Doodles to Design: Gilliam's Improvisations

Doodles to Design: Gilliam's Improvisations lesson plan

Like to doodle and improvise? Explore color field painting in the style of African American artist Sam Gilliam.

  • 1.

    Sam Gilliam is a contemporary African American artist who has become well known for his large-scale, abstract paintings. Although he was born on November 30, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam lives in Washington, D.C., where he operates a large studio in the city's historic Shaw district. He has received many awards for his work and is exhibited extensively.

  • 2.

    Gilliam received a B.A. in Fine Art, and a M.A. in Painting from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He includes other objects in his work, ranging from computer-generated images to steel. His art, which uses form, design, color, and scale in improvisational paintings, relies heavily on the principles of design. Although they are abstract works (having no recognizable subject matter other than the colors and shapes mentioned), they are active, harmonic, and decorative because of their strong composition (see <i>The Power of Love</i>, 1993).

  • 3.

    To create an abstract painting using Gilliam's method of combining colors, shapes, and design, first use Crayola® Markers to doodle on white paper. Fill your paper with colors, shapes, and lines. Design everything to be unrecognizable.

  • 4.

    Use Crayola Scissors to cut out your favorite part of the doodle. Which area of your doodle has the most compelling composition? The section you cut out should stand alone, be interesting and colorful, and cover the entire section you cut away.

  • 5.

    Cover a table with recycled newspaper. Use Crayola Tempera Paints and Paint Brushes to reproduce the section you chose on a larger sheet of paper. Paint the shapes, colors, and lines you drew earlier. Cover your entire sheet. Dry.


  • Children research the artwork and accomplishments of African American field painter Sam Gilliam.
  • Children recognize the use of shapes, colors, and design in creating a large-scale, abstract artwork.
  • Children create abstract paintings using concepts similar to those featured in Gilliam's work.


  • Try several different color combinations, using the same original doodle as your beginning pattern. How does color affect the overall look of your final painting? Choose your favorite painting, and explain why you like those colors the best.
  • Cut several colors of construction paper into a variety of shapes. Glue down the shapes in an interesting composition, then paint over them so some of the paper shapes to show through. Add collage materials to your composition.
  • Research the lives and work of other African American artists, poets, and writers. What connections can you find among their lives and work?