Archive for the ‘Art Lessons’ Category

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In 2018 I got to teach at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp Elementary School session. The camp groups students by age and rotates four sections of each age group through four different classes, in music, theater, visual art, and dance.

This year I had the 5th grade group, kids going into 6th grade, who came in for I think around 50 minutes each. Each group had around a dozen kids, and we had to set up, work, and clean up in that time before the next group came in. The camp was one week, so five mornings total.

The cleaning up is an important part of the process – young people actually like knowing what’s going on and they actually like cleaning up, especially sponging off the tables.

The first day I gave them watercolors, and had them try various techniques, with nice watercolor paints (they are Cotman travel sets, and over the years we have replaced the paint as it was used up with Daniel Smith watercolors) on 80# drawing paper. First we looked at some slides of the work of Helen Frankenthaler and Vasili Kandinsky, and told a little about those artists and periods.

Tuesday, we did observational drawing, of a wooden stool, doing fast draw, blind contour, then a longer drawing, then, if they had time, a smaller object of their choice. In this one I showed them basic drawing tricks, using angles, proportions, overlap, scale, and the trick of using the back ground, and the angles of the box the stool was on, to give their drawing depth.

Wednesday we drew the counselor, with the same drawing instruction, with the addition of learning to show the model respect.

Thursday we drew a still life of at least two objects, on the table near them. We didn’t do any warmups, but instead sketched on newsprint, then drew with pencil and outlined with pen or drew with a pen, then watercolor, on 80# drawing paper, using the various watercolor techniques from Monday.

On Friday, I set up lights and pushed the tables together, with the lights at one end, and kids sitting on the long sides of the tables. They did a quick draw then shaded (modeled) drawing of white styrofoam balls. Then, had them gather all their art, and put their favorite piece on top, and we did a little art walk, where each said something they liked about (someone else’s) picture.

One more thing was to have each kid at the end of each session put his or her work in a stack. I didn’t have any drying racks, so we arranged the stacks of pictures all around the edges of the room on the floor.

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Paul Cezanne, The Basket of Apples c. 1893 25 7/16 x 31 1/2 in. (65 x 80 cm) Art Institute of Chicago

The same Fifth graders who got into Abstract Expressionism tried their hands at Post-Impressionism. And, it was a sunny day just a week before school let out. So they weren’t exactly calm, and yet did fabulous work. The image above is the inspiration, which the kids each talked about. We went around and each kid said something they noticed or liked (or didn’t) about the picture – things like the color juxtapositions, how he made the fruit look round, the strange perspective that makes the table look tipped. We also looked at images of paintings by Henri Matisse.

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gotham news 1957
Gotham News, 1955 by Willem de Kooning ( 69 x 79” Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

We looked at images of paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, including pictures of the paintings in galleries, and Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock working in their studios, to show the very large scale of pictures in this school. I also told them where some of these pictures are, and had a snapshot of one (Small’s Paradise, by Helen Frankenthaler) I took in Washington D. C. in March.

I told them how Abstract Expressionism was painting that was not of something, but was the thing, in the words of Jackson Pollock. And how painting is a language, in which you can express things you can’t put into words.

The paintings they liked were both by de Kooning: Excavation and Gotham News, which is the one we talked about. The kids each noted something about the picture, and brought out the bright colors, and how it references people, dogs, layers, cities, noise, excitement, heavy equipment, Batman, buildings and other structures, without being pictures of those things.

It could be too that they were drawn to this picture because it holds up better on the rather dim “interactive white board” projectors the school has. You don’t get the benefit of the brilliant colors of Helen Frankenthaler’s work. We held up the laptop so they could get an idea of the brilliance of the actual paintings.

Inspired by the picture, they made paintings in the manner of Abstract Expressionism. I think some of them felt like they were being naughty, by using a finger or their hands, in making layer on layer, in using gobs of paint, and even in scraping back to get to layers below. But they were not naughty, they were all fully involved in the paint and what it was doing. This was the most energetic and focused group I’ve had, as far as everyone diving in.

We asked them to mix at least 3 colors, and this time not to make a picture of a thing but to paint with colors and shapes and lines, and to try different brush sizes.

As in other classes, each kid got a paper plate palette with primary colors and white, a yogurt container of water, paper towels, a plate to mix colors on, and they had had a short reminder of how you rinse your brush between dipping into the color.

We even had time to clean up and to spend a few minutes looking at our work.


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A Still Life by Henri Matisse

The very beautiful still-life paintings by Ms. Love’s Fifth Grade class in 2015. I’ve been meaning to put these up for a while. The students first learned about color mixing. They did these paintings in one session, painting from still lifes set up with colored cloths and fruit. They are done with tempera paint on canvas board (just because the teacher had some she wanted to get used!).img_2132smallimg_2133smallimg_2134smallimg_2135smallimg_2136smallimg_2137smallimg_2138smallimg_2139smallimg_2140smallimg_2141smallimg_2142smallimg_2143smallimg_2144smallimg_2145smallimg_2146smallimg_2147smallimg_2148smallimg_2149smallimg_2150smallimg_2151smallimg_2152small

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IMG_2312smallChoose Your Own Adventure

By the 2014/15 7th Grade Literature Circle

We used large sticky notes to brainstorm this. Image by a student in the 2015 Fine Arts Camp mini camp.


You wake up in your middle school bathroom. “Uh oh,” you think, “what if someone sees me there.” You hear the sounds of the jungle. “Hmm,” you think. “Middle school is wild, but not this wild.”

Do you:

Consider getting up, but you fall back asleep. Go to 2A

You get up and forget the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” and get up and explore. Go to 2B



You wake up again and look around. You are in another dimension. There is a Laser Unicorn right next to you. The unicorn runs at you and tries to lick your face off.

Do you:

want to hug it, go to 3A1

want to kill it in self defense, go to 3A2


You see trees growing out of the trash and fungi in the gym lockers. You’re scared but also curious. A coffee mug is sprouting an oak tree. You think this is the best and worst thing that ever happened.

Do you:

decide on a safe approach and hide in a locker where unfortunately someone left their lunch a little too long, go to 3B1

Go look out a window while standing on a desk. Eww gross you stick your hand in some gum. Go to 3B2.



The glittery unicorn gives a shuddering tremor, and then suddenly, it erupts into a poof of rainbow flames. You catch a whiff of peppermint poo, for some reason. After a while of the unicorn burning, a few mean, yucky, bright orange bears come into view.

“We smell peppermint. We eat you,” they say in a flat tone. Obviously they have not spoken much.

You fight your way through the bear’s sharp claws, but all too soon, you perish a sad, sad death.


The unicorn hugs you with its furry hooves but it starts to eat your hair. What do you do?

Let it eat your hair, go to 4A2A

Tell it to stop, got to 4A2B


Unfortunately, the old lunch in the locker becomes overpowering and you remember you accidentally shut the door. You die.


You see a rabid tiger. You panic but search in your pockets and along with the pocket lint you find a very squished cupcake and an old carrot. You know your only chance is to feed it something.

Do you: go for the the sweet choice (cupcakes) thinking that although it’s squished you like it, so they’ll like it. Go to 4B2A.

Or, do you go for the carrot, and save the cupcake for yourself. Go to 4B2B.



You let the unicorn eat your hair, and after a while you forget about the old school and you live forever in an alternate universe with your best friend the unicorn living off of peppermint poop and candy corn.


The unicorn gets extremely moody. After an irritated whinny and a flick of its irridescent tail, the pubescent pony trots away. However, after you poke around for a while, you find a minty mound of poo. It smells delicious, and you fight the urge to stuff every last sticky bite into your mouth. In the distance, a clear blue lake shines and glimmers.

Do you – throw it into the lake, because you’re afraid it’s toxic – go to 5A2B1

Or, do you eat the delicious peppermint poop. Go to 5A2B2.


The rabid Rabbitiger loves you but licks frosting off your face and you die from the stinging saliva that melts your skin and bones and fingernails.


You feed it the carrots, but that makes it upset. It decides to eat you, and you die. Start over!



The bratty unicorn gallops off, leaving a glittery, blue-green, minty-smelling poop. For a second, the smell overcomes you, and all you can think about is filling your growling stomach with this mint-smelling poop, then your senses return! That’s absurd! It’s poop! Ew! In disgust, you pick it up and throw it into the rather pink colored lake. When you throw it, your foot slips, making you tumble, into the sweet smelling water. The fumes of it play with your mind. You start singing of a turtle and a duck as you sink. Your mother was right, too much pink will kill. The end.


Suddenly, you wake up back in the bathroom where you started.

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At the 2015 Elementary-age Sitka Fine Arts Camp, I got to work with the 3rd through 5th graders. The first day we made abstract paintings, after looking at slides of paintings by Wasilly Kandinsky. Then we drew for two days, and the next, we painted their counselor modeling, or, if they wished, a figure, or anything they wanted.

Each group of 15 kids rotated through four classes:  music, theater, dance and visual art through the mornings during one week.

The only thing I asked on this one was that they mix three new colors for their picture.

Their work:

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The Sitka Fine Arts Camp has an elementary age session, one week of morning classes. Groups of 15 kids rotate through four classes of just under an hour. This year I got to do art with 3rd through 5th graders. One day we drew a chair – and on another, their counselor modeling!

Here is their work:

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I had the chance this year to teach two classes at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp Middle School session: Printmaking, and Natural History Drawing and Watercolor. This is an outstanding camp in every way, with some of the best instructors in the country – practicing artists who have also figured out how to bring young people on that ride. The students are also remarkable, in how they support each other. It was fun to get students to the next level in their art work, but just as neat to see them making connections with each other.

These are some pictures, from the final show, from the Natural History Drawing and Watercolor class. I had 18 middle school students – which is a big group, but they were a good group, and all worked hard.

The first day we did drawing exercises, to get into drawing what you see. Some very effective exercises including blind contour drawing (not looking at your paper) and very fast, timed sketches.

Some drawings from the first day

Some drawings from the first day

Then, next day, shading:



IMG_6334smallwith the idea of using light and shadow to do what they wanted it to. All this was from observation, I set up clamp lights for the shading exercises. First we did strips of various kinds of shading.

The idea I had was to show how to make art starting from observation – but with the idea of making a picture.

Our last exercise session was to copy a watercolor landscape, The Blue Boat, by Winslow Homer, in watercolor. I helped them with color mixing, and pointed out the techniques used to create the illusion of space and depth. In this first photo (these are all taken at the final show, looking down at a table), you can see the picture we were copying.




So this was an experiment but it worked really well. You can talk all day but it’s much better to just do it. I had them try mixing three different greens.

Next was drawing the landscape from observation, and another instructor had mentioned starting with the horizon. Drawing in the horizon is magic. Check these out:




As they were drawing, I also helped them see how how close things are to the horizon tells you how far away they are, and some linear perspective for the students drawing buildings or pavement –

We went outside two more times, once drawing in pen, trying to convey some sense of writing pieces we’d been given by the Writing and the Visual Arts class. The last time, we painted our own landscape in watercolor. That was where I was really impressed with the students. I think most of us would be a bit intimidated by the task but they went for it.

watercolor painting the landscape

watercolor painting the landscape




Also by this point, the last day of a 2-week camp, they were exhausted.

In one class we drew and painted objects we brought in from outside, as well as still life things in the room, in various sizes, and one day we drew some live 5-week-old chickens I brought from home. The chickens seemed to enjoy it as much as the students. Chickens are curious creatures and seem to like outings.



Did I mention Dr. Who was popular at camp.

At the end, we made tiny books, with hard covers covered with paper they’d decorated, and pockets to hold the tiny pieces of art they’d made.




And – poetry. We loaned tiny paintings to the Writing and The Visual Arts class, who wrote poems, on tiny papers that fit in our books. Here are some of the pairings – well, actually, all of them:

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Anyway, good work, guys! The one thing is I wish I’d taken the time to look at our work. It went so fast, and everyone was gone, I was in serious, serious withdrawal the next day. It’s intense, and I really enjoyed all the kids – bright and just plain interesting to talk to. So the next day, when I saw some of the students downtown, I was asking them how they liked camp, though – being a shy person – one girl I ran into but was too shy to talk to. I’m still kicking myself. Because she did really well, I really enjoyed her,  and I never got to tell her so. Well ok Amelia you rock. There now!

I’d love to teach again, maybe just landscape, or people – in a landscape – and I have an idea for drawing a graphic novel. I did that with elementary school kids last fall, I think it would be really cool.

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This morning had the chance to work with kindergarten kids in Mrs. Matiatos’s classroom at Baranof Elementary School, in Sitka Alaska. This is an amazing group of kids. Last week for first lesson we looked at slides of Willem deKooning’s and Jackson Pollock’s art, and talked about this picture:

Excavation by Willem de Kooning, 1950, 81 x 100 1/4 inches, Art Institute of Chicago

Excavation by Willem de Kooning, 1950, 81 x 100 1/4 inches, Art Institute of Chicago

then did abstract paintings using a limited palette:

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Today we looked at some paintings by Helen Frankenthaler,

Mountains and Sea, 1952, 85 1/2 inches by 117 1/4 inches, National Gallery of Art

Mountains and Sea, 1952, 85 1/2 inches by 117 1/4 inches, National Gallery of Art

and saw some pictures of her, working.

I also showed them how enormous these pictures are, and tell them where they are, so they can know they can go visit them.

It’s funny how different groups respond to pictures differently. For these kids it was all about COLOR. I was blown away by their work:

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This is going back to Fine Arts Camp, the Elementary Camp in 2012. The first day is under Color inspired by Kandinsky for 3rd through 6th graders.

We had 60 children, coming in for about an hour in a group of 15 at a time.

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This day, we drew – using good old exercises that might be familiar to you if you took a drawing class in college. I brought in a chair from home, and had the kids do various exercises, like rapid timed drawings – a minute, 30 seconds, 10 seconds. You use newsprint and vine charcoal.
Another great exercise is called blind contour: first you hold your pencil or charcoal out, and trace the contour of the thing you are drawing, in the air. You visualize your pencil as a tiny bug, crawling along the contour of the object. Then you draw, not looking at the paper, just looking at what you are drawing, going slowly, and not picking up your charcoal.The results are a big squiggle, but with remarkable truth in the lines.It helps to tell the kids that this is a college exercise. It is hard, or challenging as we say. You have to be sensitive to when the kids are done – depending on the group of kids some went further, some did less, you play it by ear – but that’s any art class. It’s like – there’s nothing like it. But such a great feeling to be guiding a group of people, feeding off their energy and ideas, to direct them to something greater than they thought they could do.

Then do some quick drawings, and then further develop them. Amazing pictures.


Chair FACIMG_3723  FACIMG_3690  FACIMG_3676 FACIMG_3675 FACIMG_3674

chair drawn by an elementary school child

chair drawn by an elementary school child

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