Positive/Negative Tile Collage

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Students began this fun, graphic lesson by looking at old black and white film negatives. I asked them to observe what was dark and light in the negative and helped them come to the realization that dark and light areas are reversed on the film. We then went about drawing a square, tile-like design; The subject matter was up to each individual student, but the focus was on creating a design that filled the space and had strong elements of both black and white areas.

We then made photocopies of the original: some as “Positives” (regular copies,) and some as “Negatives”, where the black and white areas are reversed. (Most quality copiers have this feature— you might have to ask your school’s tech person how to do this!) Each student then carefully cropped their copies and created a unique arrangement with their squares. They had to use both positive and negatives, and were encouraged to “think outside the box” when making their compositions. Some students made creative choices with overlapping as well as dividing and reassembling tiles to combine both positive and negative imagery in a single square! Careful and precise gluing as well as trimming their colored backing paper to create an even and consistent border were important craftsmanship goals.

This lesson was inspired by an art project that my 6th grade son brought home. Thanks to Ms. Tuttle at the Saltonstall School in Salem, MA for the great idea!

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For more step-by-step instructions on how to do this lesson with your students, read on!

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The kids begin this project by drawing with pencil. I let them choose the subject matter: animal, object, fantasy, vehicle, cartoon character, whatever! Since a lot of my lessons have established themes, they love the choice-factor in this one.

Now, even though we are going to end with squares, it is very restrictive to start with a square. Instead, they draw on 9” by 12” paper, and then crop a desired area into a square shape. I have found that this helps the students end up with a better overall design. I have two templates to choose from based on the size of their drawing: a 3.5” square and a 5” square. Here is a student who did an amazing raccoon drawing, and has cropped her picture with the 5” square.


Once the drawing is cropped, I give them a NEW square of quality paper, (I use Bristol finish vellum, but white card stock would be fine.) Using a light table, (or window,) the students lightly retrace their design on the new square with pencil, and then go over it with Sharpie back at their table. Here is the finished Raccoon design:


NOTE: in some cases, students create a patterned background if their design has a lot of unused space. This can add visual interest to the overall design as well as establish some areas of high contrast. In the case of the raccoon, it wasn’t necessary and would have actually been distracting. However, many designs, such as these,  benefit from the added detail:


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Once the students complete their square “tile”, I make a set of photocopies for them. Our school copiers have a feature that allows you to reverse the black and white areas to make “negatives”. Play around with the functions of your copier and you can hopefully figure it out! I make five sets of regular copies and five sets of negatives for students who made the larger square design, and I make 7 copies of in each style for the smaller square folks. The kids love the look of their design reversed!!! HINT: copy two tiles at a time to save paper, and use a sheet of grey paper over the tiles when copying— this helps define the edges of the design on the copies and makes cutting easier.

sets of copies

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The next task is to carefully cut out all the squares. I warn them, (because I KNOW middle schoolers,) not to stack their copies and try to cut through multiple layers of paper at once. They have to take their time and cut each copied image individually!

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Next comes the fun part! Using their positives and negatives, the students start playing around with an arrangement. There are so many possibilities! How will your design look when assembled all facing the same way, or what about turning or flipping the design? Some students COMBINE positives and negatives by cutting their squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally and combining halves to make a square that is both positive and negative. Some students overlap their squares or turn them on an angle, or even cut out the background to leave just a central shape, (if their design had a central image that is easy to isolate.)

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My goals for the students during this arranging phase are that they must use some positives and some negatives, but they don’t have to use the same amount of each, and they don’t have to use all of the copies they were given. They must create a recognizable and thoughtful pattern with their arrangement and they may not glue anything down until I have checked their final layout.

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Once their arrangement is approved, they glue down their tiles, one by one, on their choice of colored paper. We use a glue stick for this and work over scrap paper when applying the glue. One of my craftsmanship goals here is that all pieces should be smooth and flat, there should be no gaps between squares, no peeling-up corners, and no glue smears or streaks. If they have cut their squares out sloppily, they may have to do some slight overlapping of edges here and there to avoid gaps. Once the arrangement is glued, it helps to press the work under a Masonite board or some heavy books to help set everything nice and flat!


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The last step of the project is for the students to mark their choice of either a ½” or 1” border around their design and trim the excess colored paper. Since everyone’s arrangement is a different shape, this can be tricky! We use THESE clear graphing rulers to make this step easy. First, the students must use the ruler to practice measuring a ½” border around the gray polygon on this worksheet. Actually, they don’t really measure at all, just place the ruler so that the edge of one side of the gray practice shape, when seen through the ruler, is aligned with the ½” marking on the ruler. They then use a pencil to mark the border for that side. After measuring the border, they cut the shape out. This practice exercise only takes about 5 minutes, but really helps them understand the proper technique. It minimizes the number of mistakes made and ensures better results on the actual project.

Here’s a student marking the border on her practice sheet and holding the successfully marked and cut-out shape:

Here are a few students measuring and cutting their project borders:


This lesson takes us 7-8 class periods, meeting daily for 47 minutes. HAVE FUN!

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