Lesson Three: Shaping Ideas


Students analyze how Chicana/o and earlier artists have defined shapes within their artworks. They then select, modify, or invent a shape they plan to use in their protest or persuasion print or mural.


  1. Students learn that a shape is a defined area. (A shape may or may not depict an object.)

  2. Students learn that a symbol is something (such as a gesture, color, or shape) used to stand for something else.

  3. Students learn that artists can use shapes symbolically in order to communicate their ideas.

  4. Students learn how to identify a shape they can use to persuade or protest.

  5. Students learn that shapes can be clearly defined by contrast in value (light or dark), or color, or by the use of outlines.

  6. Students learn that shapes can be implied without using clearly defined edges.

  7. Students learn that negative shapes are defined by positive shapes.

  8. Students learn how to define shapes clearly and implicitly.

  9. Students learn that the responses of viewers can help them refine their planning or help them assess the effectiveness of their artwork.


Sensory Lesson

Explain that this lesson focuses on two ideas: shape and symbol, and that you will begin by analyzing shapes in artworks. Explain that a shape is a defined area. A shape may or may not depict an object. For example, a square might depict an ice cube or it might just be a square which depicts no object at all.

Show examples and explain several ways that artists can create or define the shapes in their artworks.



  • Artists can define shapes with clear outlines. Carmen Lomas Garza and New Mexican Retablo used outlines to define shapes.
  • Artists can define shapes by contrast in value (light and dark) or color. The Alfredo Zalce, Carlos Cortez, Yolanda López, and César Martínez used value and/or color contrast to define shapes.
  • Artists can define shapes less clearly. The painter of the portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz did not define clearly the edges of each shape.
  • Artists can define background or negative shapes with as much care as they define foreground or positive shapes. Notice the pink (top) and black (bottom) negative shapes in Eduardo Oropeza's print, and the negative shape surrounding the figure in César Martínez's print. Notice the small but strong black negative shapes in the center of the decorative panel on the Huipil Tehuantepec. Notice also how the outside black areas extend as negative shapes around the flowers at the outside edges of the decorative panel.
  • Explain that some artists use several methods to define their shapes. Display Diego Rivera's painting Revolt, asking students to notice:

  • The outlines around the edges of many shapes, such as around the bodies and clothing of Zapata, his followers, and the almond shaped eyes of Zapata, the Indian peasants, and the horse.
  • The strong value (light and dark) contrast defining the shape of the white horse against the dark background.
  • The carefully defined negative shapes (almost like puzzle pieces) for example, the dark shape between the horse's forelegs or the interesting scalloped shape down the upper center of the painting, between the horse's forelock and ears on the right and the peasants' hats and weapons on the left.
  • Print out black and white copies of the Diego Rivera, the Portrait of a Lady, César Martínez, and Judith Baca. Ask students to trace an outline of the negative shapes around the main figures. Ask them to emphasize the negative shapes by filling them in or cross-hatching them with parallel lines using a marker. For further analysis of positive and negative shapes, you may ask students to trace and emphasize negative shapes in newspaper photographs of male and female athletes photographed in action. Or you might ask students to study the negative shapes in a reproduction, turn the image face down, and on another sheet of paper, sketch the image by drawing only the negative shapes.


    Art for Protest
    and Persuasion

    Display the Protest Icon and the painting by Luis Guerra as you introduce the second main idea in this lesson -- symbol. Define a symbol as something (like a gesture, color, or shape) that stands for something else. Explain that some, but not all shapes are symbols and that some, but not all, symbols are shapes. Explain that one way artists can protest a situation or offer an opinion is by using symbolic shapes. Ask students to point to and describe or name shapes that they believe Guerra may have included in his painting in order to communicate a specific idea. (geometric eagle at center top border = United Farm Workers, shape of the state of Texas = governmentally-defined area, Tree within a Circle on Texas shape and in four corners = Texas Framworkers Union , raised hands = in a defensive position or a gesture expressing "enough," bird in flight in upper right portion of sky = perhaps suggesting freedom, border of triangles with a step pyramid shape in the bottom center = perhaps referring to Mesoamerican heritage).

    Next divide the class into small groups providing each with one Chicana/o or earlier image. Click on the name of the artist or artist's name for more detailed information. Ask each group to identify interesting shapes and then analyze how those shapes are defined. Then ask students to identify symbols and to consider how each might have helped the artist communicate her or his message. Finally ask each group to report their findings to the class as a whole.


  • The Codex Borbonicus' Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totek, and Tezcatlipoca, are symbols that represent deities and some of their attributes. The shapes are defined by color and with outlines.
  • José Guadalupe Posada's belted and holstered gun, and horse can be seen as symbols of leadership or power. The small figures symbolize agricultural workers. The positions of their hands symbolize desperation and futility. The artist defined his shapes with value (light and dark) contrast and with outline.
  • The New Mexican Our Lady of Guadalupe has many symbols, for example the crown on the Virgin's head is a symbol for her identity as the queen of heaven. The artist defined shapes by using colors and outlines.
  • The embroiderer's selection of the flowers on her Huipil symbolizes the Tehuantepec area in the state of Oaxaca. She defined the shape of the flowers by clear contrast of colors and carefully placed contrasting, black negative shapes.
  • Frida Kahlo's flags, skyscrapers, industrial equipment, smoke, sun, moon, lightning, step pyramid, rubble, skull, figurines, plants, and even her cigarette can be seen as symbols of nature and technology, as well as symbols of aspects of the cultures of Mexico and the United States. She defined her shapes with color, value (light and dark), and some outlines.
  • Luis Jiménez reinterpreted traditional Mesoamerican symbols when he chose the two kinds of cactus, eagle, snake and mountains. He defined his shapes with line, value (light and dark), and color.
  • Yolanda López' body halo, blue-black spangled cloak, angel, crescent shape below the cloak, snake and tennis shoes are a mixture of ancient Mesoamerican, traditional Mexican, and contemporary symbols. She defined her shapes with color and value (light and dark) contrast.
  • Carlos Cortez' stripes and bars are symbols of the imprisonment of a Mexican hero, Ricardo Flores Magón. His hands and pen can be seen as symbols of his freedom in spite of his imprisonment. Cortez defined shapes with value (light and dark), contrast and outline.
  • Laura de la Garza's lips, veil, and rose can be seen as ironic feminine symbols. She defined her shapes with value (light and dark) and color.
  • Judith Baca's torch, fist, and upraised hands can be seen as symbols of struggle, triumph, and striving. She defined her shapes with outlines, value and color, and with strong negative shapes.
  • Enrique Chagoya's three figures are very different symbols of female power from very different cultures. Chagoya defined different shapes in different ways, including contrast in value (light and dark), color contrast, texture, and outline.

    Ask students to review the idea they are developing for their own protest or persuasion print. Ask them to draw a shape that could be used as a symbol within that print or mural. The ask them to make at least three versions of that shape, each defined in a different way.

  • by clear outline (using pencil or marker on paper)
  • by contrasting value of light and dark (using scissors and black and white construction paper, or gray paper for less contrast)
  • by contrasting color (using scissors and contrasting bright construction paper, or similar colors for less contrast)
  • by carefully planned negative shape (cut out the negative shapes and place them on an uncut background paper to define the positive shape)
  • less clearly, with gradual change in value (light and dark) (Shade with pencil or work with pastels, chalks, or colored pencils. Eliminate or avoid making any outlines.)

  • Viewer Lesson

    Explain that the responses of viewers can help students refine their planning or help them assess the effectiveness of their artwork. Show your shape variations to at least three or four classmates. Tell them how you plan to use the shape within your persuasion or protest print or mural. Then ask each to indicate which method of defining shapes they think might be most effective in your print or mural and why.

    You might ask students make thumbnail sketches in which they begin to arrange the major shapes they plan to use in their Protest or Persuasion print or mural, Remind them to pay attention to negative as well as positive shapes.


    In their analyses of Chicana/o and earlier artworks, notice whether students can find symbolic shapes and accurately analyze how the artist defined them within his or her work. Check students' planning work noting whether at least three methods of shape definition are represented. Confirm that students have recorded comments made by classmates about their shapes.

    Items for a Protest and Persuasion Portfolio might include:

  • negative shape sketches from reproductions
  • one shape defined in three different ways
  • notes on classmate's comments about their shapes



    Reproduction of the Luis Guerra painting, New Mexican retablo, Carmen Lomas Garza painting, Portrait of a Lady, César Martínez print, portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Alfredo Zalce print, Eduardo Oropeza print, Diego Rivera fresco, Codex Borbonicus, Frida Kahlo painting, Luis Jiménez print, Yolanda López poster, Carlos Cortez print, Judith Baca mural, José Guadalupe Posada print, Huipil Tehuantepec, and Ana Laura de la Garza print. (See Computer Reproductions.)

    pencil or marker
    white drawing paper
    black, white, and gray construction paper
    a variety of bright and less intensely colored construction paper
    white glue
    pastels, chalks, or colored pencils use.

    © 2001 Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University. All Rights Reserved.