Today’s elementary Art classes are learning about diverse cultures – Africa, Asia, South America, to name a few. An Art teacher should consider this, though – how many of your lessons focus on artists of the United States? As teachers, we tend to de-emphasize our own culture, in order to teach our classes about others. However, it is important for students to learn about their own country’s Art history as well. The following is a list of ten Art lessons – inspired by American artists – that can be used in any elementary class:
American Art Lesson #1: Digital Cartoons (inspired by Disney) – After discussing the history of animation, teaching about Walt Disney, and practicing ‘cartooning’, students create line-drawing cartoons on white paper in black marker. The teacher later scans each cartoon. Next, students add colors to their cartoon by using computer software – I’ve used ‘Photoshop’ for older elementary, and the default ‘Paint’ for younger elementary. These are then printed and displayed along with a story each student writes about their cartoon.
American Art Lesson #2: Ceramic Painted Bowls (inspired by Acoma pottery) – Introduce students to the pottery of the Acoma people, decorated with bold patterns and colorful designs. Students sketch ideas for patterns and colors they will use on their own ceramic bowl. Review/introduce clay with the students, then create bowls – pinch, slab or coil pots, depending on skill level. When dry or fired, these are painted or glazed with the student’s planned designs.
American Art Lesson #3: Non-Objective Paintings (inspired by Pollock and Louis) – Show students the work of Abstract-Expressionist artists Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis. Explain how some artists prefer to experiment with paint itself, rather than create a recognizable image. Demonstrate methods of applying paint – dripping, throwing, spattering, letting paint ‘run’, washes, etc. Tape watercolor paper to pieces of cardboard, and provide students with multiple kinds of paint (watercolor, tempera, acrylic). Students then begin to paint, using the various paints and techniques.
American Art Lesson #4: Self-Portrait Prints (inspired by Warhol) – Show students the work of Andy Warhol – the ‘Marilyn’s’, ‘dollar’ prints, Campbell’s cans, or ‘Coke’ bottles. After discussing portraiture and facial proportions, students draw and carve their self-portrait into a piece of Styrofoam. Next, demonstrate how to create a print. Students will create a series of 4 prints – two above, two below – and can use any colors of ink.
American Art Lesson #5: Nature Paintings (inspired by O’Keeffe) – Show the work of Georgia O’Keeffe to your elementary classes and explain how she painted nature from observation. Collect (or have students bring in) autumn leaves of different shapes, sizes and colors. Students practice drawing leaves ‘up close’ and filling the whole paper, like O’Keeffe. Next, they arrange a composition and draw it onto larger paper. Students use paint to fill their leaves with color. Demonstrate painting highlights, blending colors, painting details, and using complementary colors for the background.
American Art Lesson #6: Presidential Portrait Drawings (inspired by Stuart) – Show students the portraits of George Washington by artist Gilbert Stuart, and explain how every U.S. president has had their portrait painted. Each student picks a president, receiving a grayscale copy of their picture. Demonstrate to students how to create and use a grid to aid in drawing; a grid is then drawn on both the picture and on blank paper. The portrait is drawn on the blank paper – using the grid to help. Next, have the students practice shading, then add shading to their presidential portrait.
American Art Lesson #7: Watercolor Animals (inspired by Audubon) – Show students the wildlife paintings of John James Audubon. Students pick an animal for their subject – could be any animal, or narrowed down to birds of America (like Audubon). Have photos for reference. Students practice sketching the animal, then draw with pencil onto watercolor paper, being sure to include the animal’s natural habitat into the drawing. Review/introduce watercolor painting to students. Watercolors are then used to add color to their painting.
American Art Lesson #8: Food Sculptures (inspired by Arneson) – Robert Arneson was an American artist known for humorous ceramic sculptures. Show students his work, which included a feast of ceramic food with Arneson himself as the chef. Classes can work together to create a feast with different courses, work as groups to create a nutritious meal, or work individually and sculpt their own dinner plate of food. Review clay techniques with students prior to sculpting, especially “scoring” the clay and adding texture. Students sculpt a ‘plate’ first, then begin to create their food. When dry/fired, the clay food can be painted, glazed, or left as bisque.
American Art Lesson #9: Quilt Collages (inspired by Amish quilters and Ringgold) – Explain how quilting is called Textile Art, and there are many forms of it – traditional (Amish), and contemporary (Ringgold). Prior to the class, cut many triangles, squares and rectangles of colored paper – be sure to have plenty of the same sizes. You also need 12″ squares of colored paper to be the collage backgrounds. Students pick a background color, then fold it twice (to divide the square into four parts), and open it back up. Introduce radial symmetry to students, and demonstrate how to arrange the colored shapes for a symmetrical design. Using these pieces, students create their collage. If desired, have students use only warm or cool colors.
American Art Lesson #10: Music or City Collages (inspired by Bearden) – Romare Bearden was an American artist known for city-life and jazz-inspired collages. Assign students to create collages based on their hometown or on musical instruments, rhythm and music, etc. Students can cut pieces from magazines or newspapers, scrapbook paper, wallpaper, or paint their own paper and cut it as needed.
These are just a few of the thousands of possible elementary Art lessons available that are based on American artists. A couple other U.S. artists you can research for possible lessons include: Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, Grandma Moses, Louise Nevelson, Ansel Adams, Andrew Wyeth, Cindy Sherman, George Segal, Edward Hopper, and Chuck Close. ReadTen Contemporary American Artists Every Child Should Learn for more in-depth information on recent U.S.-born artists.