and index finger to “measure” the size of the object.)We are going to explore how artists use shapes to define distance and space in drawings, pictures, and paintings.

National Standards


Students will …
  • trace around shapes
  • reduce and enlarge shapes
  • draw lines to create foreground, middle ground, and a horizon
  • arrange shapes to show simple perspective
  • overlap shapes to illustrate space
  • glue shapes to paper


  • Design for Life by Susan Yelavich, page 126 – “The Reconciliation of Venus and Psyche” by Merry-Joseph Blondel and Louis Lafitte (1815-16)
  • Or another painting that shows perspective


  • 3 objects of similar size (blocks, milk cartons, hats–whatever is handy)
  • white 9”x12” drawing paper
  • construction paper (at least 4 different colors)
  • shape templates
  • black fine line markers
  • scissors
  • glue


Perspective: Any system used to represent depth or space on a flat surface by reducing the size and placement of elements to suggest that they are further away from the viewer.Foreground: The part of a scene or representation that is nearest to and in front of the viewer.Middle ground: The area between the foreground and background in a drawing.Horizon: In linear perspective, the line on which all vanishing points are positioned, more accurately described as the eye line or eye level. Overlapping: A method of representing hierarchy of space in a drawing. Overlapping occurs when one object obscures from view part of a second object. Picture Plane: The flat, two-dimensional surface on which a drawing is made.


Look at the scene in the wall paper designed by Merry-Joseph Blondel and Louis Lafitte called “The Reconciliation of Venus and Psyche” (this example could be changed to suit the age group or changed due to access). It is of a picture of two people hugging with an angel and others watching.
What objects/people in the picture are closest to you? What did the artist do to make these things look closer? The columns that frame the event and the people are big – bigger than the people standing near them. Find an object that is far away in the picture. What did the artist do to make the object look far away? The columns in the background that look far away are smaller and higher in the picture. So, artists make objects larger and lower down in the picture to show that they are closer. Objects that are far away, artists will make smaller and higher up in the picture.Overlapping is also used to make objects appear closer or far away.Notice how the angel is in front of and overlapping the chair and the other people. This gives you the idea that the angle is closer to you in the picture.These are a few ways to show space and distance in a picture. It is called simple perspective.Now, we are going to create a picture that uses shapes to define space and show distance.
Choose a sheet of white paper and 3 sheets of construction paper. Each sheet should be a different color. When you return to your table, choose a shape. You can create your own shape if you would rather. It needs to be about as large as your hand. Trace the shape three times, once on each sheet of small paper. Put away the shape. On one of the traced shapes, make a smaller copy of the shape by drawing a “copycat line” inside the shape. On another of the shapes, make a copycat line around it to make a larger shape. Do nothing to the third shape. Cut out each shape on the correct line. You should have 3 different sized shapes: small, medium, and large.
Next, we are going to create an interesting background for our picture. Use the large sheet of white paper for the background. This page is called a picture plane. With the marker draw a line horizontally about 2” from the bottom of your large sheet. This line represents the foreground. Draw a line 2-3” above the first line. This area in the picture plane is the middle ground. Finally, draw a line halfway between the middle ground line and the top of the paper. This last line is the horizon it represents eye level. Add details to make this an interesting space for your shapes. Arrange the shapes on your picture plane. Look to see what difference it makes when a larger shape is placed higher or lower on the page. Try putting a larger shape behind a smaller shape. What effect does that have? Usually to make an object appear closer, make it larger and place it lower on the picture plane. To make an object appear farther away, make it smaller and place it higher on the picture plane. Overlapping can also distinguish distance. Objects which are closer will be “on top” of those farther away. Begin with the smallest shape. Glue near the horizon line. Glue the medium shape in the middle ground and the largest shape in the foreground. Overlap, if you want.
If the student completes all of the above, they may use the marker to add details to the shapes and background. (Attached is an example of what the project could look like.)


Did student follow directions?: 3 colors of shapes 3 sizes of shapes
            3 lines on the paper

Was a picture created with the cut outs, lines, and background drawings?

Check quality and neatness.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Have the student(s) find photos, images, pictures and paintings with clear examples of this lesson in them–e.g. similar objects that get smaller as they are farther away.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.