Calder's Contours

Calder's Contours lesson plan

Follow the searching line technique used by Alexander Calder in his sculptures, mobiles, and paintings as you create an original portrait.

  • 1.

    Alexander Calder was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 1898. Calder came from a long line of artists: his mother was a painter, and both his father and grandfather were noted sculptors. Although Calder is best known for his hanging sculptures (mobiles), he also created boldly colored floor sculptures (stabiles), as well as paintings and wire sculptures.

  • 2.

    Before Calder began creating his monumental mobiles and stabiles, he spent a great deal of time sketching people and animals in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. He had already graduated college, and was working as a commercial artist. Calder then took a job on a British freighter, which enabled him to earn his way to Paris, where he first exhibited his wire sculptures of a miniature circus (see <i>Elephant</i>, 1928).

  • 3.

    To create a drawing in the searching manner of Calder's wire sculptures, begin with white paper and a single, dark Crayola® Marker. Use a continuous line (a line that starts and ends only once in this drawing) to record the details of a human face. As you look closely at the person you're drawing, move your marker in the same way your eye travels over the shapes you see. You may repeat or correct a line, but never lift your marker or try to erase a line you have already made!

  • 4.

    Compare your drawing to Calder's wire sculptures (<i>Medusa and Elephant</i>). Note the similarity of your drawing to Calder's sculptures.


  • Students examine the work of Alexander Calder, including his mobiles, stabiles, and wire sculptures.
  • Students create simple contour drawings of a human face.
  • Students relate the searching lines of their contour drawings to the searching lines in Calder's wire sculptures (see Medusa, 1930).


  • Younger children and those with disabilities might begin experimenting with this technique by tracing shapes with a continuous line using tracing paper.
  • Calder is best known for his mobiles, which are large, colorful shapes, artfully balanced from heavy wire supports. Create a mobile in the manner of Calder by cutting several organic shapes (no sharp angles or straight lines, mostly curves) from cardboard
  • Create your own circus from chenille sticks, bent to resemble animals in a circus, just like Calder did. Begin by creating continuous line (contour) drawings, then use these drawings as the basis for your sculptures.