Creating Art That Is Spot On!

My class of older students has spent a couple of weeks creating functional art works that are decorated entirely in spots. We looked at Australian Aboriginal artwork as well as the art of Leah Dorian as inspiration. All of these artists use dots to create complex images. Using these ideas as springboards, we moved into creating our own artworks.

Our supplies were fairly simple to get together. I was on one of my frequent visits to the Salvation Army, and I picked up a wooden salad bowl set for $4.00. The wood was nice and dark and the bowls were in really great condition. I then purchased a box of cotton swabs and brought in the usual array of acrylics, paper plates (as palettes) and water jugs.

The students were asked to create functional art pieces out of the re-purposed bowls and this was all the instruction they seemed to need. I didn’t tell them to paint an undercoat on the bowls but a few of them decided to do this on their own. Others just left the wood as-is and started painting dots immediately. Many started with simple patterns on their first bowls and then, on their second, moved in different directions. Sometimes, the materials are the catalyst for creativity, and this seemed to be the case.

Here are some of their works, completed, or in progress:

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Increasing independence in art-making

The art continues…I think having a larger group of students, while keeping me on my toes, invites problem-solving. I just don’t have time to spend with everyone for long periods, so they have to work undirected a fair amount. I mindfully circulate to every student every five minutes or so but my directions and redirections are quick and concise. Feedback is mostly through questioning and I encourage one student to work with another to get to a solution. We did work as a group to solve one artist’s challenge of an unwanted focus due to colour choice (yellow) and size (big enough to take emphasis away from its intended place.) Otherwise, we just marched on. Here are this week’s artworks:





Artworks, in order, by grade four, grade six, grade three and Kindergarten.

The art that lives inside us!

Today, we all dove into our ongoing art works as soon as we arrived. Everyone was in a different place. Most people were working on their portraits, or their Picasso studies. Everyone embraced colour. I am finding that facilitating is so much better when everyone works at their own pace. Some students want to learn how to mix colours because their just-right colour isn’t in my selection. Some want to learn how to balance their works. Some teach each other how to blend oil pastels. Others go in a totally unplanned direction and make creatures, working in pairs and laughing at their combinations. Regardless of where they all are, they ask to explore something as it relates to the image they are striving to create. This is when learning is magical – the sweet spot. They learn because they want to learn and not because I think they should learn.

Here are some of their results:


She spent a great deal of time trying to master blending with oil pastels and the results were powerful. She taught the others what she had learned.


She mixed every colour on her own! She was unhappy with the brown that I had so she experimented until she found the colour she wanted. Once she started mixing, she decided to make every colour on her own.



She did some amazing work today. She has worked really hard on balance and her Mona Lisa showed it. Impressive for grade four! Her Blue Period work was also completely independent. She just dove in a made it work. Her challenge was working in mostly monochromatic and still making her figure “pop.”


She has no fear of colour. Her challenge was colour balance. Picasso really moved colours around and she decided to add the pink around the head at the last minute.


This five year old completed the paint and portrait on his own and then he worked with a grade four friend to create the crazy creatures. They amused themselves for the whole hour and a half. The results are really funny and interesting.

There is no doubt that art lives inside human beings. The fun part is watching it come out.

The Great Portrait Challenge!

Four weeks of art-making resulted in some pretty vibrant final products last night! Most importantly, the students were so proud of their work and I think one or two surprised themselves. The sequence:

  • Learn to draw faces. Focus on proportion, shape, variety of features. Look at each other, look at our own faces. Compare “rules” for drawing a face to real faces by drawing on tracing paper and placing the image over a photo on my I Pad. Found that the proportions varied a little from person-to-person.
  • Repeated practice. We did this through games and invented faces. One game that was really neat was we each drew one feature and then rotated our paper from person to person. We got pretty creative with our features, laughed a lot and ended up with nine different and very funny faces – all drawn to proportion!
  • Focus on a final product. We spent time drawing a face (either from a magazine, from our imagination or even from the wall of the art room). By this time, everyone had a pretty good comfort level. We made sure to fill the page. We then learned to tint our portriats with conte and a blender. It gave the portraits a soft quality. We cut them out when we were finished and set them aside.
  • Prepare the background. I asked every student to find five images in a magazine that they liked. They had to incorporate them into their background somehow. Some glued them on right away and others set them aside. They then chose five acrylic colours and put puddles of paint in five spots on their paper. They worked on spreading the paint around, blending and filling the white spots. We then let the paint dry. Afterwards, we added oil pastel and the magazine pictures (if we hadn’t already). Some students created their own effects through scraping and layering.
  • Put it all together. Lastly, students had to decide where to place their portraits on thier prepared backgrounds. This invited consideration of balance and Portarit3 Portrait 3 Portrait4
  • There are more examples to come in two weeks.

Well, that went better!

Tonight was week number two of art classes and, if you’ve been following the story (see previous blog), things went much better. Why? Well, accounting for the complexity of all learning experiences, likely for many reasons.
Firstly, I have to confess that I was missing three students this week (hot family vacations took them away and with the weather we have been having, I understand the appeal). This allowed me to spend more time with everyone. Every teacher knows that class size doesn’t determine success but it makes a difference, for sure.
Secondly, I planned to differentiate. I had a new student this week and so I really had to think about how things needed to look. Flexible grouping was the name of the game. I did a whole group fun warm up but then I worked with the new student and the five year old, while the others began on their own. We were working in a circle so I could see and talk to everyone easily but I could focus where I needed to. I introduced a new medium into the technique we used last week, which was engaging and challenging for the older students. The five year old really worked fantastically well, as did the new student so I was soon able to move from student to student. I think this is a key part of differentiation…you have to build in supports and skills for everyone so you are free to move between flexible groups. Every individual has to be given a measure of independence. After all, the students themselves are the most important part of the teaching-learning relationship.
Thirdly, I introduced a problem-based component. Once they completed their portraits, which combined skills they learned last week with a new medium, we set those aside and began the background. I asked them to cut out any five magazine pictures and glue them down. Then they had to choose any five paint colours and we poured puddles onto the page. It was their decision how to apply the paint. This seemed to be the right balance between choice and challenge. We are just getting into this process and everyone (including me) was sad when the class was over.
Thing just work so much better when I plan thoroughly and anticipate different needs. Next week, we will have more students join us and will need even more differentiation. I can hardly wait!





Getting greatness from kids.

This week, we built onto last week’s learning and produced some amazing landscapes. My five year old returned and I decided to spend time with him, helping him learn to look at landscapes and capture them in his own way. The success experienced last week meant the other students were poised to try a landscape on their own. The confidence was palpable. After one week of explicit instruction and modelling, the students were able to set up entirely on their own and work almost independently. This freed me up to work with my young student. The results were impressive. We seemed to hit a sweet spot with this approach. Next week, we try something completely new…






Modelling for success in an art class

After last week’s dilemma, I approached this week’s art class with more structure. We were missing the five year old, so we were all able to fit around one table and set ourselves up for a day of acrylic painting. There were no warm ups; just preparation for working together.

I chose Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven as my focus. Their work seems to hold just the right balance of structure and “cutting loose” for developing painters. As I mentioned last week, I wanted to encourage movement beyond “school art” and this usually means I need to move some distance out of the students’ comfort zone. We started by looking at The Group of Seven’s art and discussing the kinds of things they chose to paint and the techniques they used to capture Canadian landscape. We had already been working with undercoats, so it was great for them to see them in use in works of art.

Together, we voted on the painting we want to try together. I narrowed it down to a choice between two where the focus was on brushstrokes and free movement as opposed to too much detail (again, I was keeping in mind the need to loosen up a little). We chose a Thomson and started by choosing the undercoat colour. I stated right off the start that they did not need to choose the exact colours Thomson used. What I wanted them to do was capture the “essence” of the work but put their own “stamp” on their piece. That seemed to be the right amount of freedom for them and they all chose a version of red or orange as their undercoat colour but no one chose the same colour as anyone else. Already, we had variety!

While their undercoat dried, we looked at Thomson’s brushstrokes and colour blending. We discussed the order we thought Thomson had tackled his work of art and decided that we would start with the sky. We used charcoal pencils to sketch the landscape first and worked on “mapping out” the picture as opposed to drawing it. We agreed that when we spend too much time on drawing, we feel sad about placing colour over top of our drawing. I clarified the purpose of a sketch and they embraced this quick draw approach.

T started to stress a little as the sketching progressed. She admitted she likes to control her art by choosing geometric patterns and subjects she feels able to replicate exactly. This “free and easy” approach was making her unsure of herself and she expressed her anxiety several times throughout the class. We talked as a group about the notion of art as being about risk taking and learning as opposed to controlling a medium by staying in our comfort zones. She agreed with this idea and kept working on her piece but only stopped expressing insecurity when she was 80% done her picture and could see that she had done something she was really proud of. This was the first time I had seen her actually excited about taking her piece home to show her family. Success! She took a risk and it worked out – the perfect formula for moving forward.

The rest of us worked on our pieces until done. We were shocked when we looked at the clock and saw that our hour and a half was almost over. The time had flown and every single person had been engaged the entire time. Their work reflected their engagement and there was an air of confidence that I hadn’t felt the previous week.

Reflecting back, there were many factors that shifted the atmosphere. First, I was working alongside them. I used “think alouds” throughout the process, sharing my own wonderings and challenges as well as solutions. We helped each other through some rough patches and had a spirit of collaboration. We also sat in a circle, which ensured constant interaction. They spontaneously shared palettes and colours they created. We were all working on the same thing in our own way and I was able to give more of myself to everyone just through proximity and shared purpose. I think that this needs to be an essential part of the learning cycle, even when everyone is working on different things – we need to have times built in to come together with a shared purpose and talk and think. Otherwise, it feels like I am just juggling all the pins and I don’t actually get to spend any time getting to know any one of those pins in detail. By working with them, I made myself vulnerable – I was learning with them, which takes a lot of pressure off everyone. Finally, every person had the freedom and autonomy to interpret the task in their own way. This is how inquiry was still honoured. We had the same catalyst for our art but we all went in the direction we wanted and we ended up with very different pieces when all was said and done.

Next week, they have requested to be able to choose thier own picture from the art book and work on it themselves. They are ready for “You do, I help” which is just great. I can hardly wait to see what happens!

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Quit or continue? Teachable moments in art class

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Last night, we continued work on our textured canvases. Some students finished and others did not but it was a class filled with “teachable moments.” The more I think about learning, the more I conclude that hoping for authentic, student-driven, deep challenges while learning is the best way for learning to happen. If every thing a child tackles goes well and comes easily, I am not sure how much actual learning is happening. I suspect those moments are more about doing something they are already skilled at. It is nice to have those moments, too, but without challenge, growth really slows down.

“Mistakes are great!” I shouted. M did not look convinced. She had just declared that she was done her piece because she had totally “messed it up.” This is the pivotal moment, and it is not without anxiety as a teacher. It could go either way. But one of my biggest goals in teaching art is to encourage risk-taking, so instead of giving M permission to quit when the going got tough, I asked her why she felt she had messed up. She explained that she had added strokes of yellow and it just took over her piece. I explained that she maybe felt this way because she had chosen to add yellow brush strokes on top of purple and the combination of complementary colours might be too much for the eye and brain to handle. I pointed out that sometimes artists want to create this tension but it seemed to be bothering her, so she might consider what colours to work with to create more balance. We also got the opportunity to talk about the properties of acrylic and I explained that she could cover previous paint with new colours if she wanted.

The interesting thing about this conversation when I reflect on it, is that I sometimes worry that my open-ended approach to teaching art is not structured enough. I have moved almost completely away from “lessons.” I only “teach” when students ask for assistance in solving some of their art “problems.” I have fretted about this off and on, but on days like yesterday, I realize that we will get to the specific learning eventually but it has to be when each student is ready to receive a little help. I can totally empathize with teachers when they have the same hesitations with emergent curriculum and inquiry approaches. How can we guarantee kids will “get the required information?” I guess what I am discovering is that it will happen and, as teachers, we just have to be alert to possibilities each class. It is about watching and listening so we can discover when the time might be ripe for some conversation about what is going on in the learning process.

When M was done her piece (she spend 40 more minutes on it after declaring she was done), I could tell that she was pleased. I explained how excited I was that she had attempted something so new. She is very skilled at controlled representation and this was a departure for her. It was really exciting!

J also did an exciting piece but the focus of our work together was more about balance and colour usage. She is a little younger and I find that the younger the kids are, the fewer inhibitions they have built up. J was also in my studio last year, so she has become quite comfortable with experimenting. The challenge with her is to invite her to reflect on her pieces a little more. I still have work to do here because I haven’t quite figured out how to encourage this with her. She is always so excited about the next thing that she doesn’t want to reflect on what she has done.