Exploring Culture in Visual Art

Culture, generally refers to “Patterns of human activity and the devices, which give such activities significance and importance.”

With this definition in mind, Visual Artists might find themselves saying, “So when am I not exploring culture…” Great point, and while you are pondering that let me get on with some other bits… Thanks…

Patterns of human activity, things we might do repeatedly, things, which have significance or importance, which are repeated.

Therefore there are a lot of things, which could fall into these category’s, the Artist using these to communicate and or explore “stuff” about them could find some interesting starting points, here are a few, I am sure there is more.

Take any of these and consider ways to utilise them as a starting theme, then figure a few ways to make art with the “cultural” starting point. VCE Studio Arts can have a component which tackles this very subject.


© Steve Gray 2010+

How about this as an example, War – There are many ways to depict war in art, but what if I was to collect copies of war time newspaper articles and create a collage of the cut up articles… I could cut out shapes of guns and overlay them, I could make patterns out of the collage of guns, the result is a starting point on the theme of war. Of note here is the way I can explore the idea and fit it to the cultural theme, therefore I can explore the theme in a range of ways which may lead me to examining the topic at a deeper level and hopefully communicate that to others visually.

© Jesse Nivens 2010+

So there’s a start, you could take almost ANYTHING you are interested in and explore it this way. Perhaps a collage might lead you to thinking about a drawing or painting, or ideas for photographs themed from the collage.

By following a train of thought, then exploring it further, you could be creating your own level of significance and importnace about something, so you would be creating your own culture! I figure that’s why art is a called a cultural activity. Hmm if I use that sort of thinking sport could be art… or at least the catalyst to the way we might explore the culture of sport.

Activities to take the concept further;

Exploring the definition of “Culture”.

  1. Find at least five definitions of the term culture (Dictionary and or Internet search) and from those distill a series of points to assist in strengthening your understanding of the term “culture” (make sure you do all this in your visual diaries to reference it later on.)
  2. As you explored the definitions of culture, did anything relate to a topic or subject of interest to you? Do a quick brainstorm and see what happens, based around your interests, asking the question, “What things am I interested in which can clearly relate to “culture”? (Make your brainstorm, at least 21 points long).
  3. From your brainstorming, pick out a few points which are of strong interest to you… Now jot a few points in your visual diary on ways you might be able to use these points.
  4. Create a word based mind map of whats been happening since you started this process.
  5. Make a purely visual mind map to go with the text based one, perhaps search the net for images you can copy and paste, print out and then paste into your visual diary.
  6. Make some notes and or drawings on any key themes you have come across which might be showing up… Are there any strong enough for you to explore as an art work?

Further concepts…

  1. Look at the project 1000 journals this will give you a range of ideas on how others have created journals and make a mini journal on your efforts so far for exploring “culture”…
  2. Create a large drawing using one of the pages from your mini journal as inspiration. (tape together a bunch of pieces of paper to make the image BIG.)
  3. Write about the process thus far in your visual diary and the things you have discovered, what has stood out to you?
  4. Select two of the interviews on Contemporary Visual Artists at our sister site. Take notes about their work and their way of working and how they explore the concept of “culture?”…
  5. Create a few quick drawings or actual pieces in any medium to abstractly explore some more random notions about the term culture.
  6. The culture of various societies is often developed from their history, can you find any links to what you have done in this exploration of the topic and the history of your social background (Country of origin, social position etc.?)

Copyright © Steve Gray 2011+


Today I watched a doco on the 1000 Journals Project and the massive impact it has had.

I then thought… Wow what a great way for students to get ideas for ways to approach a visual diary.

Then it went further as I began pondering the possibilities, as the doco explored how people had connected through the journal, passing it on etc.

I liked the connection aspect to it and thought the idea of connecting in art would be a useful one to explore contemporary themes.

Connect… (Feel free to add some other ideas via the comments…)

Mail Art – Connect with other artists by making a postcard and sending it to them and seeing what (if anything) they sendback – find them on the internet, you may well send an ecard of some kind or a scanned image of a card you made.

Invite – Invite people to create something and send it to you, from a postcard, to a letter, artwork etc. put the invites up on noticeboards where  you think you will get some interesting responses. perhaps aim for them to send things to a gmail or hotmail email account to protect your privacy or even a PO box.

Ok now you think of some ways you can connect with people to create a project which might engage others. Discuss some of the issues you may face then brainstorm some ideas, remember to share them! 🙂

Glossary of art terms

As a student I was told to buy a dictionary of art terms and flip through it from time to time, look up points I did not know and generally have it as a resource. That was a good idea, but only some of the info stayed with me. For secondary level students (VCE Studio Arts) and Uni level students, this may serve as a very useful resource to develop a range of skills in analysing art.

I was shown another way years later which I like more, as it involves students at least cutting and pasting info they need and therefore see of value, over time the resource builds to suit their needs and interests.


Here’s how…

  1. Take a quick internet search for a glossary of art terms (probably just heading points at this stage) or create your own ready to use.
  2. Take the list and put it in your favourite word processor.
  3. Use the headings as starting points, get the info on the headings which interest you and paste it in.
  4. Save the info and keep adding to it, over time some of the headings will have multiple entries. Encourage web links and pictures as well. Make it into a PDF file and get the students to hand it in online…

After a few weeks the glossary will be a few pages long, then more and more can be added.

Extension activities

  1. Invite the students to share new or interesting points they have found which they have added to their glossary of terms. What a great way to get students chatting about art and using art terminology.
  2. Start Junior students with one and build on it year by year, by the time they get to be senior students they will have a solid resource and a great connection with the language and terminology of the subject.
  3. Want to avoid setting homework… or want to set some… simply give them this task and ask them to add to it week by week. In class you can remind them to add to it each week and put a note in their Student diary/organiser to remind them.

Analyse this – Slide show idea for Teachers

Dear Teachers… (Hey students, don’t wait for teachers to set this up, create your own!)

Often one of the tricky areas in art education is getting students to be involved in looking at artworks and providing some form of analysis of artworks, even in a fairly formal sense. The probem seems to come when Teachers say “Today we are going to do some Art History” this turns some of them off straight away… Here’s a way to hopefully break the cycle.


Make up a slide show (power point or the like) of about 15 – 20+ artworks of varying styles and types (prefereably images your students may connect with), then run a BRIEF session with the students where you flip quickly through the slides asking what the students see. When a few points have been raised about one image, move on and do the same thing with the next image. The aim is to get them to quickly see the basics, developing the skill of seeing basic “formal” elements. The key is doing it fairly fast, for a twist, flash an image up for 5 seconds, take it off and ask what they saw.

In the end the students will have had to think quickly about what they saw without making too many judgements, like “I didn’t like it…” stick to the basics and give them a few points, like… “What colours did you see, were there lines? Subject matter? Tones, Shapes, Form, Texture, Composition etc…

Eventually you should be able to show them a bunch of images and say nothing as they will call out what they see as they will be used to the process. (sneaky huh…)

Over time you could even create a series of these slideshows, to build a repertoire of images students can discuss in more depth. You could also add some details like the name of the artist, dates etc when the more in depth discussion and analysis needs to take place.

It could be a quick start to a practical art session where you might want to catch them off guard and cause them to think in a different direction for a while.

For more points to discuss and analyse with try this. or this…

A savvy teacher might also set up a series of online images on a school intranet and ask different questions for different year levels, just food for thought! Perhaps a great way to introduce homework for students via the internet, add a pdf file for parents to get involved too outlining the same process I have above, Enjoy!

Extension activities.

Art Analysis – Start here…

Okay Teachers (and Students…) You asked for it,  you wanted more info on Analysing Visual Art works so here are a few starting points to go with. Feel free to send me other resources you have found useful over time but for now here is my starting point to formal evaluation of artworks.

Artwork Analysis Helper


When describing the artwork, you should describe exactly what you see. It is useful to pretend you are describing the work to a blind person, giving all the details to help describe the work.


What elements can you see? Colour, line, tone, texture, shape, form (three dimensional). Describe the way these elements are used in the work.


What do you think the artwork may be about? What is its meaning? What evidence is there in the work to support your interpretation?


What is your opinion of the work? Do not just say, ”I don’t like it”! Tell us why you don’t think it is a very effective artwork. If you like it, explain what specific things you like about the artwork.

Try these points out for yourself by looking at a number of artworks and answering the above questions quickly and see what happens. no right or wrong answers at this stage, just ideas and options to get you checking out artworks and thinking about them in ways you may not have yet thought of.