The Newspaper Ground project gives students in-depth experience in working in an expressionist manner—responding to the pre-existing and emerging imagery in the artwork. It is a time-consuming project—probably lasting 2 or 3 weeks—and it’s a labor intensive project for the art teacher because of the need to use in-process individual and group critiques to encourage students to be attentive to the developing artwork.

Interestingly, it’s also a cheap project—requiring only newspapers, acrylic medium, and small amounts of paint, pastel, and colored pencils.
Gesso or leftover white latex or acrylic paint
Matte or semi-gloss acrylic medium
Black and white oil pastels
Charcoal sticks
Black and white tempera paint (do not use acrylic paint)
Black and white pencils, markers, and pens
Small assortment of colored pencils and pastels
Tissue paper
Sand paper
Glue or glue sticks
Transparency film for xerox machine (optional)
Overhead projector (optional)
Xerox machine (optional)

Though all students follow the same initial processes of muting and emphasizing, very quickly unique styles and approaches emerge in their work.


Introduce or review expressionist styles of working. Explain that expressionism is not so much a single artistic period, but a recurring attitude and style of artmaking. Show work by Van Gogh. Discuss how the texture of the painting creates a sense of agitation in skies, landscape, and rooms. This is a good time to “break the grip” of realism as the dominant criteria of quality in art. Ask students to consider what Van Gogh gained when he eschewed verisimilitude.

Continue the slide show with examples of artists from other times and places who have worked in expressionist styles. Laying a firm ground of understanding of the expressionistic methods of various artists greatly improves the students’ engagement with this project. Despite the myths of expressionism itself, expressionist strategies are not acultural, “natural” approaches to artmaking. Students can learn to understand and
authentically enact expressionist strategies of artmaking.

Throughout this project, take time off to introduce new artists. Continue to build students’ awareness of various expressionist strategies and conventions
Explore the subject matter choice, brushwork, compositional strategies, and color of James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Ernst Kirshner, Emile Nolde, Oskar Kokoscka, Kathe Kollwitz, or Gabrielle Munter.

Teaching Abstract Expressionism is a necessary, but often frustrating task for art teachers. It is much easier to get students to tolerate and, perhaps even appreciate, works by such artists as Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, and Willem or Elaine de Kooning when students have already become aware of how abstract markmaking contributes to the meaning of expressionistic figurative works.

It always creates interesting classroom discussion to present students with work from the career of Philip Guston. Review his early, highly polished, realistic work; his transition to abstract action painting; and his eventual return to figuration in the form of blocky, humorous, and grotesque hooded figures and bodies represented by the soles of cartoon-like shoes.

Other artists who might be introduced include Cobra artists—Asger Jorn, Karen Appel, and Pierre Alechinsky. Include a discussion of artists of the late 20th century who work in an Expressionist manner such as Italian Neo-Expressionists—Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Mimo Paladino; German artists—Jorg Immendorf, Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, and Anselm Kiefer; and American Neo-Expressionists –Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo, Alice Neel, Robert Colescott, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Obviously, one can’t meaningfully introduce the students to all the artists listed here. (And, of course, there are many other artists who might also be listed.) However, be sure to include artists from various periods and places so that students are aware of expressionism as a vital strategy—not as a mere historical artifact.

A possible curriculum sequence would be to introduce early expressionist works in the context of an expressionistically painted self-portrait project and to later build on this knowledge and skill by introducing expressionists who are more contemporary, as a prelude to the Newspaper Ground project.

Working with the entire class, choose double page spreads of the front pages of newspapers. Be choosy, but not too choosy. In other words, the teacher or the students might be somewhat conscious of choosing a page with a dramatic, odd, or ambiguous picture or headline, but recognize that there is an important element of surrender to chance in beginning of this artmaking process.

Carefully turn the page over and gesso the back of the page. Apply the first coat very delicately as the paper has a tendency to tear. On ensuing days or class periods, add one or two additional coats of white paint to the back of the newspaper pages.

Alternatives for preparing the pages to make them less delicate include: using the gesso to glue the pages to another sheet of paper or, after the first coat of gesso, covering the entire back of the newspaper page with inexpensive (buy at a Dollar Store) wide, clear, plastic tape.

Apply one coat of acrylic matte or semi-gloss medium to the front of the newspaper page. Allowing a texture or grain from the brushstroke to remain creates an interesting tooth to the surface. If desired, apply a second coat of medium in a perpendicular direction to the first.

If the pages are wrinkled—stack, lay flat, and press with a heavy books or iron between clean sheets of white paper.

Create 20% more pages than students who will be doing the project.

The Headline Poetry project makes a good one or two-day introduction to the Newspaper Ground project because it familiarizes students with using recycled materials from commercial culture as the basis for their own artmaking.

Prepare students for the idea of developing an artwork on a newspaper ground by introducing them to works by artists who have used printed materials as a base for or element in their work. In the 1950s, Franz Kline created hundreds of drawings, utilizing bold black marks on pages taken from telephone directories. In the 1980s, Adrian Piper created a dramatic series called Vanilla Nightmares in which pages from the New York Times were re-contextualized with interwoven charcoal drawings of African Americans. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) are well known for their many stylish works in which various symbols are drawn and painted onto the pages of classic novels. The South African artist, draughtsman and animator William Kentridge, sometimes chooses newspaper pages as the base on which to develop the drawings for his animations.

Tape or pin newspaper pages to the wall. Have students circulate while looking at the pages. When a page “calls out” (makes an emotional impression in some way) to a student, tell the student to select that page, even if he or she does not consciously like the page or have a plan as to how to proceed.

Give students black oil pastel or black pastel. Have them begin work on the project by obliterating and marking out some of the imagery and text. It is important that this work be done with “smudgy” materials so that some of the marking out can be bold and direct, other areas muted and subdued.

Surprisingly, this is usually the most difficult stage for students. They have often not learned to surrender themselves to a process and are reluctant to make interventions on a page.

At this stage, it often helps to pin up all the works and to consider which pages have enough marks that the page is beginning to be transformed. Take the time to discuss interesting emerging imagery such as the blurring of images into text or the dramatic re-interpretation of a photograph based on drawn additions or deletions.

Give students new media for muting—now including white oil pastels, black and white chalk, and black and white tempera paint. Encourage students to be experimental in their use of materials. Blot or sponge paint onto surfaces. Use the side of chalks or pastels. Smudge oil pastels onto the surface with fingers or q-tips.

At this stage, don’t use markers, pencils, or permanent paint. The project is now in a “push” stage, muting and subduing imagery and text to the overall composition. Later the project will move to a “pull” stage. Then students may want to remove portions of the materials.


This is perhaps, the most difficult and most important aspect of the project. Through personal response paragraphs, partner analysis, small group discussion, teacher/student conferences, and whole class in- process critiques have students identify the meaning and style that they are beginning to see in their artworks. Discuss ways in which the emerging meaning can be enhanced or contradicted.

Most people who have not had sufficient art training assume that artists have an idea clearly in their heads and that artmaking is the process of illustrating ideas. This misconception keeps students from surrendering to the experience of making—letting the final form become apparent through the process.

Having successfully created a direction for the artwork through muting, the student artists can now begin to “pull” significant imagery and text into greater prominence. At this point, using finer brusher, pencils, and markers, can aid students in creating points of emphasis. Another, often very beautiful strategy, is to use the back of brush handle to scrape away oil pastel—allowing parts of a photograph or text to re-emerge. Similarly, a damp cloth can be used to wipe away or make more transparent areas of tempera paint.

Students may wish to add imagery or text to the piece. There are a number of strategies for achieving this, including: hand drawing onto the work and collaging images and words from other sources onto the ground.

Though not a necessary step, this can add new levels of interest and meaning to the piece. Use a computer to type up words in an appropriate font. Scan line drawings.

Print out or xerox letters and images onto an overhead transparency. Project the image onto the piece using an overhead projector. Experiment with scale and placement. Draw the projection onto the piece using oil pastel, marker, colored pencil, or paint.

The advantage of projecting is that the students are likely to come up with interesting juxtapositions that they would not be likely to discover if they were composing their drawing or text on the artwork.

Encourage students to continue the process of “pushing and pulling.” Emphasize and mute. Add and subtract. The advantage of working in an expressionist mode is it gives students the freedom to sensuously explore and let content emerge spontaneously from the piece.

Toward the end of the project, allow students to use very small amounts of color to emphasize some aspects of the piece. Caution students against loosing the muted tones of the project. Point out that in a piece with subdued colors even a hint of low chroma hue can be dramatic.

Many teachers organize one or two sessions of class critique time at the end of a major project. An interesting variation is to host a class critique one or two days before the end of the project. The emphasis of the critique should not be on telling students how to “fix” their work. Instead, make sure that each work is noticed and described by the group. Sometimes it helps to begin the critique by assigning each work an “observer” who writes a statement describing the work and the ideas and feelings the work generates. Begin the analysis of each piece with a report from the assigned observer.

Students, excited because people are responding to the meaning and emotion inherent in their artworks, are inspired to return to work for a day or two, emphasizing the communicative qualities or style of the artwork.


Each student writes an Artist Statement in which he or she describes the artistic and thought processes out of which the artwork emerged. These should be typed up and displayed with the artworks.

Click here to print out process plans for the Newspaper Ground project.

The project begins as students use black oil pastels or Char-kole to blacken and smudge out areas of the newspaper ground, often blurring the distinctions between image and text.
Demonstrate how blackening out sections of a photo can dramatically emphasize a movement or form.
Use white paint and pastels to mute areas and to create areas of emphasis and highlight.
After spending a couple of hours muting and emphasizing, begin additive processes such as drawing and collaging onto the established ground.
Use a sharp stick to scrape away areas of oil pastel. A damp sponge or cloth can be used to partially wipe away tempera paint. Fingers, an eraser, sandpaper, or dry cloth will mute chalk marks.
Encourage students to experiment with altering photos with oil pastel or tempera paint. Unwanted changes can be easily wiped or scraped away.
Use in-process small group discussions to encourage students to be attentive to emerging imagery. Here the cityscape in a photograph spilled over into the surrounding text columns.
This project emphasizes spontaneously layering and removing media—developing rich, complex surfaces that are often lacking in high school artwork.