Free Art Friday Is Coming!


NJAHS is gearing up for our annual Free Art Friday event on 5/6/16! Free Art Friday is an international movement. Artists in cities all over the world make artwork of all sorts, drop it in a public place, and tweet a photo–then the hunt is on! Check out #FAFATL on Twitter to see what Atlanta Free Art Friday artists are dropping, and this great mini-documentary about a few of our most sought-after artists to learn more.


NJAHS students developed their own Free Art Friday “personas” and created limited-edition stenciled art pieces that will be hidden all over both campuses on 5/6/16!



We also had the great fortune to host Catlanta, one of Atlanta’s most coveted Free Art artists. He came & talked to students about how his love for exploring the city developed into the Catlanta project, and brought his kitten cut-outs for students to design!




These Catlanta collaborations will be part of our Free Art Friday hunt, too–keep your eyes peeled!


Finally, this week students printed their own tees to commemorate and promote the event. We screen-printed the backs, and on the front, students used freezer paper stencils to print their personal Free Art designs. More on these later, they came out great!



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.



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.




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!



“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.

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.


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.