How can buildings, towns and cities inspire us to create abstract artworks?
This resource focuses on the abstract drawings and paintings of towns and cities created by British Indian artist Lancelot Ribeiro. It explores how he used shapes, textures and colours to reflect the atmosphere of urban environments as well as what they look like.
Use the resource to:
find out about Lancelot Ribeiro and his work
think about and discuss the characteristics of towns and cities (including your town or one that is close to you)
explore ideas for abstracting town or cityscapes
make prints inspired by Lancelot Ribeiro's drawings and paintings
This Art and Design resource offers a series of activities that can be used together as a lesson plan or as individual components to adapt and integrate into your own scheme of work. It is written for Key Stage 2/Progression step 3/CfE Level 2, but some activities and information within the resource may also suit older or younger students.
Art and design - I have the opportunity to choose and explore an extended range of media and technologies to create images and objects, comparing and combining them for specific tasks (EXA 2-02a) - I can create and present work that shows developing skill in using the visual elements and concepts (EXA 2-03a) - Inspired by a range of stimuli, I can express and communicate my ideas, thoughts and feelings through activities within art and design (EXA 2-05a) - I can respond to the work of artists and designers by discussing my thoughts and feelings. I can give and accept constructive comment on my own and others' work (EXA 2-07a)
Art and design - Be stimulated and inspired by other artists - Design and make three-dimensional objects for a variety of purposes - Apply the elements of the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
Exploring the expressive arts is essential to developing artistic skills and knowledge and it enables learners to become curious and creative individuals.
Progression step 3:
- I can explore and experiment independently and demonstrate technical control with a range of creative materials, processes, resources, tools and technologies showing innovation and resilience.
- I can explore the effects that a range of creative techniques, materials, processes, resources, tools and technologies have on my own and others' creative work.
- I can explore how creative work can represent, document, share and celebrate personal, social and cultural identities.
- I can explore and describe how artists and creative work communicate mood, feelings and ideas and the impact they have on an audience.
Responding and reflecting, both as artist and audience, is a fundamental part of learning in the expressive arts.
Progression step 3:
- I can give and consider constructive feedback about my own creative work and that of others, reflecting on it and making improvements where necessary.
- I can reflect upon how artists have achieved effects or communicated moods, emotions and ideas in their work.
Creating combines skills and knowledge, drawing on the senses, inspiration and imagination.
Progression step 3:
- I can draw upon my familiarity with a range of discipline-specific techniques in my creative work.
- I can identify and respond creatively to challenges with resilience and flexibility.
- I can safely choose and use the correct creative tools and materials with some consideration for others.
Who is Lancelot Ribeiro?
Lancelot Ribeiro was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1933. After spending time in London in the 1950s, where he joined classes at St Martin's School of Art, he returned to Bombay and began painting and exhibiting his work. He settled permanently in London in 1962 where he continued to work as an artist and had a number of exhibitions. He co-founded the Indian Painters Collective in 1963 to help raise the profile of Indian artists.
Cityscapes – especially rooftops and skylines – are an important theme throughout Ribeiro's work. These are sometimes realistic (he sketched and painted landscapes and cityscapes on his travels), but he often worked in an abstract style, using expressive lines and textures and simplifying townscape forms into flat shapes.
In this video, Lancelot Ribeiro's daughter shares her father’s story through family photographs and memories. Although not made for a young audience, the video provides useful background information for teachers and might be interesting to share with older students.
Introduce Lancelot Ribeiro and his work to your students. Show them this painting and ask them to talk about their first impressions.
What does this painting show?
Can you describe the different buildings you can see?
Where do you think this city might be?
The artist has used simple shapes to suggest the buildings, the streets and the vehicles. What shapes can you see?
Do you think this is a realistic depiction of a town or city?
What words would you use to describe it?
The painting shows a city with buildings clustered together under a large moon. Some of the buildings have domed roofs, and some are tall with pointed roofs while others look more like houses. We can also see streets and a car. Rather than accurately depicting the buildings, Ribeiro has simplified the shapes of the structures into squares, semi-circles, rectangles and triangles and has used expressive spikey lines to suggest the dynamism of the city.
The painting is a depiction of Mumbai where Lancelot Ribeiro was born. (When Ribeiro was born, the city was called Bombay.)
You could ask students if they know where Mumbai is and what they imagine it to be like. (This discussion may provide opportunities for cross-curricula links with geography, people and places or humanities.)
Mumbai is the financial and commercial centre of India. Its history and the people that live there have shaped how the city looks. Ribeiro was inspired by Mumbai's cosmopolitan atmosphere. He was also inspired by the architecture of the city, especially the Catholic churches built by the Portuguese who colonised Mumbai and Goa to the south of the city in the seventeenth century.
Contemporary Mumbai has lots of modern, tall skyscrapers, but this photograph shows some of the buildings that Ribeiro might have seen when he lived there in the 1960s.
Look at the photograph with your students and encourage them to discuss the buildings and streets.
What types of buildings can you see? (Can you see shops and a kiosk? What do you think the big grand building in the middle might be?)
What architectural features can you see? (Can you see arches, domed roofs and pointed roofs? Can you see turrets and ornate stonework?)
Can you spot any of the shapes of these buildings in Lancelot Ribeiro's painting of Mumbai?
Did you know? The large, grand building in the middle of the photograph may look like a cathedral or temple, but is in fact a train station! (The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was called Victoria Terminus when this photo was taken.)
Activity: towns, cities and us
Think about the town or city where you live or one that is nearby. Discuss it as a class. What does it look like? What does it feel like to wander around?
It might be helpful to look at images of your town/city. You could have a go at searching for drawings, paintings or photographs of it on Art UK.
Alternatively, source photographs of your town/city or one nearby and the different buildings that can be found there. Show these on a screen or print out images to share with your class. (If your school is based in a town or city you could also look out of the window!)
Use these discussion prompts if helpful:
Is your town or city big or small?
Think about the buildings in the city – what shapes and sizes are they?
Are the buildings old or new or a mix?
Are there any particular buildings that you like? What do they look like?
You could also ask students to think about their experiences or memories of a town or city they have visited and that made a big impression on them.
What did they do there? What or who did they see?
What was the atmosphere of the city? What did it sound like? How did it make them feel? (Was it big, noisy and busy? Did they feel excited, awed... tired?)
Abstracting cities: shapes, textures, colours… and atmosphere!
Most of Lancelot Ribeiro's depictions of cities and urban skylines are not of real places but were created from his imagination. They are a mix of his impressions, experiences and memories. The architecture and domes of the Portuguese Catholic churches in Mumbai and Goa (where his parents were from) are recurring motifs in his paintings.
He was interested in conveying what buildings and urban environments feel like as well as what they look like and did this by abstracting the shapes of the buildings and by using expressive lines, textures and colours.
In the painting above, a skyline of towers, domes and spires stands above a mosaic of abstract geometric shapes. The clustered shapes suggest streets and buildings crowded together, and the textured brushmarks and pops of gold, blue and red convey the vibrancy of the town (despite the grey sky!).
Ask students what they can see in the painting. (Can they see towers, spires and rooftops?)
Discuss the shapes below the skyline. What do these suggest?
What is the mood or atmosphere of the painting?
Is this a town they would like to visit?
The atmosphere of the town in the painting below is very different. You could ask students to compare it with the painting above.
What do the buildings look like?
What time of day do you think it is?
What is the mood or atmosphere of the painting? (It might help to think of words to describe it.)
How has Ribeiro used shapes, colours, lines and textures to create the painting?
This townscape looks dark and rather eerie. Ribeiro has broken the buildings down into geometric shapes that have been stacked to create oddly angled towers. The streets below are dark and shadowy. Perhaps it shows a town in the evening or at night when the streets are empty and quiet.
The colours help create a sombre atmosphere. The sky is a burnt sienna with a deep orange moon (or evening sun). The buildings are grey with white highlights, black shadows and touches of orange reflecting the sky.
Ribeiro also makes use of the texture of the paint. The surface of the painting looks rough. He applied the paint thickly and used a palette knife to scrape back layers of paint, creating a textural surface that reflects the rough walls of the urban buildings.
Activity: draw abstract townscapes using lines and shapes
These drawing activities are inspired by Lancelot Ribeiro's paintings as well as abstract depictions of towns and cities by other artists. Use the drawings as starting points for printmaking or painting projects.
For both drawing activities students will need:
a pencil or pen and paper
a photograph of a town or cityscape to draw. You could provide students with a photograph or task them with bringing a photograph to the lesson. (This could be one that they have taken themselves.) Websites such as Pixaby have lots of photographs of cityscapes that are free to use and can be easily downloaded
Draw a townscape using a continuous line
This activity uses Lancelot Ribeiro's Untitled drawing and watercolour artwork as inspiration. Ribeiro has used a wandering line to draw a townscape, simplifying its shapes. The activity will encourage students to look closely and practice hand-to-eye coordination skills.
Step 1: Ask students to look closely at their photographs and the shapes of the buildings. If the photograph is a panoramic view, students may want to choose a small section of the photograph that they find interesting to focus on.
Step 2: Students should then draw the shapes of the buildings using a single continuous outline... without taking their pen or pencil off the paper! They will find that they may need to add extra lines to get from one point of the drawing to another. Don't worry about this as the extra lines will create more abstract shapes and make the drawing even more interesting.
Top tip: inspired by Riberio's approach, students could paint a square, circle, or triangle (or pattern!) of colour onto their paper before they begin drawing, and draw their cityscape over this.
Draw a simplified townscape using abstract shapes
Lancelot Ribeiro talked about 'breaking down' shapes for his abstracted townscape paintings. For this activity, students will 'break down' or simplify the shapes that they can see in their townscape photograph.
Before you begin the activity look at more artworks where buildings and townscapes have been simplified into flat shapes, as a class. The artists have not tried to make the buildings look three-dimensional or added lots of details (such as brickwork or patterns) but have kept it simple!
Jonathan Smith (b.1958)
Abstract Study c.1960
Sushila Singh (1904–1999)
Sunset over Potteries Landscape 1963
Jack Clarkson (1906–1986)
Townscape, Carmarthen Quay (?) c.1930–1935
Edward Morland Lewis (1903–1943)
Step1: Task students with selecting a section of their source photograph. What shapes can they see? (These shapes might be the shapes of buildings or other structures, rooftops, or the spaces between the buildings.)
Step 2: Students should then draw the buildings using only simple flat shapes. Encourage students to think about the shapes around the buildings (the negative spaces) as well as the buildings themselves.
Use these drawings to plan a painting. Look again at the paintings in the slideshow above. Notice how the artists have used flat colours (and sometimes flat patterns) to fill in the shapes of their townscapes. Do you feel inspired to have a go?
Activity: make a textured townscape collagraph
Now that students have had a go at abstracting towns and cities into simple shapes, experiment with textures by creating a collagraph. A collagraph is a print that has been made from collaged materials attached to a board. When inked and printed, the shapes and textures of the materials create interesting surfaces and effects.
Students will need:
thick card (for the back of the collagraph – this should be sturdy enough to have collage materials stuck onto it)
a range of collage materials with different textures such as corrugated cardboard, smooth cardboard, bubble wrap, woven or textured fabric scraps such as hessian or lace (anything with an interesting texture!)
relief printing ink (or thick paint), an ink roller and a paint tray (or piece of plastic or foil to roll out the ink on)
glue stick or PVA glue
paper for printing on such as sugar paper or cartridge paper
Step 1: Plan your townscape
Task students with drawing a townscape using only simple 2D shapes (such as triangles, squares, rectangles and circles).
They could use the shape ideas explored in their abstract town drawings as inspiration.
Or they could choose a photograph of a city to inspire them. They should select a section of the photograph and simplify the buildings into shapes. Some students may find it easier to choose a single building to draw and simplify.
Step 2: Cut out shapes from collage materials
Draw and cut out the shapes of your buildings from collage materials.
The shapes could be cut from a mix of flat card and textured materials. Think about the different textures. What could you use to suggest a tiled roof or the rough walls of a building?
Mix up your textures by putting smooth materials next to bumpy materials next to roughly textured materials.
Step 3: Glue and stick your shapes
Glue the back of the shapes and stick them onto the thick backing card to create your collaged relief townscape. (You may need to wait for the glue to set before printing your collagraph.)
Step 4: Ink and roll!
Roll out the printing ink onto a paint tray (or a sheet of foil).
You may need to roll your roller back and forward a few times. The ink should be thin and flat and not gloopy.
Then roll the ink over your collaged townscape.
Step 5: Create your print
Place a piece of paper over the inked surface.
To press the paper down and ensure the ink is transferred, roll a clean roller across the back of the paper a few times. If you don't have a second roller, use a rolling pin or gently rub the back of the paper with the back of a spoon to transfer the ink.
Then remove the inked paper and leave it to dry. Your print will be a mirror image of your collagraph design.
Variations and development ideas
Print onto a collaged background
To make a colourful collagraph instead of printing onto plain paper, create a collaged background from scrap paper to print on. (I have used scraps of paper left over from other craft projects to make this background.)
Then follow the printing steps above to ink and print your textured relief collage onto your collaged paper.
Don't have printing ink or roller (or you'd rather try a less messy activity)? Instead of printing from your textured collage, make a rubbing from it using crayons. Place a sheet of paper on top of your textured relief and gently scribble on the paper with a wax crayon.
The textures of your collage will create an imprint of your townscape through the paper.
Activity: make a townscape relief print
Relief prints are made by removing areas of a printing plate (usually wood or lino) using cutting tools. When ink is applied to the plate, the areas that are raised will be inked and these shapes will be transferred to the paper.
In the print below, the white shapes are the areas that have been removed from the printing plate with cutting tools, while the black shapes are the areas that are raised and inked.
For this activity, we will use a polystyrene or foam print pad instead of lino or wood (as a safer option for young students). These can be purchased from hobby or craft stores. If you are teaching older students you may wish to use lino and cutting tools instead.
Organising your classroom for printing
Printmaking can be messy but a bit of planning organisation can help to minimise mess.
Make sure that students have aprons or old shirts to protect their clothes and access to a sink for washing their hands afterwards.
Organise your classroom so that you have an area to dry the prints. (This could be a large table or you could rig up a washing line to hang the drying prints from.)
Have a clean area for students to create their print pad designs and a 'messy' area for printing.
Students will need:
polystyrene or foam print pad (or lino if you are doing this activity with older students)
felt-tip pen (for drawing the design onto the print pad)
blunt pencil or clay tools (for indenting their design onto the print pad)
relief printing ink (water-based) or paint
rollers (students can share these)
paint tray (or a sheet of foil or a sheet of acetate for rolling ink)
paper for printing on (such as sugar paper, craft paper or cartridge paper – it can be coloured or white)
Step 1: Draw a simplified city
Using your abstract drawing as inspiration, draw the simplified shapes of your abstract city or a building onto your print pad with a felt-tip pen.
Step 2: Create your relief
Use a blunt pencil or clay-making tool to mark or indent your design onto your print pad.
You could indent the outlines of your shapes to create a linear print or indent shapes into your print pad by outlining the shapes with your tools and then pushing in the surface.
It might help to plan which shapes will be inked and which will remain paper-coloured. (Remember the shapes that you indent won't be inked and will stay the colour of your paper. The raised shapes that you don't indent will be inked.)
Step 3: Ink and roll!
When your print pad is ready, squeeze ink onto your paint tray (or use a sheet of foil if you don't have a tray). Roll your roller up and down over the ink to spread it out and ensure your roller is evenly covered. Then ink your print pad design using your roller.
Step 4: Make your print
Place a piece of paper over your inked pad and roll a clean roller over the surface to transfer the ink to the paper. (If you don't have a second roller use a rolling pin. Or you could use the back of a spoon and gently rub it over the surface of the paper to transfer the ink.)
Peel the paper off the pad to reveal your print and leave it to dry. Your print will be a mirror image (or back to front) of the design on your print pad.
You can make several prints from your print plate. You may need to ink the pad again if these become too faded.
See this Royal Academy resource for tips on cutting and printing a polystyrene pad:
Print onto a collaged surface. This lino and woodcut print has been printed onto yellow and white paper...
... but you could also print onto paper that has been collaged with lots of scraps of coloured paper for a colourful city print.
Create a class collaborative city
Make a collaborative class print of an urban landscape. Task each student with drawing and indenting a single building onto their relief print pad. (These could be inspired by buildings in your local town or city or students could use their imaginations to make these as fantastical as they wish.)
Each student could make their prints individually and then cut these out and collage them into a large shared sheet. For an extra fun abstract impression, add the buildings higgledy-piggledy or upside down! You could also draw or collage in extra details such as trees, buses and people afterwards.
Explore urban settlements
In this resource, students thought about and discussed towns and cities, and the types of buildings that make up a city. Use this as a starting point for exploring urban settlements.
You could investigate the different functions of buildings that are found in villages, towns and cities and the planning of towns and cities to cater for the different needs of residents.
Or you could look at how towns and cities have changed over time as different industries have impacted urban landscapes.
You could also compare a city near where you live with a city in a different part of the world. How are they different? How are they similar?
This would provide opportunities for cross-curricular links with human geography (National Curriculum for England); People, place and environment (Scottish CfE); Humanities (Curriculum for Wales) and The World Around Us (Curriculum for Northern Ireland).