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Strata Project - Layered Drawing


Western Washington University



Course level 

This project is good for a wide range of course levels. I have used it in a beginning drawing course and an upper division mixed media on paper class. This is a great project to assign towards the beginning of the term as it helps students explore a range of materials in an exploratory manner.


Conversation points for instructors

This project is great for getting students to explore the range of marks and effects they can get from their materials; they can use everything in their tool kit and play with the media. The project helps students to work intuitively and respond to what is happening on the page. It is a great non-objective assignment.


This was adapted from an assignment I got at a Foundations In Art Theory and Education (FATE) Conference Share.



Project Prompt / Challenge

Our goal in this problem is to work reductively, that is, to remove parts of a prepared picture plane to reveal other layers of visual information. This functions as a kind of backward collage; rather than gluing down positive shapes to make a composition, we will be taking away shapes and successively revealing underlying strata.



Begin by thinking about things that have layers or strata; consider levels of archaeological digs, geological earth strata, rings in a tree trunk, or torn posters and advertisements in public places. Each layer in these situations reveals information about a past time and provides knowledge about events that happened some time ago. This stratification is not only informative but often is visually beautiful as well.

To Dive In:

Work on at least five separate sheets of paper, all the same size - 18” x 24” or similar works best. Do something completely different to each sheet, working totally non-objectively (no specific, recognizable images). Try for variance in texture, shape, line, marks, media, surface, value, pattern, and kinds of paper. Try using your charcoal, ink markers, pencils, etc. You can create this in black and white, or go with color. Stack the sheets in differing orders, thinking about which sheet is most appropriate on top, which should come second and so forth.


Next Step:

There are two basic methods of working on the layered sheets. The first method is to stack the sheets together and staple or tape them down firmly to a stiff backboard along all the edges. Then begin by tearing & cutting areas of the top sheet away, literally digging your way down to successive sheets. Consider what is thus revealed beneath and begin removing parts of the second sheet in relation to the first and so on, until the bottom sheet is finally seen. (Besides cutting or tearing, think of alternate ways of making holes such as burning, punching, gouging, etc.)


The second method is to remove portions of each separate picture plane first and then try differing combinations of the loose sheets. When a satisfactory composition is reached, the sheets can then be stacked together and fastened down to a supporting backboard.


In either case, watch the growing, changing relationship between the layers carefullymanipulate and plan your movements accordingly. Work directly with your materials; do not do sketches or plans. Try to work intuitively and loosely, while analyzing the visual qualities of what is gradually being revealed. Continue to balance out neat, tidy cuts, with messy ravenous slashes and tears, etc.


Explore the 3rd dimension in this piece, with both real and illusory depth.

Push this project into a relief type piece but keep it “on the wall”. This project provides the opportunity to explore a complex, almost sculptural process of drawing. Try to make an intriguing single picture plane from the revealed strata of many different elements.


Paper approximately 18" x 24" - but this can also work on a smaller scale.

Large range of materials, watercolor, ink, acrylic paint, pencils, charcoal, colored pencils, recycled materials, etc.


Project can be completed in one long session of about 2-3 hours, or over a longer time frame. Drying time may be needed for use of wet materials. 


Student Examples:



Jacques Mahe’ de La Villegle’, Raymond Haines, Francois Dufrene, Mimmo Rotella, Frank Stella, Matthew Ritchie, Sarah Sze and Mark Bradford

Online / Video Resources:

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