Lesson Plan

Robert Cottingham, Hamburger, 1979, lithograph

Lesson plan created by Ann Kohl-Re, art educator, Madison, Wisconsin

Grade Level

Grades 6 to 8

Summary of Activity

Formal Painting of Commonplace Objects

"The commonplace takes on a new social significance when it is framed between the borders of Cottingham's paintings." —M. Stephen Doherty, American Artist, July 1979

"His work focuses on the things people make." —Tara Cady Sartorius, Arts and Activities, April 2003.

Robert Cottingham is known as a Photo Realist artist. Working from photographs he took in cities across America, he created paintings and prints of commercial signs in urban areas. Hamburger, 1979, is one of these prints.

Ask students to look at this lithograph and identify all that they see. Ask them what name they would give to the style of the print.

Ask them also to notice what the artist left out of the image. Do they see customers? passersby? Do they see the sidewalk or door that would take hungry people into the diner? This is a clue that Cottingham is asking us to look at and think about the retail signs that advertise the diner and other businesses that occupy the building, and to notice the symmetrical arrangement of the street corner. Cottingham uses urban signage to invite us to think about the elements and principles of art. He also shares his interest in the commonplace, such as these street signs and this corner establishment, as a vehicle for reflecting on social values. Ask students to consider older and more recent commercial signage in their community and identify how retail signs capture attention and what they intend to communicate.

Ask students to think of commonplace objects that they could present in a formal composition. Ask them to think of objects that are visually complex in detail and to list things that are part of their everyday experiences. For their studio activity, students will look at a pair of shoes, and create a formal composition with them, emphasizing/utilizing form and detail.

Learning Objectives

The teacher will lead a discussion of Photo Realism and its place in contemporary art history. Students will analyze Robert Cottingham’s lithograph, Hamburger, noting how it demonstrates formal elements and principles. Students will identify and reflect on commercial signage in their community and what these signs are meant to communicate. In studio practice, students will create a painting that captures form and detail in a formal composition.  

Guiding Question

How can a formally composed work of art be created using a commonplace object as a subject? How can principles of design be used to make a visually compelling image? How can symmetry be used to create a balanced composition? 

Curriculum Connections

Social Studies: Examine the values, interests, and needs of your community by analyzing commercial signage from the past and present
Mathematics: Reflect how symmetry and balance are elements of art and mathematics


Robert Cottingham, Hamburger, in Art on Tour exhibition
Hamburger artwork page, Art on Tour website
Teacher-created digital presentation of commercial signs in the school’s community
Students own or teacher-supplied pairs of shoes
Sketchbook and pencil
12x12 or 12x18 drawing paper
Tempera paint and painting tools
Markers, colored pencils for detail


As an entire class or in small groups, ask students to identify examples of signs in your community that 1) are contemporary and 2) are from an earlier time period.

Ask students to identify the imagery, type face, material and other relevant details that cause the students to associate them with either the present or the past. Ask them to analyze how these elements communicate and create appeal. (Note that nostalgia is a form of appeal.)

Now look at Hamburger.  Discuss with students how Robert Cottingham chose to focus on the building’s architecture and signage rather than people interacting or passing by. Discuss how Cottingham chose to compose the elements in Hamburger and review the contemporary art theme of “the commonplace”.  Lead students in an analysis of how and why Cottingham approaches the commonplace in his photo-realist print. Ask students to consider how using shoes as a subject for their painting will enable them to practice designing a formal composition and make a realistic work of art, and understand the idea of the commonplace as a subject in visual art.


Students will remove their shoes, bring in a pair of shoes, or choose a teacher-supplied pair of shoes that they feel confident in drawing. Direct the students to arrange the shoes in a formal, balanced composition. Ask them to sketch the shoes’ forms in sketchbook or on practice paper, using the entire sheet of paper; the image of the shoes should touch three sides of the paper. Tell them that this will give their composition a sense of being “monumental”.  Instruct them to use 12x12 or 12x18 paper for the final composition, focusing on symmetry, form, and detail. Allow three to five class periods to paint the shoes and the background.  When dry, use drawing media to add further detail.

Take a field trip through the commercial center of your community and take photographs of contemporary and/or nostalgic signage and architecture. 

Write an homage for a historic sign or building in your community.

Common Core Standards

6th grade Common Core Standards for Visual Arts
VA:Cr1.1.6a, VA:Cr1.2.6a, VA:Pr6.1.6a, VA:Re7.1.a, VA:Re7.2.6a, VA:RE8.1.7a, VA:Re9.1.6a

8th grade Wisconsin Visual Arts Standards
A.8.4, B.8.2, C.8.1, C.8.2,C8.3, C8.6, D8.1, D8.4, D8.5 E.8.1, G.8.2, G.8.3, I8.5, I.8.7, J.8.2, J.8.9, J.8.10, L.8.1, L.8.6

Robert Cottingham (American b. 1935), Hamburger, 1979, lithograph, 17 7/16 x 17 7/16 inches. Anonymous gift. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

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