I used to be scared to give acrylic paint to my 5th graders. ACRYLIC PAINT STAINS FOREVER would flash through my mind any time I imagined my youngest artists. They still fall out of their chairs! They still rocket puke without warning! With experience, I realized that when you give nice art supplies to kids they take more pride in their work and they make better art. So now I give them acrylic paint. And loooooots of instructions and time for a slow clean-up.
Acrylic paint isn’t cheap, but it goes a long way and this artwork uses a surprising small amount of paint per student. (Am I the only art teacher that adds a little bit of water to paint?) I always stock up on white and black and then you just need a few other color choices for backgrounds.
PART ONE: Mixing Tints (1-3 45 minute class periods)
Painting the background is hands-down the most peaceful part of this artwork. Kids love mixing their own paint (many have never done this before!) and I always emphasis that acrylic paint isn’t “kid paint’. I show them my art apron and say “Some of these stains are from my first year teaching!”. This is when someone usually raises their hand and asks if it comes off your hands. I jokingly tell them I wouldn’t give them paint that tattoos hands forever, that’s not how I want to end up on the evening news.
Once students understand the materials, they start mixing their tints starting with a solid white moon. After we’ve watched my YouTube tutorial I usually paint my moon and 2-3 tints along with them. Emphasizing how to clean a paint brush is essential for this artwork. I tell them that their base color is a shared material and paint should only be mixed in their mixing cup (or plastic palette, styrofoam plate or whatever material you have for painting). I do recommend giving students something with a lid or at least wrap it in tin foil so they don’t have start mixing from scratch each class period.
I tell my 5th graders that they must have at least 7 tints on their background. (This is also on their grading rubric!) In my former life I was a high school art teacher and I would increase the number of tints in a secondary setting. I might even extend this to mixing shades of their base color in a high school art class. Whatever works for your particular group of students and age level!
Most kids take two full 40 minute class periods to complete their backgrounds. The fastest kid takes one and a half (hello, brush cleaner!) and the slowest kid takes a full three.
PART TWO: Drawing Branches (1-2 45 minute class periods)
I help my students with guided practice drawing two branches in their sketchbook and then one on the back of their painting, to get the scale right, before we draw on their backgrounds. Students are always concerned that they are covering up their tints and that they won’t be able to erase. I always demonstrate erasing pencil marks to ease my perfectionist students’ minds. Draw light until it’s right!!
I encourage students drawing realistic branches (this lesson usually follows our unit on abstract art), but this could be a great jumping off point for a more fanciful and imaginative painting styles. Emily Carr, Gustav Klimt and of course Van Gogh would be a great artists to encourage individual styles. Keith Haring also has a Tree of Life painting that kids get a kick out of.
PART THREE: Painting Branches (1-3 45 minute class periods)
Painting branches is so mesmerizing. It is complex, and can frustrate kids, so I always model slow and careful painting in my YouTube tutorial. I point out my shaky hands (addicted to coffee) and give tips on how to use the brush in one directions, work from largest to smallest shapes, and even going back on the second day to add the smallest details.
I have kids paint one branch along with me (usually the one we drew together the previous class period) and then they either finish drawing their branches they didn’t get to the class period before or keep painting. I encourage adding branches to spots that look “lonely” and editing any overzealous drawings.
PART FOUR: Painting Snow and Stars (1-2 45 minute class periods)
At this point we have looked at Hiroshige’s night time winter landscape several times, and I tell students the small white dots we add in the background can represent stars, snow or both. I emphasize organic stars that are scattered randomly throughout the background, not in neat rows or patterns. I always get a couple Orion’s Belt and other constellations and I just roll with it. There is always the snow storm kid that adds so many dots you can barely see the background. I try to get to that kid to encourage “less is more” before they get too far.
The finishing touch is snow accumulated on branches. “Less is more” is also very important with this technique, and lately I’ve left it as an accent option students aren’t required to add.
PART FIVE: Gallery Walk and Rubric (1- 45 minute class periods)
I always set a due date that allows for one make-up day for the absent kid, kid pulled for speech, or the slooooowwww worker in each class. We always do a gallery walk and I either have kids write compliments on sticky notes (with direction of course, so we don’t get a lot of “cool art”) or we do Student Choice Awards where they vote for their favorites for certain categories. Best Craftsmanship, Most Creative, and Best in Class are my usual suspects! I have also had kids do partner critiques and discuss two things that their peer did well and one thing that could be improved. I wouldn’t do this on the first artwork turned in, but it’s great for the middle and end of the course.
Kids then sit down with their own art and we go through the rubric together and I let them give themselves a student grade. They know I adjust grades and have the final say, but giving students ownership in the grading process keeps them honest and very aware of their expectations. I rarely get a parent asking why Johnny didn’t know he failed an assignment. And if I do, I have his rubric showing his own self-assessment. It has come in handy once in a blue moon!
This artwork is a great introduction to painting and allows for kids to have really clear steps while giving them an opportunity for creativity. This artwork always gets positive feedback from my students and they always say it helped push their artistic skills to a new level.
What are your favorite ways to teach acrylic painting? Do you have any awesome strategies to encourage kids to critique art? Let me know in the comments below!