Multi-grade still life lesson plan using acrylic paint and a variety of collage techniques!

Mixed Media Cactus Plant Still Life

Multi-grade still life lesson plan using acrylic paint and a variety of collage techniques!

One of my goals this year was to teach more drawing and painting from direct observation. I’ve always loved drawing and painting plants, and lately I’ve been obsessed with watercolor cactus doodles. I knew I wanted student’s to draw cactus plants but I didn’t have any for them to observe. A quick email sent to my coworkers provided plenty of plants and inspiration! Our Spanish teacher’s mother has an amazing collection of large cactus plants and let me borrow two of them.

I was so scared I was going to kill them! Kill a cactus? Not impossible if you’re me.

This artwork is jam packed with SO MANY SKILLS! I am so proud of the hard work the students put into learning each skill and technique.

  • Watercolor washes and wet on wet color blending
  • Drawing from observation
  • Acrylic painting using gradients
  • Collage

Part One: Composition & Sketching

One 45 minute class period

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The first day of this assignment is sketching out the large shapes and how they interact with each other. I ask questions like:

  • Where are the biggest shapes?
  • Where are the tallest shapes?
  • What shape is in the very back?
  • What is in the very front?
  • How much do the two largest plants overlap?
  • How tall is the largest cactus compared to the smaller one?
  • How much space does the container take up compared to the plants?

We practice holding our pencils to measure and observe these relationships. I talk about sketchy non-committal lines and drawing lightly and quick.

Students were nervous at first, but quickly picked up the concept when they realized they didn’t have to have a perfect detailed drawing.

Part Two: Painting Backgrounds

One 45 minute class period

I was on the fence about how to handle backgrounds, and I decided to let students pick a color even if it wasn’t the actual color of the actual space. I wanted to introduce painting with a gradient since I knew they would be required to do that later (and with much more detail!) in their aloe vera plant.

They started with a base color (I gave them blue, red, black, orange or yellow, but you could go any direction you wanted with this.) And they painted upwards by mixing white on their palette to show a gradient ending with the lightest color. This helped give the artwork a sense of lighting and some weight towards the tabletop.

I had learned from the last time I taught this that painting the background FIRST is important! It helps students feel comfortable with painting and helps block their drawing from the previous class period. Many students wrote that this was their favorite part of the assignment. Score!

Part Three: Mixing Greens and Painting Gradients

2-3 45 minute class periods

Student’s really enjoyed mixing their own greens! I pushed them to mix one using more blue and then secondly using more yellow with the front cactus plant. This gives a sense of depth and encourages more mixing!

The white lines were applied when the greens were still wet to encourage a natural blend. I loved watching students observe the plants and create their own unique textures!

This technique took the entire class period so I pushed teaching mixing a green gradient to the next day.

Students hands down told me mixing gradients for EACH aloe vera plant was the most challenging part of this assignment. We used black (I know some painters have an opinion about using black!) phthalo green, and titanium white. I showed them how to paint a small area of black, blend to a larger section of green, quickly wash the brush and blot extra water, and finally to blend the green up to the white before the paint dries. I reminded them black and white make gray, so keep the black at the bottom and white at the top so they green doesn’t just gray out. It takes a small brush, lot’s of focus and some adjusting as you paint, but I could see their painting skills flourish as they mastered the concept.

Of course, some students have gray leaves without much of a gradient. But they were able to specify on their rubric what challenged them and why they didn’t get the gradient right. That’s a win to me!

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Part Four: COLLAGE!

2-3 45 minute class periods

We took a break from the tedious nature of painting and started the collage technique. We had previously made these green watercolor washes the day after I taught drip painting:

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Students enjoyed the looseness of mixing wet on wet watercolor. I timed this to be a break in between graded assignments and students kept their homemade collage papers for a “rainy day”.

We looked at plant shapes and practiced drawing basic shapes in their sketchbooks. I had to really focus on helping them overlap the shapes from front to back. I had some weird triangular shapes at first, so we reviewed cutting out whole plant shapes and then overlapping to create depth, not trying to predict and cut out how they shapes would be when overlapped.

I love the variety color and creativity with this technique!

We also practiced flower shapes and students had the option to create flowers, either from the still life or extra plants from their imagination. I had a bunch of leftover watercolor remnants students could choose from for a pop of color.

Part Five: “Fancy” Collage Paper

(Integrate into your collage time frame)

I had some fancy scrap booking paper leftover in my supply closet. It had bold patterns, fun prints and some even had **gasp** glitter. I let students choose one piece (well..I had cut each piece into quarters…) and I told them they could use it in any way they wanted. Flowers, decorations on their containers, table tops etc. We had looked at several Matisse and Susan Jane Walp still life paintings which helped them think outside of the box.

This was a really fun step that encouraged creativity. Some students struggled with what exactly to use the paper for since I didn’t specify, but some of my favorite details came to life with this step!

During these class periods I gave students the option of painting their container or tabletop (see touch-ups video) and then collaging the other one.

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Part Six: Gallery Walk and Assessment

I found I needed multiple “catch-up” days for this assignment. There were tons of details and techniques and students needed ample time to complete them.

We did our usual Gallery Walk and Student Choice Awards. I was really proud of the self-assessment of this artwork. Students were really honest and specific on their rubrics and I think it was the most authentic assessment of mastering techniques this year so far!

Here are some of my favorites:

I had one of the worst #teacherfails of my career during this assignment. I was grading and I left for the day with two of my students’ artwork sitting on the floor by the trashcan. Which I realize is the stupidest place ever to put art. I was in a grading frenzy and left before realizing I didn’t hang them in the hallway. It took me until lunchtime the next day to realize they were missing. They had been thrown away and the trash had been removed from school at 7 am.

I was so crushed!!!! These two particular students had worked SO HARD and one even took hers home to finish it. The other one….won BEST IN CLASS during our gallery walk the previous class period. I felt like such a failure. It was definitely a teachable moment and I am so glad the girls handled it so well when I broke the news. I bought them each a sketchbook and paintbrushes and I could tell that meant a lot to them!

This mixed media still life really pushed my 11-12 year old artists to take their artistic skills to the next level. One teacher came in my room and said “Wow, are those yours!” I said “Nope, 6th graders did that!” I loved watching their faces when I told them the next day that their English teacher thought their paintings were mine.

With any in depth assignment you will have students that feel overwhelmed with the nitty gritty. These videos really helped me focus on one technique at a time, help absent students catch up and reinforce the specifics of each medium.

Do you have any epic teacher fails like me?

What’s your favorite way to teach mixed media?

Want to see my rubric and Art History Discussion daily warm-ups based on this artwork?

Comment below or email me at!

Multi-grade still life lesson plan using acrylic paint and a variety of collage techniques!

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