“I tried to create a staccato-like rhythm over and over and over again [with] the shapes as they move...I build on the geometry and I love it.”–Jacob Lawrence
In 1940, with the proceeds of a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, Jacob Lawrence rented his first studio to prepare and lay out the 60 panels that would comprise The Migration Series.
He wrote panel captions from his initial research, often with the help of fellow artist and future wife, Gwendolyn Knight. He then developed drawings to accompany each of the 60 captions. Lawrence drew all 60 compositions before beginning to paint. He then painted the series all at once, color by color—starting with ivory, black, and burnt-umber browns, and moving to cadmium red, orange, and yellow.
Lawrence carefully uses flat shapes of color to create a sense of pattern and rhythm that mimicked the flow of travel. The limited color palette and Lawrence’s technique of applying colors one at a time across the series enabled him to keep the panels consistent and bring the work together as a whole.
Similarly, students will experiment with how to express themselves through a creating a narrative using similar constraints that Lawrence used in his artwork.
The Migration Series, Panel no. 7: The migrant, whose life had been rural and nurtured by the earth, was now moving to urban life dependent on industrial machinery.
The Migration Series, Panel no. 31: The migrants found improved housing when they arrived North.
The Migration Series, Panel no. 45: The migrants arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North.
In the Classroom: Less is More Color Activity
Jacob Lawrence liked to use very few colors in his paintings. In The Migration Series, he painted with the same colors from panel to panel. This way, he made his paintings look like they go together as a series. Not only did he use the same colors, he liked to use them almost “out-of-the-tube.” Lawrence said, “I didn’t mix color. I left it pure as it was.”
Ask students to research a historical event and create a series of at least three images. Students must apply one of the following constraints in their project:
- Color: Use a limited palette of colors
- Medium: Use only one type of medium
- Size: All works must be the same size
How can students express the story through these limitations? How did this type of constraint impact their artistic choices?
Students may also draw inspiration from Lawrence’s use of rhythm and geometric shapes. Have a discussion with students about how having constraints influenced how they articulated their ideas and the story they intended to tell.
In the Classroom: Shape of Things Activity
Jacob Lawrence created his panels that contain shapes of even, matte color arranged in strong contrasts, dramatic gestures, and bold patterns. Flattened, angular forms, strong diagonals, and contrasts of light and shadow contribute to a sense of dynamism and help communicate a mood and story throughout the panels.
One of his first art teachers, Charles Alston, encouraged Lawrence to see and express the geometric shapes and patterns present in everyday life, from the decor of his family’s apartment to the streets of New York.
In this activity, students will identify the types of geometric shapes Lawrence used in his paintings and then experiment with creating their own abstract shapes.
Using “The Shape of Things” worksheet, begin by discussing the two different types of shapes: geometric and biomorphic. Then, ask students to look closely at Panel No. 45 (teachers can also pull in other panels). Ask students to identify the shapes in that painting. Students can circle the different shapes on their own color copy of the panel.
On the back of the worksheet, ask students to experiment with the three shapes at the top of the page to create more abstract forms of their own.