Ceramic First Nations Totems


6th grade studies Canada as part of their Social Studies curriculum, so in art we learn about the art & culture of the First Nations people of British Columbia–specifically their totem poles. We start out with this Prezi and some brainstorming about the symbolism we assign to certain animals, and then students work on sketches for their final pieces, which are created in the form of an animal to represent themselves or someone they know.


We use the slab-building method to create the initial forms. Students roll and cut a slab to fit a cylindrical form (we use a short length of PVC pipe, wrapped in a plastic bag). Then they attach a circular base, and begin working on their other attachments. We talk about how the First Nations people create totems using a subtractive method to alter the cylindrical form of the cedar trunk, while we’re using an additive method to alter the cylindrical clay form.


To help students get an idea of the distinctive totem style, I have lots of photographs I scatter on the tables, as well as a little “mix & match & invent your own” sheet of drawings that shows some common shapes & features.



After drying & being bisque-fired, we paint these with tempera in traditional totem colors, and they’re ready for display.




Watercolor Ocean Floor Landscapes


6th grade learns about the ocean floor as part of their science curriculum, and about Australia as part of their social studies curriculum, so these coral reef undersea landscapes are a great cross-curricular connection.


Of course, I’m most focused on their Visual Art curriculum–and this project also does a beautiful job teaching how artists create a sense of depth in a landscape work, making some objects appear closer and others further away.


We start by looking at landscape master works, identifying how the artists use size, level of detail, and placement on the picture plane to create the sense of depth. Then I introduce atmospheric perspective–how colors in the distance become dulled by the atmosphere (or in our case, the sea water).

Following that discussion, students use a wet-on-wet watercolor technique to tint their papers a marbled blue and green in preparation for the next class.


On day 2, we look at photos of coral reefs and note how atmospheric perspective dulls color in the middle & backgrounds so that they appear mostly blue. We talk about features of the ocean floor, like rock formations and coral growth, and students establish a background and middle ground on their tinted papers using diluted watercolor (we use liquid watercolors for this entire project–so vibrant!), including tiny sea life off in the distance and medium-sized sea life in the middle ground. The background and its sea life are painted with one coat of diluted blue, and the middle ground gets a second coat to brighten and distinguish it from the background, creating quite realistic atmospheric perspective.


On day 3, students get a fresh sheet of watercolor paper (decadent, I know–but these projects are worth it)! They establish an off-center focal point by drawing a large sea creature, then add the rest of the foreground in high detail to make everything appear very close to the viewer.

I check out every single book the media center has with photos of coral reef life, and encourage students to bring phones or tablets for specific visual references. We talk about moving from the “symbol-making” to “observational drawing” stage in their artistic development, and avoiding stylized or cartoonish drawings (just for now, as the intent here is realism)!


After a few days of drawing and painting their foregrounds, students are ready to cut them out and attach them to their middle & background paper. Then these are ready for display! Several (the ones pictured here in close-up) will be displayed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this summer and fall, so keep an eye out when you’re traveling!



Value 3 Ways: A Vertical Drawing Curriculum For Middle School


Because many art skills are built upon over time, and because each student isn’t guaranteed to take art each year of middle school, there’s a fair amount of repetition in the curriculum–for example, each grade level does a color wheel, and I introduce different design elements and different media for each so it’s not too repetitive for students who did take art the previous year. Likewise, each grade level learns to use value to model form.



Sixth grade starts simply, with solid 3D forms. We start by learning how to create value scales, how light travels around a form, and how and why value works to create the illusion of form. I set up still lifes with spotlights on each table, and students draw and shade the forms from observation, striving for accuracy in their contours and proportion and to attain the full range of values in their shading.




Seventh grade also starts with value scales and reviewing (or introducing, depending on the students’ experience) the concept of light and value. Each student then creates a small sculpture using paper strips (a great way to use up the odds and ends of white drawing paper that inevitably accumulate around the paper cutter), and then draws his or her sculpture from observation.


The contours on these can be really tricky! It’s a great task to improve students’ spatial reasoning skills. Their compositions are required to touch all 4 edges of the page.


Finally, students shade their drawings to make them appear 3-dimensional, using the full range of values to create depth.




By eighth grade, I hope to have taught students at least once (in sixth or in seventh), so they have a good foundation in value to model form. But there’s no guarantee that I have, so this project accommodates newcomers as well!

After creating value scales and learning about value, students prepare their drawing surfaces by adding a layer of newsprint to activate the negative space and create interest.

We open the next session by discussing composition, and I give them a few useful guidelines:

  • Activate negative space
  • Establish an off-center area of emphasis (focal point)
  • Use rhythm & variety
  • Touch all 4 edges of the picture plane

After a quick chat about how the drawing mannequins are simply not interested in each other in that way, each student gets his or her own mannequin to pose (in a manner that preserves its innocence) and draw from observation. After a few practice sketches in their journals, students move to their prepared newsprint surfaces to create their final compositions, keeping the guidelines in mind.

We create value using charcoal pencils (a new medium for most students), including white charcoal to develop the highlights on the gray paper.


And there you have it–value 3 ways! This has proven to be a great, flexible sequence that accommodates and challenges learners at every level of experience while giving everyone a strong technical drawing foundation to build upon.

Complementary Color Wheels


6th grade created color wheels using tempera paint in the primary colors. First, they drew two color wheel layouts on 12×12″ paper by finding the center of the paper, using a compass to draw a circle, and measuring to divide the circle into 12 even sections.


Then, they used the primary colors to mix and paint the proper colors on both wheels, which involves plenty of critical thinking and training of the eye to recognize subtle differences between hues!


When finished painting, students worked in their visual-verbal journals to brainstorm words that describe them, selecting a few to represent with visual symbols.


Once students settled on a symbol, they created a stencil using recycled tag board and traced the stencil on each color of one of their completed color wheels.


Students learned about the eye-popping, high-contrast effects of complementary colors, and then cut out those 12 symbols and attached them to their complement on the second color wheel.


They make a pretty stunning display! Huge thanks to our awesome PTA for these new bulletin boards at the Powers Ferry Campus.