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Level: Junior, Middle School
Grades: 3-8 | Age: 11-14 | Written by: Anitra Redlefsen
[Anitra is a teaching artist from Medina Ohio.]

Using the technique of cutting paper, participants will be making positive and negative shapes that will be used to create a composition. The picture planes for this project are large sheets of paper, cut into different lengths and widths which, when finished, can be displayed as paper banners that can either hang from the ceilings or be posted on walls. Some banners will be cool compositions, the others, warm compositions.

Each artist cuts both positive and negative shapes out of paper; then each artist takes a turn at placing his or her cut shapes onto the paper banners. Because each shape must touch or overlap another, it invites each artist to respond to what has been done by another artist, thus providing both challenges and opportunities that he or she may not have had by working alone. This project is all about: line, shape, color, positive and negative spaces, and responding!

What You Need:
What You Do:
  1. Participants decide which composition they would like to participate in first, either the warm composition or the cool composition.

  2. Participants select paper from either the warm or cool color paper piles and cut out some shapes using any or all of the cutting methods described following paragraph heading: “Paper Cutting Ideas.”

  3. Participants select one shape and mount it/affix it onto the white paper banner with glue. There is only one criteria for positioning each shape: the shape you are adding must touch or overlap another that is already on the paper. What this does is to insure design unity, and it challenges imagination and creativity! Participants continue adding more shapes to the composition, or perhaps work on the other one (either cool or warm).

  4. Creative hint for participants: “Be on the lookout for interesting scraps and negative shapes left behind on the work tables that can be reused for new creative shapes!”

  5. As participants are working, you can discuss the following learning components:

    Color temperature (warm, cool), color theory (compliments, etc.), negative and positive space, picture plane, composition, focal point.

  6. Ask participants to stand back and look at how the addition of their shapes has changed the paper banner composition. Ask: How does it feel to have made a difference in this picture? How does it feel to respond to what another artist has done? How does it feel when another artist responds to your shapes?

    You could perhaps post three flip chart papers with each of the questions at the top and ask participants to write in their ideas and answers.

  7. Optional: Post an enlarged copy of the “Mini Art Quiz” (see end of this instruction piece) and encourage participants to discuss. Or you can pass out copies of the quiz for them to discuss or do at home.

  8. Optional: Post an enlarged copy of the article about Matisse (see end of this instruction piece) and invite participants to discuss. Include some reproductions of Matisse’s paper cut out works, and of him cutting them. Participants enjoy seeing the artist at work, while they are re-creating a similar piece of art!

Using the same instructions and cutting methods, participants can make a paper cut out composition on a white or black 5” x 8” piece of paper. They can take this art home to display, share with friends and family, and enjoy!


This is a wonderful project for groups, schools, families; another way you can do it is to have all participants do their individual compositions and then collectively mount all the 5” x 8” pictures as one collective composition. Part of the project then is deciding how to collectively display all the individual pieces. (Problem solving, decision making, teamwork, communication are just some of the learning components for this project). When this display is dismantled, individuals get their pieces back to keep.


Method 1. Fold a piece of paper. Make random cuts. Open the paper. Use both the positive shape and the negative shape.

Method 2. Select a piece of paper (unfolded). Make a series of cuts, going from left to right or right to left. Cuts can be random, or some can be mirror cuts of the cut made before it. Arrange the positive shapes; how you arrange them activates the negative spaces. Experiment with changing the placement and direction of the positive shapes; notice how the negative space is also changed in doing so.

Method 3. Fold a piece of paper 2 or more times. Make random cuts. Unfold and arrange positive shapes. Again, how you arrange them activates the negative spaces.

Recommended Books/Products:
When a Line Bends ... a Shape Begins
Rhonda Gowler Greene, James Kaczman

Matisse for Kids
by: Margaret Hyde

Henri Matisse (Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists)
by: Mike Venezia

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