Painted Costa Rican Boruca Masks


After what feels like many sessions of intense, focused linear perspective drawing (and before that, days of observational drawing & value), 7th grade is ready to cut loose a little bit. This large-scale painting project is a fun counterpoint.


We start with a think/pair/share activity exploring different types of mask, and talking about how masks and disguises are present in nearly every culture across the world. We talk about why the students think that is, some of the reasons that people wear masks, and how masks both give power and take it away.


Then we view & discuss images of the masks created by the Boruca tribe, indigenous to Costa Rica. The Boruca people create these masks for their annual festival, the Danza de los Diabolitos, in which the men of the tribe reenact the Spanish conquest. In the reenactment, the masks give the tribe the power to repel the invaders.


After working out ideas in their journals, students draw their masks on 18×24″ construction paper using chalk. Chalk encourages students to draw large (I tell them their mask should come within 1″ of every edge), and has the added benefit of vanishing when painted over, unlike pencil.


Before students start painting, we learn about color schemes and how artists use them to create a mood and foster unity in their work. Students can choose from five color schemes to complete their masks: triadic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, and monochromatic.


When painting is complete, we revisit images of Boruca masks to see the layer of pattern the artists add, developing contrast, rhythm, and variety to add interest. Students add patterns using oil pastels, still sticking to their color schemes to maintain unity.





“From My Perspective” Phrases


Teaching linear perspective is possibly my least favorite thing. It’s so different than almost anything else we do in art class–it’s pretty rare that there’s so clearly a RIGHT WAY TO DO IT and all the other ways are wrong. My file cabinet is stuffed with worksheets and rubrics from probably a dozen variations on perspective projects that I’ve tried over the years, trying to find one that makes me & the students even a little bit happy.


“Never Give Up,” indeed. I hit on this”From My Perspective” project last year, and it remains my favorite way to teach perspective. Drawing block letters in perspective is relatively straightforward, but gives a good grounding in the concept and requires a satisfying amount of spatial reasoning and thinking three-dimensionally.

Plus, hello: a pun! What’s not to like? I have the kids brainstorm ideas for their “perspective on life,” kind of like a life motto. Something they’ve learned in their years on Earth (all twelve of them ;)) that’s shaped the way they see the world.


We actually start these with the backgrounds. We talk about activating negative space with movement and texture, and using analogous colors to create unity and keep it from being too busy. Students establish an overall pattern for the movement in the background with pencil on posterboard, and then fill it in with magazine clippings in the analogous color scheme of their choice.


Then we move on to perspective: learning a brief history of art before and after perspective was developed during the Renaissance, and weird vocabulary like vanishing point and orthogonal line. We do some guided practice, drawing simple boxes before moving on to more complex forms like letters.

Then we do more guided practice.

Then some independent practice in their journals, making a rough draft of their chosen phrase so I can help them correct all those persnickety little details that are so easy to get mixed up.

Finally, they move on to a final draft on white cardstock. There are some very satisfying things about teaching perspective: watching it all suddenly snap into place when a student GETS IT, and that perspective can really appeal to those mathematically-minded left-brained kids who might not always excel in other types of creative pursuit.

When final drawings are ready for color, we learn some design terminology (“color gradient”!) and how to find the complementary analogous colors to those they chose for their backgrounds. We discuss the visual effects produced by complementary colors, and how they’ll really make their letters pop forward, creating strong emphasis.


A little precise cutting & gluing, and we’re done! Then we start a nice, huge, instant-gratification kind of painting project as a reward and release from all that tightly focused drawing work. More on that soon!

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.

Watercolor Mandala Color Wheels


This 7th grade project is a favorite, both of mine and the students! 7th grade studies Southeast Asia in Social Studies, so these mandalas are a nice cross-curricular connection and a beautiful way for them to deepen their understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism.


We start off with this Prezi, learning about the design and significance of mandalas. One of my favorite moments every semester is watching jaws drop when the sand mandala video clip reaches its dramatic end!


I demonstrate how to draw a circle divided into 12 even sections on watercolor paper, then how to develop a mandala design with radial symmetry. We talk about variety in line weight, and creating contrast by choosing certain shapes to color in completely with Sharpie.


Before students begin painting, they label colors in color wheel order out to the edge of the paper–this prevents so many mishaps! We review the color wheel and color mixing, then I demonstrate how to use liquid watercolors, using just the primary colors to create the entire spectrum.