Recently I had the opportunity to teach an after-school art class for K-2nd graders. The guidelines: I would have 1 hour to do a “fun” project within the theme of “Fall” with 17 kids ranging from 5 to 8 years old. Hmmmm…
Knowing they were probably already doing a lot of pumpkin and leaf art in school, I decided to create a new project that works within the “Halloween-ish” theme but actually could be done any time of the year.
I based this lesson on the book, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen.
This book was a Newberry Honor winner in 2011 and it is absolutely beautiful. Rick Allen is the illustrator and his work is exquisite. The copyright page states, “The prints in this book were made by the process of relief printing. A drawing or sketch is transferred onto a block of wood or, in this instance, a sheet of linoleum mounted on wood, and the drawing is then cut and carved away using a variety of tools. The areas left uncut are covered with ink and printed on paper by hand or on a press; a number of blocks can be cut and then successively printed in different colors, with the different blocks being “registered” or aligned to create a multicolored print.” For more information about the author and illustrator of this book, read this article about how the book was created via the StarTribune.
So, back to the art- it’s a complex process that takes a long time. I knew it wasn’t a process I could even begin to tackle in an hour-long class. Still, the illustrations drew me in.
Look at that spider! I was struck by several themes that seemed to emerge from Allen’s illustrations:
1- Use of borders. Allen confined his images with borders- but in every case there are elements pushing past them- just the way wild things are prone to do.
2- Visual Texture– Allen’s printing process creates layers of color and line resulting in highly textured images. This technique gives an overall feeling of darkness and night without the illustrations feeling overwhelmingly dark. There is actually a good bit of beautiful color peeking out among the shadows.
3- “Zoomed in” focal object in the foreground. Many of Allen’s illustrations use this technique to “zoom in” on an animal in the foreground of the image. It’s as if you are inches away!
I paged through the book several times pondering how I could teach these concepts using different media. I finally decided to use my old, faithful (and favorite)- pastels and watercolors.
I experimented at home first. I have learned the hard way never to walk into a classroom and attempt to lead students through an art experience that I haven’t tested on myself. You’ll see all sorts of pitfalls to avoid!
Here are a few of my samples:
Spider 1 was my first try. He looked a little fat and hairy for my liking. I also found the web to be too much. Though I wanted to mimic Allen’s visual texture, his web was light and thin. I struggled to achieve that look with my oil pastels.
Spider 2 was a nice spider and I liked the way he was positioned on the moon. The problem- I had forgotten to include a web at all and he was floating in mid-air. I tried adding a web in the top right corner but it definitely looked like a last-minute addition.
Spider 3 was my final attempt and I didn’t even finish. I decided that web placement was my favorite- a bit in the corner to “ground” the spider and add some texture without making the picture too busy.
Side Question: Should teachers share an adult example with children? Many creativity experts say that providing adult models can inhibit children and result in “copy-cat” art. We need to be careful not to make children feel like their art must look like an example. However, I also think modeling is critically important. Sometimes it can be helpful to follow steps to achieve a certain result before a student is ready to branch out on his or her own. This is one reason you see art students sitting in museums attempting to replicate the paintings of the great masters. For this project, I quickly flashed my examples after we looked at the book so students could get an idea of the project. (Then I put them away.) I also emphasized the elements we would focus on: borders, visual texture, and focal object. Ideally, the children would follow up this experience with a much more open-ended version of the project in which they would make more of the creative decisions for themselves. Rick Allen’s work would provide lots of inspiration.
*Scientific note about spiders: When I drew these spiders, I was basing them loosely on Rick Allen’s illustration. Meaning: they are not scientifically accurate. Since then, I have done some research and would strive to be more accurate (though not necessarily this detailed) in the future. Here is an image and accompanying link to the National Museum of Natural History that is quite helpful.
Time for the project! Here are my recommended steps:
1- Share the book. It’s a beautiful book and is worthy of a full read-aloud experience. As you can see from the sample pages above, each 2-page spread includes 1 poem, 1 illustration, and 1 column of factual information about the animal/insect/arachnid. I love that format- it has such great potential as a structure that children could mimic! Informational text and poetry married with beautiful art = brilliant!
2- Page through Rick Allen’s illustrations and let the kids “notice” elements of his illustration. Point out elements they don’t comment on, such as his use of borders (and bits of nature creeping out of the borders.)
3- Emphasize the elements you want to see them try in their artwork– borders, visual texture, and a large focal object in the foreground. List these things on a board or chart as a reminder.
4- Pass out paper with pre-drawn pencil borders. (This was important due to the age of my students. We simply didn’t have time to sketch out our own borders.) I used pencil to pre-draw their borders for them. Tip: The easiest method for this is to trim another piece of paper or card stock to a size slightly smaller than your art paper- about 1″ less on each side. Center it on the art paper and quickly trace around the edges. Easy! Kids could certainly do this step if you had enough “border templates.”
5- Names in pencil on the back! I know- it’s obvious- but don’t forget. Once you start painting, it’s trouble to add a name!
6- Draw the spider first. Most of my young students were very unsure of how to draw a spider. Ideally, we should have spent time looking at photographs and diagrams of different spiders and practicing drawing. However, I only had one hour. Therefore, I led them through a “draw-along” where I modeled each step. You can download my steps for drawing a spider below. Click on the page to download.
7- Trace around a cup or bowl to draw the moon behind the spider. Remind them Rick Allen positioned the moon behind the spider, so the moon lines shouldn’t overlap the spider. *Several students neglected to place the moon behind the spider. It’s OK, but I wish I had spent more time pointing out the effective contrast between the dark spider and the bright round moon- it acts like a spotlight when placed correctly.
8- Draw grass and plants – Have some of them push outside the border. I encouraged the children to look at Rick Allen’s work and notice that only a few needed to be drawn in. The rest (such as plain grass) could be added with pastel lines and watercolor later.
9- *Important! Erase all lines that will not be outlined with a black Sharpie. For example, the border line should not pass through the moon. I neglected this step and several of my young children outlined that border right through the moon. They realized their mistake after the fact but it was too late. There’s no erasing Sharpie!
10- Use a black Sharpie marker to outline everything. This adds some of that dark line that helps give the image a heavy, night-time mood.
11- Use pastels to add more lines. I encouraged the children to do very little “coloring” with the pastels. After all, the watercolors will provide a layer of color. We used the pastels to add grass lines and lines within our plants, lines inside our spider legs, and we used gray and white pastel to texture the moon, add stars, and draw webs in the corner. We also used yellow pastel to draw a bright ring around the moon and fill in some of the small details within the spider.
12- Paint white space with watercolors. Here’s one tip I learned from my brother (who is a real, legit art teacher!)- remind children to paint from light to dark. In other words, paint the yellow moon first, then the green grass, then the blue/purple sky, and finally the black spider. It helps keep the paints from getting muddy.
Remind the children to leave the border white. That way it will look extra fabulous when mounted on black paper. The colors will pop!
I was so impressed with the children’s work! There were some young kids in this group and they rocked it! Check out a few finished pieces:
(You can see in this one how she drew the border line through the moon and plants. I think erasing the pencil border line prior to using the Sharpies would solve it.)
So what’s next?
Tomorrow I’ll be back to discuss how a classroom teacher could modify this art project into an arts integrated project with a dual focus on visual art and writing. (Updated: here is the link to the follow-up post.)