How to help your art students paint from observation. Art education resources and lessons at That Art Teacher. Deer skull paintings by 5th grade students.

Skull Painting

Theses words are often heard by art teachers. How do you get kids with limited confidence or experience to practice looking at the world around them and translate that into their artwork?

“I can’t draw.”

Recently, I challenged myself to teach every familiar lesson a little differently. My school is divided into quarters so I find myself teaching the same lessons four times a year. Instead of letting myself get bored, I pushed myself to use this as an opportunity for experimentation.

I love showing my students Georgia O’Keeffe, especially her skull paintings. There’s a beautiful simplicity to these paintings and the students love the contrast of detailed skulls and the ethereal backgrounds. Also, she’s a progressive woman artist 🤘🏼. Kids from Oklahoma seem to genuinely respond to the subject matter. You know, wide open spaces and all that prairie life.

I can’t bring the New Mexico desert to my students, but I can bring the skulls. I sent out an email to my fellow coworkers and a couple days later I had a plethora of skulls to choose from. As soon as students walked in my classroom they were mesmerized by the deer antlers.

“We’re going to draw that?!”

Panic.

I started out by saying that it would be so much fun, yes it will be challenging, but I promise to break it down into simple steps. Everyone is going to do amazing!

Less panic.

Then I told them that we were not going to be using pencils, we were jumping straight into painting.

So much panic.

I reassured them to think of this as practice. We had watched a video about Georgia O’Keeffe the day before and I reminded them she was almost 90 years old in the video. So do I expect you to paint as well as an artist that has been practicing for almost 90 years? Nope. Just try your best.

I started by giving each student three pieces of brown butcher paper. I told them that we were doing to do three paintings in one day. Even if you hate one of them you have three chances to get it right.

The quick pace, multiple attempts and being limited to one color seemed to lessen the stress of most students. My perfectionists still seemed concerned there would be no erasing.

We watched my Skull Painting Basics video and worked through our questions and clarifications. I reviewed how to use their paintbrush to measure and find angles.

The deer skull was set up and projected using my amazing Elmo document camera. If you don’t have one of these, beg your school to buy one for you because it will change your life.

I set a timer on my phone for 8 minutes and told them to look for size relationships and basic shapes. The lighting of the classroom whited out many of the small details and made it easier for students to see the main shapes.

I also told students they were not allowed to raise their hand. I promised I would not sit down but they had to just focus on painting and not being scared to “mess up”.

It was a beautiful scene. A couple minutes in and kids were holding their paintbrushes to measure antler angles (proud art teacher heart) and confidently filling in white shapes. The second painting I changed the angle of the skull and kids painted quicker and more confidently. By the third angle kids were smiling and working like pros.

The second day we used a black oil pastel and baby oil to add shadows and shading. We started by watching my Skull Details

video and looking at the skull with most of the lights off. I like how the oil blends lines into value planes, and kids are less intimidated because it’s not paint.

Guided questions like “where are the darkest parts of the skull?” help kids with their observations. Kids shared the areas that were the darkest and the areas of gray in between.

The finishing touch was done by the flat side of an oil pastel to create depth and color in the background. (And to cover up some of the oil spots from over zealous baby oil users.)

One of my students told me on the last day of this unit that he told his dad he painted a deer skull in art class. His dad said “In 5th grade? We never did that in art class!”

✊🏼

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