Art Lesson Plan: Abstract Letter Design

Abstract Letter Design

Submitted by: Ken Schwab, formerly of Leigh High School, San Jose CA
Unit: Painting - Design
Grade Level: 8 through 12
Ken's Web Site:



The study of letters and its uses for graphic design is called Typography.. Letters come in many styles and shapes having flat even spacing called Gothic, thick and thin letters called Roman. Using serifs, flourishes and scripts, lettering can be used for design as well as the function of communication. The right style and placement can be the most important thing in an advertisement or brochure. I want to use letters as a design element. Looking for the different styles or fonts can be fun and some letters just look good as a design. We will be using color schemes and hard-edged painting to create this work as well as sponge and relief.



Type Face Handouts pdf - 15"x20" (38 x 51 cm) Illustration Board. (or Posterboard.) - Newsprint. - Rulers. - Compasses. - Triangles. - Drawing Pencils. - X-acto Knives. - scrap Illustration Board. - White Glue. - Tempera Paint. - small jars/containers with lids - Brushes. - Small Sponges..


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1. Decide on the format- Vertical or Horizontal. Next consider the shape, long and narrow or rectangular or even circular. This size will fit onto a 15" x 20" (38 x 51 cm) board. Get some newsprint, rulers, compasses, triangles, pencils and three sheets of newsprint.

2. Look at the format and by using the division of thirds choose a focal point or area of emphasis. Begin with a few straight lines to divide the format and create a division of space. Add more lines using a variety of space between lines. Have some of the lines go across the others creating more shapes and giving it some horizontal movement. Repeat this until there are more lines in the area of emphasis and less towards the edges.

3. Choose letter font or type cases from some of the books in the room and from this hand out. These can be distorted and sized to fit in spaces or go over more than one line. Be mindful of keeping the area of emphasis the most interesting area. Add letters or numbers until you like what you see. Use at least 3 but I would try top use 5 or more for interest. Keep all of this as outlines.

4. Transfer the design onto the illustration board and begin the color scheme process. We will be using any one of these color schemes: Complement, Double complement, Triad, Split- complement or Analogous. Use the worksheet to experiment with colors and choose 8 to 10 values of colors ranging from almost black to almost white.

5. Mix these colors and save it in small containers with lids. We will be using a lot of these so make enough color.

6. If you want to create a relief with board, sand, or ? Do it now before you add the paint If you are using sand it would be best to paint the area around it before you use sand , so in this case you can do it later. Scrap illustration board can be used to build up negative spaces as well as positive space (letters). Trace out the area from your sketch onto some board and cut it with an X-acto knife. Glue it down to the board with white glue.

7. Use the lightest colors in your scheme in the area of emphasis. Each time you use a color, try to go from the top to the bottom to see it used in more than three areas. As you go to the next color in the scheme place them next to the first few and work outward to the sides of the format. Each shape and or letter form will be colored until you get to the outside shapes and hopefully they will be the darkest value. Go back and touch up edges and change colors if need be.

8. The use of sponges and different colors can be applied over the first layer. Sponging can give a nice texture and will use different colors that will enhance it’s contrast and will give a nice effect. Use this in at least 5 areas.

Color schemes:

Complement- any complementary pair. Two colors opposite each other on the Color Wheels.. Add black and white for value changes.

Double Complement- Two pairs of complements next to each other on the color wheel. An example would be Blue and Orange, and Blue-Violet and Yellow-Orange. Add black and white to change values and create tones.

Split Complement- Any complementary pair is chosen, then discard one color replacing it with the two colors on either side of that color on the color wheel. Such as Blue plus Yellow-Orange and Red-Orange. Again use black and white to change values and tones of gray.

Three Analogous plus a Complement- Any three colors next to each other on the color wheel and one of the color’s complements. Black and white for value changes.

Analogous- Any three to five colors located next to each other on the color wheel, plus black and white for value changes and tones of gray.


Further Lesson Clarification

Ken Schwab recently commented on this lesson to further clarify the questions that have been posted at the bottom of this page:


"On a format (your choice) choose a font to use and begin with vertical and horizontal lines. Add the letters (Part or whole ) overlapping shapes and using the different shapes to create a composition. Using a color scheme have the students experiment with the different values and combination of colors. Choose 9 to 12 colors ranging in value from very light to very dark. Mix them into little cups with lids. Start in the center of interest with the lighter colors and work away from that area by using darker colors. You should end it by using all the colors. I have written these plans many years ago when this site was just starting. I have been working with a co-worker on detailed lesson plans and PowerPoint demos of each project. They are at this project is one that I used in Art 1. If you want the whole year it is only $99. You can also buy each quarter individually. Write to me at my address and I will help you. the lesson I had prepared is very detailed and the demo shows you the development."



Assorted type faces/fonts - Charles Demuth (Figure 5 in Gold) Art Print.


Notes on Painting for High School Students- from Ken Schwab:

I use tempera and Acrylic Paint.. The tempera mixes very well and the colors can be applied flat better than some acrylics. I use tempera in my art 1, 2 and even three's for color scheme projects and because of cost this allows me to do more of these. Waste is a factor as well. Since tempera is water soluble, I use cheap plastic cups and lids to mix quantities of colors and keep them for weeks (check Solo cups - available from restaurant supply stores)

I use an eight color scheme handout to explain my color schemes. These are Monochromatic, Compliment, Double Compliment, Split Compliment, Analogous, Triad, related Palette, and Three Analogous and a comp.

Depending on the project I select several color schemes and they use the color wheel to choose the colors and then with that group start mixing and experimenting with the colors that can be made in that scheme. They then cut out little squares of colors and arrange them from lightest to darkest and pick 8 to 10 to use in the project. They must have at least one that is almost white and on that is almost black.

Mixing these colors again into the little cups and saving them allows them to keep the painting organized and they use the same colors each day.



Fontscape - Typeface directory

Periodic Table of Typefaces

Rare and Unique Fonts- This site includes unique fonts that you can print out for handouts. Students can also play around with fonts on their online fontmaker. This site is also one of the most beautifully designed sites I've seen.



Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles, Vol. 1. - This book offers an overview of typeface design, exploring font catalogs from the history of publishing, with a special emphasis on the period from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

Lettering & Type: Creating Letters and Designing Typefaces (Design Brief). - Fundamentals of design, once the exclusive domain of professional typographers, have become an essential starting point for anyone looking for a fresh way to communicate. Practical information about creating letters and type often amounts to a series of guidelines for executing a particular process, font program, or style.

A Visual History of Typefaces & Graphic Styles, 1901-1938 (v. 2). - This book offers an overview of typeface design, exploring the most elegant fonts from the history of publishing. Taken from a distinguished Dutch collection, this two-volume edition traces the evolution of the printed letter via designed catalogs, showing type specimens in roman, italic, bold, semi-bold, narrow, and broad fonts.



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