K  A  R  E  N     K  I  E  F  E  R

e s s a y s

It’s in the Details;

A guide for a comprehensive visual art curriculum

Some people love to paint. Others love drawing, and still others find their clearest voice while squishing soft wet clay into forms. What’s true for us all is that we relate to different media in different ways. In this chapter we have broken up our arts curriculum into six basic genre’s because it is important to understand the different physical and cognitive differences artists experience when working with different media. These genre’s are drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, textiles, and craft. It is our belief that an effective art program must explore all of these genres so that students have the opportunity to experience art from every different perspective so that each may come to appreciate all, and find special, personal relationships with the ones that speak to their nature.

Within each of these genre’s we find an infinite list of media to explore, some traditional, some inventive, some standing up to the test of time, some flimsy and destined for a short life. Regardless, exploration of different media is one of the greatest joys of art, especially when one learns how skills in one area transfer to other quite naturally. They are all apart of our visceral experience of the world, so learning to draw improves our ability to sculpt, and vice versa. A character designer will create a three dimensional model of their idea to work from, and a painter will often sculpt the human form  and sketch from models to learn  anatomy on an essentially deeper level.


Drawing is really the cornerstone to all media. It is often our first experience of art, our financially most accessible media, and the one that most people judge their own talent by. More than any other media, its what we hear when a person proclaims they can’t make art.  So it is absolutely essential that every art student be taught the simple techniques necessary to draw. In a future chapter we will review these techniques. For now, it is important to know that learning to draw is one of the first and most accessible steps to learning to see. And so much of being an artist is about being able to see both our external environments and internal thoughts and dreams.  Drawing teaches us how to translate our three dimensional world into two dimension. It also is a fundamental tool for planning works in just about every other media. When one knows how to break down the shapes that form an object, a fundamental lesson in drawing, one has a much better ability to plan what shapes to begin with in a three dimensional project. And every other media requires a certain amount of planning before painting or cross stitching or etching or carving.  

Pencil, pen and ink, colored pencil, charcoal, crepas, pastels, conte, oil pastels, etchboard are all examples of drawing.


Painting is where an artist is going to have her most intense experience of color. Yes, every media at some addresses color. But painting, in oils and acrylics and gouaches and watercolors and pastels and temperas are our most visceral relationship to the spectrum.  Watching colors mix and blend and layer is something so vital to each and every person’s experience of the world around them. Becoming aware of how color changes in light and shadow and how complimentary and contrasting colors wow our eyes is a richness of experience no person should ever miss out on.

Oil, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, tempera, and pastels are all painting media.


Sculpture is rooted in an actual physical relationship with art. Just as humans need the companionship of each other, there is nothing more human about creating art through touch. From slippery groggy clay squeezed into shapes, to the slip of  porcelain through ones hands on the potters wheel to then shipping sanding shaping grinding of metals and wood and stone, to finding objects and building structures, forms and environments: to sculpt is to truly sensually experience ones art through one’s body. It is so vital for young children to have opportunity to squish clay and dig in sand and build so that they might come to relate to their physical world in a deeply meaningful way. As adults we so often do not have this opportunity and suffer a certain amount of detachment.

Ceramics, oil clay, plastic clay, pottery, metal-smithing, metal casting, glass casting, glass blowing, glass slumping, Wire sculpture, whittling and carving, found object construction, collage,  paper Mache’, mobiles and stabiles, ceramic and glass and found object mosaics, woodworking, jewelry making, sewing soft sculptures, paper sculptures


Printmaking can best be understood as a process where the finished product and the bulk of the create work are done with different materials. It is the most abstract of the genre’s, where artists must learn to think ahead about the outcome of the work as things come out backwards and opposite of what might normally be predicted. Its also is a media most conducive to multiplicity of product.

Wood block print, linoleum block print, mono print, etching, silk screening, stamp printing, found object printing, glass etching


Textiles tap into another tactile experience based largely on the basic act of wearing, using, and hugging, one’s art. It is apart of every culture and goes to the root of expressing identity. It may define one as part of a group, or showcase one’s originality. In apparel it often takes the form of nurturing our physical selves and the satisfaction of making something rather than buying it Textiles can also be purely for the sake of art and can express equal profundities of the human experience as every other media.

Silk screen, beadwork, weaving, batik, sewing and fashion design, stitchery, quilting, rug hooking are all examples of textile arts.


Craft is a controversial term. It has been articulated that:

When you work with your hands you are a laborer

When you work with your hands and your head you are a crafts person

When you work with your hands and your head and your heart and your soul you are an artist.

You can see that any media might fall under the category of craft depending on intention and depth of experience.. We include it here because we want to insure that value is put on all levels of the creative process, yet that we hold these different approaches in context. There is no shame in simply working with ones hands, or head for that matter. There is nothing wrong with following a pattern made by another. It is just important to remember just what it is, a work of craft rather than art. Traditional craft materials as simple as pipe cleaners or yarn can absolutely be transformed into works of art. An artist can also fall into the field of craft by reproducing the same work of art over and over as in ceramic production. Likewise, a person can paint by number in the finest of oils and reach very high levels of craftsmanship. Ultimately, it is up to each artist to evaluate his or her own level of personal investment in their work to determine what quality is represents.

Origami, working with pre-produced patterns in any media, slip cast pottery, production silk screening are all examples of crafts.

A Note on Photography and Computer Graphics

Incorporating photography into a studio curriculum poses two distinct challenges. The first is that a well rounded photography experience is largely based on mobility.  A photographer’s greatest tool is his environment, and a studio has only so many dynamic moments and images to offer. Still life studies are possible, but should be a product of the photographers own composition rather than one made of elements provided by the studio. We have provided space for students to explore in studio photo work, but  have not often had this request. The other challenge is a dark room. This is a  facility we cannot accommodate, so students who pursued this media handled their own developing, either commercially, or digitally. The availability of home computer photo printing has made this opportunity much more accessible, and can be an effective part of the studio environment.

More importantly, we also have made a direct decision to not emphasize computer and photographic work because we believe these media can often stifle a student’s progress in their ability to render images directly. We celebrate the richness these media provide to our lives. Wegman’s wimeraners, Ansel Adams’ Yosemite, Robert Mapplethorpe’s figures, are just a few examples of how important photography is to the richness of our artistic experience. And every person should have the opportunity to explore this media. In an art studio, photography can become a way to avoid learning the traditional skills of drawing and painting. Likewise, computer arts offer skills that take a lifetime at the stroke of a key. As an art form digital work has changed the way we experience so much, from film to photography. It truly has enriched our lives. However, much is lost in an artist’s sense of personal power when the ability to traditionally render is bypassed.  Students can develop a lack of patience for the demands of traditional skills when they have been exposed to the quick pay off of computer work without experiencing the satisfaction of making it themselves. Interestingly, most students exposed to both methods express a special love for traditional rendering. It ties back in to the fundamental truth about art; that we need to create. We need to feel the connection of our hands and our heads and our hearts.

Drawing Lessons

Drawing, being the foundation for almost all art, and art in its self, is the cornerstone of the curriculum and an ongoing set of methods and skills to be developed.  Our lessons in drawing are determined by the developmental stage a student is at.  Prior to 9 years old, drawing focuses on imagination and experience and experimentation in different media rather than the study of structures. When students enter the age of realism, when they become concerned with making it look real, drawing lessons become a way to break down, understand,  and recreate the world around us. So we offer lessons that serve to guide in this process of understanding and recreating what we see. The possibilities are endless, and our lists of lessons serve to help students understand that all elements of our visual world are opportunities to develop our ability to see. There are great artistic traditions to learn from; the study of human proportions, the study of light and shadow, point perspectives, shapes and forms that makeup our world, and endless techniques discovered by artists throughout history on their parallel path of creating new ways to render the world. Here is a partial list of lessons posted in the class sequenced by difficulty that students can pick and choose from. Students know they can generally jump around, but that sometimes one lesson is necessary to lead to another.  Being able to teach these lessons is essential in effective art education. An art teacher must be master of all skills in her pursuit to empower her students.  If there are areas where a teacher is weak ,  it is essential she should continue her own education so that students would not be limited. Basic skills in all these areas is not an insurmountable task for students and teachers alike. They are simply the basic tools of a visual language.

When we list different lessons, its simple a means for students to realize that everything that they want to learn is learnable.


ìHow to draw everything in the Universeî

at the end of this chapter.


Face front view

Face side view

Face three quarter view

Head looking down

Head looking up

Children and infant proportions

Skull study

Muscle study

Facial expressions

Body proportions- infant to adult

Gesture study- bodies in motion

Skeletal study- front and side

Muscle study- front and back



Figure studies-


One point perspective

Two point perspective

Three point perspective

Four point perspective

Five point perspective

Mechanical drawings:

Combination of point perspective and shapes method


Light media on dark paper

Dark media on light paper

Light and dark media on medium paper



Line studies in ink, sumi’e

Multi media


Colored pencil layering

How To Draw Everything in the Universe

This is the most important lesson in art for all students to start learning as early as the fourth grade. Although the statement, “How to draw everything in the universe” is in some ways a generalization that can go into far more detail as the previous list of lessons demonstrates, it is essentially a way to actively be able to render anything one is able to see. Because of this, we have dedicated a whole chapter to explaining this concept, so that every teacher, student, and artist can begin their visual vocabulary in a most empowering way. By understanding and practicing this method, we can all draw pictures that we would call good because we have a language that helps us define and change what’s “Not good”. It’s simple and fun and disarms that misconception that only the talented can draw. At the center of this method is the mantra, It’s not done until you love it.

In kindergarten our teachers taught us to use symbols to draw, much like they taught us to use the letter Aa to represent a sound. Images of suns and flowers and houses and stick people and M mountains and W birds filled our world. Likewise, we were at an age where  we draw symbolically from our perspective of the world  At around age ten, human brains change to see the world very differently than earlier years. At this age we start putting great importance on what things actually look like, rather than our experience of them. Things like recognizing the planes of the sky and the ground, and becoming aware of how things look beyond a symbolic, experiential level can cause great frustration for artists if they are not helped to understand why things look the way they do, and thus how to recreate them. Learning to draw is really 99% about learning to see. Most people think drawing is some magical talent that lay in the hands of a lucky few.  But really, it lay in our ability to understand what we see. Most people go through life thinking they know what things look like. The truth is that more often than not we remember a general impression of an image where most of the details and essential information are missed. The good news is that learning how to see, and thus how to draw is a very simple task that, through repetition will carry any person into a world of seeing beyond their previously simple, symbolic, level.

In a nutshell, the key to being able to draw what things actually look like comes from being able to see what simple shapes they are made of. Shapes like circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, triangles, half circles, diamonds, hearts, footballs, pie wedges, and the last fancy one, sausages.  All things are pretty much made up of these shapes, save a few more complicated subjects like machines which often have parallelograms.

For the sake of ease, drawing animals is a great way to start. Have the files of animals pictures available and pull out several different images. Look at them closely and see what shapes you can see. Is the head an oval or a square? Is the body a triangle or a rectangle?  In effect, you are creating a simple language that we all understand to specifically describe what you see. The beauty of this process is that there is never one right answer. One student might see a body as an oval, another as a rectangle. The variations are subtle, and are only significant to each individual artist. This process reinforces that everyone is right in art. And how you see something is the right way. It’s very empowering. If you ever have as student frustrated in why his drawing doesn’t “look right” you can use this dialogue of what shape do you see to help her problem solve.

Creating animals from shapes is a fun activity and can be used as warm-ups for any project. Practicing this skill is as important as practicing one’s letters before learning to write. It is the foundation of all future successes. It can also be applied to elements in landscapes like trees and architecture, and people.  However, for people there are other specific lessons in proportions that will be explored later.

Creating an image out of shapes is called mapping. An artist’s map simply tells them roughly what things look like. It does not engage in the details of light and shadow and texture. These elements should be layered onto the map after a student feels successful with his or her proportions. It’s easy to change a lightly sketched shape when a horse’s triangle neck is to short, unlike the agony and frustration of making changes when things are drawn traditionally. For some students making this change will feel awkward at first. Often patterns of drawing are established that are based largely on repetition and copying.  Gently encouraging adding this technique to a repertoire is the best approach. It is never effective to tell a student that what she is doing is wrong. Just be prepared to offer the method when this student finds herself dissatisfied with her work. She may be very comfortable drawing a horse from a side view because she does it all the time. But if she wants to try something new, like a horse from the front, she is going to have to establish a new language of shapes to be successful. There are a few people who have a natural ability to assimilate the mapping of proportions while doing contour line drawings. Usually, these are the kids that are labeled as talented, and all the others who stand by watching think there is some sort of magic going on. In reality, they just need to learn and practice the mapping technique.

An important aspect of successful mapping is drawing lightly with light leaded pencils. In the finished drawing most, if not all, of the mapping lines will be erased or covered over with detail. Many students will take time to learn how to draw lightly.  This is why I encourage practicing mapping quite a bit so those early on dark lined efforts do not cause any frustration. They should be kept in the student’s portfolio or sketchbook of progress. Students can always choose to go back and finish a map. It is important to remember that many students will be so afraid of failing because they care terribly about the outcome. Be prepared to help students find the shapes in the beginning so that they can be shown how to look. It is so vital to support every artist in their development without comparisons. Some will take longer than others to warm up to this technique. Be patient and always celebrate even the tiniest accomplishments.

Adding details and finishing the work is again all about seeing. Encourage each student to actively ask questions about what they are looking at. Where is the pupil in the eye? Is it in the middle or in the top? What direction is the fur growing? Is the fur all the same length or are some short and some long?  Is the body the same on both sides, or is one side darker than the other?  It is a process of questions and answers rather than innate talent. And always encourage students to draw lightly until they are sure they want to keep what they have done. Tell your students that work is not done until they love everything abut it. Tell your students to keep figuring out what is wrong by looking for shapes and elements of the details that he or she missed. The process is essentially a problem solving exercise and makes for powerful brain development.  An interesting side note is that most students are happy about how the work comes out as long as the mapping is successful. Simplistic coloring and detail or an unfinished quality are often viewed as final and successful in the eyes of a student. Encourage, but do not demand, taking the time to develop these areas when focused on mapping.

The Spectrum of Sculpture

     Beyond ceramics, there are endless opportunities to work three dimensionally as an artist. Some media like metal casting and glassblowing, stained glass, and wood working require extensive infrastructures that usually require entirely separate studios. From issues of safety like fire and lead exposure, to impact on other media ( sawdust in oil paint ), it would be challenging to have a facility large enough to accommodate them all. Regardless, we encourage offering as many different media as possible, and have found creative ways to bridge some of these challenges. For instance, in lost wax / metal casting we have the students work on their wax forms in the studio, then send the pieces away to be cast.  In carving, we offer small scale whittling projects with an electric Dremmel tool to avoid sharp knives and excessive saw dust.  We also have students first learn how to carve in soap and foam before moving on to wood and stone. Very soft materials as these require much less sharp knives appropriate for children as young as 8 or 9.  Also, the variety of work spaces discussed earlier allows students working with sharp tools to be away from others.

     Regarding glass work., we offer glass slumping, glass etching, and glass mosaic to insure students are exposed to the material through very simple and successful projects that do not require open flames or lead. Glass slumping means to fire glass in a kiln at a temperature just hot enough to slump the glass without it turning liquid. It’s a great project for every age group where a kiln is available. Glass mosaics are often a two dimensional experience, unless done on a vase or other 3D form. And in this vein, mosaics can be made of stones, tile, sea shells, and beads. Glass etching with chemicals allows students to create transparent images with little risk of chemical exposure on any and all available glass and is a great alternative to sand blasting if this equipment is unavailable do to expense or limited space. With young, the chemical application which is not a particularly creative part of the process is done by teachers.

Finally, found object construction is essential when working with people of all ages. For very young children, the task of building structures and making environments out of found objects is a most satisfying exploration of their imagination and ingenuity in ways that are impractical in other media due to their young ages. For this we have many bins of different kinds of found objects; fabrics, carpet scraps, wood bits, wire, and every  nick knack imaginable to encourage kids to use their imagination to make things. These projects are very much an individual exploration of ideas during younger developmental stages and input by teachers should be kept to a minimum. We encourage the focus of these projects to me more experiential rather than product driven as much of what is happening is in the child’s imagination. The children build with tape and glue and so the projects do not last. Often they are made to be used with dolls and cars and action figures and the children are ready to create new ones by the time they wear out.

     Found object construction can also be taken to very mature levels with students of all ages. We are all familiar with Deborah Butterfied’s sculptures of horses using metal and trees, Marcel Duchamp’s irreverent sculptures of lavatories, and Louise Nevelson’s massive collage like monochromatic creations that verge on abstraction.  The style is a great way to explore ones ability to create new meanings for the things in our world and can be also be explored in the 2D art of collage.

Wire sculpture, brought to us by the great master Alexander Calder, is a great tool for creating minimalist work and learning how to quickly capture the essence of a form or idea. Its  a great way to begin to be exposed to ideas in abstract art. Like a gesture sketch, or  a contour line drawing, realism is not the goal. Capturing a certain quality that delights and surprises with its simplicity is at the core of this media.  Also, it is very popular with students most eager to work with workshop tools like pliers, wire cutters and vice grips.  This is such a great media to have on hand in that the materials are simple to find, inexpensive, and take up very little studio space.

Slab, pinch pot, coil methods in ceramics

Wheel throwing

Wire sculpture

Soap carving

Subtractive sculpture-Florist foam block carving/ plaster carving


Glass etching

Glass slumping

Glass casting

Soft sculpture, stuffed animals

Found object construction/environments

Hand-building in Ceramics- the essence of intuitive sculpture

Hand-building in ceramics will be every artist’s most accessible way to discover their own relationship with three dimensional art. Its fundamental property is that of additive sculpture. That is, creating a form by adding to it, as opposed to the much more difficult and abstract subtractive work where the artist removes material to create. Why ceramics is most accessible is its expense and popularity. Kilns and ceramics workshops are plentiful in most schools and communities, and the work, done properly, will last for thousands of years.  The key here is the word properly. And in this section we will explain the essentials of clay work including how to keep things from blowing up, and how to create an environment where one feels limitless in the possibilities of what can be created.

Sadly, most ceramics studios are filled to the brim with pottery, and only a scattering of sculptural forms can be found. Even with these, they are most often simplistic and small. This is a result of an atmosphere within the ceramics institution that has long overemphasized functional forms. It is our belief that this is directly the result of  people being drawn to the media of clay by the masses, but very few being given successful instruction on how to create hand built forms. Here we break that tradition.

Creating successful hand built sculptures requires to elements, technical know how, and a visual understanding of what is desired to be made. First let’s discuss the latter. It parallels the methods of drawing directly. In order to successfully create a form, like a person or a specific animal, one must be able to break it down into its simplest shapes. When working with additive sculpture, one is essentially adding shapes together to create a whole. So, just as in drawing, available research, the files, is essential in empowering students to be able to visualize their ideas.  When working three dimensionally it will be important to see subjects form different views, so it’s very important to have well developed files that offer such variety.

Once an artist has a clear visualization of the planned project, work can begin. With ceramics, there are very distinct limitations to what can happen to the clay. So this media has the least amount of flexibility to change ideas dramatically. However, it is important to stay open to potential adjustments as this is still a most important part of the creative process. Art in progress is always changing, and to create a strict rule that a design is forever will generally create a fear of mistakes with students.

Slab, pinch pot, coil- the three methods of creating every shape or form

Just as in drawing, sculptures are made up of shapes. But with the inherent malleability of clay, the process of breaking down those shapes is greatly simplified. Essentially, the artist needs to determine if each shape would best be created from a slab, a pinch pot, or a coil. These are all skills most children learn in traditional arts programs. It is amazing that these programs don’t go the extra mile to instill the understanding that these techniques are the foundation of absolutely everything! Slabs are for anything that has a flat surface, like a box or a wave or a wing. Pinch pots are for anything that has bulkiness like the bellies and heads of most animals. Pinch pots can even be slapped on the right number of sides to create pyramids and cubes and other flat surfaces. SO you can see there are often choices to which approach is most effective. The coil method, most often associated with pots  can be used to build such vessels, but is far more important as dragon tails and horse legs and giraffe necks.

Which method an artist decides to use largely depends on the size of the project. Here is the number one most important thing to remember about clay:

Any clay thicker than the palm of your hand must be hollow or it will blow up during firing.

Here’s why:

Clay is made of earth, grog (a sand like material), and water. When water is heated it expands and turns to steam. So any water trapped in clay during even the lower temperatures of a firing will cause the clay to blow up. Not only is this very sad for a clay piece, but it is also very hard on a kiln and should be always be avoided.

By making clay no thicker than one’s palm, the clay’s drying time will be relatively short and will avoid any problems with moisture caused explosions.

Because it’s not very fun to create things smaller than ones palm, these three methods of slab pinch pot and coil have come to be common tools of all ceramicists.  They allow for three dimensional forms to be created around a hollow center. Here we are going to share with you our most controversial technique. We build our clay work around crumpled newspaper to support the hollow wet clay forms during the sculpture process.

Any traditionally trained ceramicists will gasp right about now. Often this technique is forbidden as damaging to kilns and their ventilation systems. To this we have two answers. The first is that we have been using this technique for over 30 years with no negative effect on our  electric kiln. And even if the kiln did only last forty years instead of fifty the tactile advantage a student has working with a paper filled body is so great it is absolutely worth the cost! It allows them to squeeze and form and work the clay as if it were solid which allows a person with less developed skills to create forms to their satisfaction. For those concerned about the longevity of their kilns, we still recommend that you work with paper filled forms, just remove them after the project is completed, but before the clay dries to a brittle, fragile state. Along the lines of paper fillers it is important to note that supporting clay while in progress can also lead to more successful outcomes. Often when making a horse, or other animal with thin legs I will have a student build the sculpture on what is traditionally knows as an armature- but really just means any other material used to support the wet clay. It can be a complex structure designed for a specific project, or a jar or a crumple of newspaper. Regardless, these armatures allow for greater choices by the artist, so that the animals don’t have to lie on the ground or  so that arms may extend out. Sometimes we even build a sculpture lying down and stand it up only after it has hardened enough to hold its weight. As you can see, there are many options, and the core issue addressed is that anything is possible. Again, returning to our main theme of empowering artists to believe they are absolutely capable of manifesting all of their ideas, with problem solving skills, ingenuity, and practice.

We have also moved dramatically away from the traditional method of attaching pieces of clay together called slip and score. Traditionally, students are taught to make criss-cross marks or little pencil tip holes in the clay called scoring, then to apply slip ( pudding like clay and water mixture ) to these textured surfaces  to stick them together. Unfortunately, unless these scoring marks are perfectly filled with slip, they will become air pockets and blow up during firing. We have seen this happen so often, and find it tragic that traditional ceramics studios find the ratio of exploding pieces just par for the course.  Especially because we have found that using slip alone is just as successful and does not invite the risk of air bubbles. Our rule is to not overlap clay more than one inch to insure that no air will be trapped. It is a simple thing to remember, and we have close to a 100% success rate with our approach. Our belief is that every project is precious and should be protected against any and all accidents. It is our belief that it is just as important for a new artist to have a finished product they feel proud about as it is to have the experience of making the piece. This is contrary to most art education curriculums where the emphasis is put on process. We believe that success breeds motivation, and so must be nurtured in every student.  

A fourth and final method of hand building is less traditional, but excellent for developing sculptural skills. We call these projects little squishies.  These are projects that are small enough to remain solid. The fundamental principle at work is that it’s easiest to make things out of round balls of clay. Teaching students to start by making a ball and then manipulating these balls into other shapes, and adding them together to make complete projects serves two needs. It is a method that avoids creating air pockets in the clay which can make clay blow up just as trapped air does.  It is also a fast way to manifest the idea of adding shapes rather than trying to make a project out of one continuous piece that is often tried first by the inexperienced. These small projects can be done with little or no planning and give students the opportunity to explore clay on their own in a very fun way.  It is often a nice break from the intensity of dealing with structural issues of larger pieces, and a way to keep a larger class occupied if you a teacher in a traditional school environment. Besides, everyone loves little squishies. A variation on this idea is creating creatures with recycled clay using the garlic press. By pressing bad clay through a simple garlic press, strings of good clay for little squishies are made. A side note here is that these tend to be great for very young children who are focused on the tactile aspect of clay and are less concerned with realism. It’s the squishing that is important.

Here we provide examples of different ceramic projects and how they were created.

Wire sculpture

Another very fun and accessible media is wire sculpture. This media was introduced to the world by the celebrated sculptor Alexander Calder, a fantastically spirited sculptor who’s work  with the ideas of mobiles and stables is represented in many significant museums and public sites.  When asked when a piece was done, he often replied, “When dinner is ready”. His practice of making wire sculptures developed when he would go to parties. He would take along simple wire and do portraits of the people there for fun.

So many kinds of wire are available from hardware stores and traditional art supply sources. There are tiny wires and thick wires, soft wires and very hard to bend wires. We recommend soft wires for young students as the need for wire manipulating tools with heavy wires can often be frustrating to those without the necessary dexterity. An interesting  note here; we have found that very active youngsters sometimes love using tools with their wire projects as it simulates an engineering and grown up building feeling.  The delight of using special tools can often be a great focusing method for otherwise antsy kids. In these circumstances, we offer wire cutters and pliers for their tactile enjoyment.

Simple Wire Sculpture

The easiest way to do a wire sculpture is to approach it like a continual line in a line drawing. Have your students make a drawing on an 8x10 paper. Make sure it’s not too detailed because the student will be following that line with wire.  Animals and bugs and people are all really fun projects. Sometimes we allow students to follow a photograph rather than a drawing. Although this experience sacrifices the creative benefits of originality and ownership, it sometimes serves the goals of the project. For example, you can blow up a copy of a portrait to create fun caricatures of people you know. The thinner and more fragile the wire, the easier it will be to follow the lines, but the more flimsy the outcome. So if you have very thin wire, simply make smaller drawings. We recommend experimenting with your wire to figure out what’s a good size.

As the students follow their drawings they will need to hold down the wire drawing with one hand so it doesn’t move. It can be a little awkward at first, but encourage the students to hang in there. They tend to get a little frustrated by the bounciness and will need encouragement not to worry about the outcome. What’s nice about wire is that you can undo parts that need to be moved. Encourage your students to follow their drawing closely, but not to worry about little shifts because they can be fiddled back into shape in the end.


Anchoring is when you put a few twists of wire around places where they touch so they won’t come apart.  ( imagine how wire coat hangers look at the twisty part ) Anchors can be added after the piece is done with other pieces of wire, or can be done as the piece grows. There are no steadfast rules here. It’s whatever works. For beginning students we get to work with one continuous wire because it’s stronger. It is important that the students keep their wire in a ball as a room full of kids each with 5 feet of wire sticking out is asking for trouble.

When this process is complete, a two dimensional wire version of the drawing is complete and can be kept as is; either hung up on the wall, added to a mobile, or stapled to a wooden base.  If you want to make the sculpture three dimensional you have two options. You can twist parts of the wire image off the 2-D plane, or you can add on extra three dimensional parts. Sometimes this is simply a matter of going over a drawing of a dog with two legs twice so that four legs are made. For older, more dexterous and patient, students it can be a complex series of additions.

Mixed Media

We love to adorn our wire sculptures with beads and googley eyes and puff balls and feathers and shells and any other fun thing that brings the experience to life.  Again, there are no rules. Beads can be strung right on the wire as the sculpture is formed. Glue guns and staples should never be far, although it’s fun to figure out ways to creatively attach details. And a collection of wood scraps is all you need to find the right base for each piece.

Soft Sculpture

Otherwise known as making stuffed animals; this project is a favorite of boys and girls of all ages. There is something extra special about making something to hug and cuddle and love.

It starts with a drawing

Have your students do a side view drawing of their sculpture, so that they can tell what it is by the outside shape.  They will cut this out for their pattern.  The pattern gets pinned onto 2 pieces of fabric, nice surfaces facing in. We like fleece because it doesn’t fall apart and is a little stretch so it’s easy for youngsters, although any fabric will work.  Use a marker or chalk to trace a much bigger version ( two inches if possible ) on the fabric and cut on this line. This process usually takes a child about an hour. For our youngest students we sew their pieces together on a sewing machine, staying true to their design, sometimes going a little wider on legs and tails so that stuffing will be easy.  Students can hand sew their edges if time is not a consideration, but younger kids understandable will often lack the patience. Of course, leave a space so that it can be turned inside out.  Corners will need to be snipped as shown in the diagram so that the turning is easy and doesn’t get bunched up.

Students stuff their animals, small parts first, sew up the hole, and sew on eyes and every other details. When students get more advanced, they can design three dimensional forms by making separate patterns for each part and putting them together


     Painting is a superhighway of visceral experiences where our relationship to the world is simmered down to the essence of pure color, pure wavelengths of energy, pure light. It takes us to a place where the energy of our life giving sun transforms its self into wavelengths of pigments that radiate off the surface of the canvas like life its self in the throws of creation. In painting we build images with color, and color is the language of emotion.  It is impossible to paint without feeling. Second only to our sense of smell, the spectrum of color vibrations raise in us emotional conditions akin to breathing in fresh air. Our blood comes alive, and with every encounter we are reborn.

     Painting is speaking with the language of light, so it’s important to know just how this energy works on our planet and in our lives. Sunlight, or white light, shines over us and can be broken down into a whole spectrum of colors that are both visible and invisible to the human eye. Ultraviolet light has the strongest, and shortest measurable wave length, followed by violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and finally red, with the weakest and longest measurable length. Our eyes are equipped with three different kinds of color receptors that respond to red, green, and blue wavelengths. If the light receptors in our eyes were capable, we would see the sky as ultraviolet, not blue. Since we are not equipped to perceive this far end of the spectrum, we pick up the next less scattered color, blue. When we dive underwater, the longest wavelengths of the spectrum, the color red, are the first to scatter into the atoms of water and so vanish first. The deeper one swims, the more colors disappear. Red, then orange, then yellow, then green, and in the very deepest darkest water, only blues and purples are perceptible. When white light, or sun light, shines on a red object, the spectrum of light absorbed by that object are orange through ultraviolet. Red is reflected off the surface. A brown object will reflect combinations of colors that make up that brown while absorbing the others. Black objects absorb all the light, and white objects reflect all the light. This is also why it’s hot to wear black and cool to wear white. Its interesting to think that what we wee is really the opposite of what an object actually absorbs. That what we see, the color reflected, is really what the object is not.  

In painting we create two dimensional forms into illusional three dimensional forms by playing with the way light effects our world.  At its most fundamental, painting is about exploring our relationship with light. And there are infinite ways to go about this journey. Soft blending, pointillism / impressionism, splattering, rubbing, dripping, squirting, scratching, palette knife, light on dark and dark on light, positive and negative space, abstraction, glazing, layering, collaging and so much more.

So many different media both tried and true and experimental are at our fingertips, and the potential for imagery is only limited by our imaginations.

In all of this endless opportunity there are really 5 basic  traditional mediums for working with paint that each have their strong points and draw backs. They are oils, acrylics, pastels, watercolors, temperas, and guaches. It’s helpful to know the differences  between them when choosing paints for different age groups or even desired experiences and effects.

To know about painting we need to know about pigments. Pigments are the natural and synthetic sources of color for all the different kinds of paint, excluding glazes in ceramics which are not paints. Some pigments are pulverized rocks, some are dug up dirts, some of the cheaper options are synthetic versions of originally natural sources. Some pigments are used in a raw form, some are cooked to achieve their color. Pastels, Watercolors, oils, acrylics, temperas, and guaches all use the same pigments to achieve their colors. The difference is the binding agents, or what holds them together.


We start with this media because it is closest to pure pigment than any other. A stick of pastel is almost entirely made up of pigment, with a little bit of natural gum holding the powder together. The more expensive the pastel, the less of this binding gum ingredient. Because pure pigment is very expensive, pastels can be the most expensive media to paint in. Cheaper synthetic and cut varieties exist, but for the dedicated artist, high quality pastels are the only route. The quality of the pigment absolutely impacts the tactile and visual experience of the artist. Younger children will enjoy working with lower quality pastels, but high school students and adults will feel the difference. Lower quality pastels are appropriate for quick studies, but engaging in a delicate dance with color requires the good stuff. An interesting drawback to pastels is that the application of color is a layering approach. The colors are less mixable because of their powdery form, so an advanced artist will require an extensive collection of different variations of every color to feel able to do quality work. In all the other media, a huge range of colors can be achieved with a relatively small collection of the basics.

The greatest thing about pastels is that it’s finger painting. There is no other painting experience that brings the artist as close as this hands in visual/tactile relationship. There is no brush between the artist and the work, and the direct contact and intimacy are qualities many fall in love with. It’s important to remember that pigments are often made of dangerous ingredients like lead. Working with pastels is the most dangerous form of painting for two reasons. The first is that the artist is in direct physical contact with the pigment. We recommend that protective barriers, gloves or creams, always be applied. Also, it’s bad to breathe in any dust or powder, let alone pigments, so the artist must seek to minimize exposure. A dust mask can be appropriate for particularly animated individuals. One should never blow on work, and rubbing pigment into the paper as you go will minimize dust production. For this reason, we don’t encourage our youngest students to work with pastels. We encourage oil pastels, which have an oil binder and behave more like crayons, until that child demonstrates a level of maturity appropriate for real pastels. The dangers are not immediate, but over a lifetime of art can add up to lung problems and over exposure to toxic elements.

The quality of a student’s pastel experience will be greatly affected by the quality of materials. Good pastels and good pastel paper will mean the colors will stick and move much easier. Again, younger students will be less particular, so regular medium weight drawing paper will do. Experienced students will want quality sticks and paper for its workability.

When teaching how  to do pastels we always have our students plan their image with a pastel that is almost the same color as the paper. Pastel cannot be erased, so using this techniques means any mistakes can simply and easily be covered over. It is something that a less mature student familiar with erasing might find frustrating, but it really is the best method. Pencil will forever leave a mark on the final work, and is far too small in scale to be successfully followed with pastels. A big part of pastels is learning that its hard to cover up dark colors. Because of this we teach our students to start with the lightest parts and work darker. It’s an interesting reversal of the farthest away to close up approach we take with other media. Mostly this is just about trouble shooting. If a student has a distracting dark mark the best approach is to turn it into a new element in the picture. This is what we mean by oopsertunities. There are always unexpected and irreversible things that happen that can either cause great frustration, or a great creative opportunity. How the drama will unfold is largely a result of the teachers attitude. IN pastel, these are the moments that require inspiration and problem solving direction. Another problem often found in pastels is a dragging hand smearing work. It is important for the pastel set up to include bridges, which are raised rests. The best ones are clear plastic so work is still visible, but really any material that keeps the hand up is fine.

A note on preserving pastels. What do you do with this dusty, chalky, fragile art when it’s done? There are many fixatives on the market for pastels, but we don’t use any of them. They tend to discolor the work, and there is nothing more devastating than watching such a thing happen during this final step when a student is feeling proud and finished. We prefer to immediately matt the work under acetate, a fairly inexpensive clear plastic option available in sheets and on rolls from most any office supply store that looks great and protects the work. Students love it as it looks like their projects are under glass. If you absolutely must use a fixative, we recommend hair spray as the least intrusive.

In conclusion, pastels are a fantastic visual and tactile way of exploring pigment directly and should be apart of every artists experience with appropriate attention given to safety and a good plan for preserving the work. It’s a great  media for most students by about age 8, depending on individual maturity. Before that, oil pastels, finger painting with tempera, and chalk are good and safe alternatives. They are especially fun because students can scratch into the media for added dimension, and in early ages the most important part of making art is the exploration of, and experimentations with, materials and their imaginations.


Tragically, this is the media that is arguably the most difficult to master and it is the one most of us were first exposed to in our elementary school classrooms. We all remember our little plastic rainbow  tray of colors that came with that splayed bristle plastic brush. We all remember getting regular paper and a cup of water and painting images that quickly went from something we liked to a brownish purplish puddle in the middle of a waterlogged and rippled piece of paper. That’s when we would fold it in half and carry the dripping thing to the trash. Before long the colors in the tray were all one brown and that splayed out brush looked like a chimney sweep and the lot was put to the back of our cubby holes.

     Watercolors require a few basic things to be successful. Absorbent water color paper is essential. It doesn’t have to be expensive cold press sheets, but it does need to be better that the drawing paper available in most classrooms. If this is the only paper available, than it is vital for the students to use tempera so that they won’t be tuned off by the experience. The quality of the paints is relatively unimportant. Cheap paints will fade over time, but still offer all the color and translucence available in higher quality paints. How good a brush a student needs really depends on age and developmental abilities. These cheap brushes are fine for very young children who would most likely damage a good watercolor brush. But once a child gets to the age where he wants to learn how to make things look right, or is learning brushstroke lessons that teach how to properly use the different brush tip shapes, then quality of brush is essential.

Basically we work with brushes that, no matter how big, will hold a point when wet. There are many different kinds of fibers: synthetic, natural, animal hair. All are fine if they hold their shape. If the bristles spread out, the student is not gong to be able to successfully create images. There are exceptions to this rule. There are brushed designed to wash a big soft background on a paper that don’t have points or edges. These brushes are soft and fluffy. Also, there are brushes like fans and flats that are designed to do different techniques. Their quality can be assessed by how well they hold their shape when wet.

Watercolor has many unique elements that make it remarkably beautiful and exciting while also making it tricky to control. It can be boiled down to three different elements: washes, layers, and details. Washes are when large proportions of water are used to let the pigments naturally flow and blend.  It’s the element that defines the media for most people as it has free and magical and soft qualities.  Layering is how complex and rich colors are created with this translucent media. It’s the fundamental way shadows and light are added to a piece, giving it depth and life.  Details are the sharp and defined final layers that bring work into focus. They are often placed selectively in a washed background to create dynamic compositions. Details are also largely created with knowledge of brush stroke techniques which are taught through sumi’e, or Japanese brush stroke lessons. We are all familiar with the bold simplicity and delicacy of sumi’e and it is very exciting for students to learn that these techniques are a result of different ways we apply pressure with a paint brush.

One of the most challenging aspects of watercolor work is the translucent nature of the paint. The binders in watercolor are water based and relatively little pigment is used in the watery layers. Because of this it is hard to cover up dark mistakes. We take the same approach as with pastels and have students do their lightest work fist,  working darker as they progress. The absolute most difficult part of watercolor is the absence of white paint. In watercolor, all white is the white of exposed paper. Once it is made dark, it is next to impossible to get the white back. Higher quality water color paper will allow the artist to absorb up paint without getting damaged. This is a really big advantage. And white is light, so mastering an ability to create light requires practice in the skills of leaving white. It’s tricky as most people understand adding more easily than leaving. It’s about learning sensitivity to negative space. In art, awareness of the space between things is as important as the actual things. It’s an interesting interaction that we rarely get outside of the world of art, but one that is great for developing abstract thought.  White watercolor paint is available, but it’s not really water color paint. Although using it to get whites back is contrary to the overall quality of the work, it’s a great way to help beginners get to a successful place with their first efforts. We always strive to insure that our students are excited about their work, and so white watercolor is like training wheels.  We expect students to outgrow it in time, but it sure can be a lifesaver.

     When we teach watercolor we start with simple lessons. Sometimes we start with actual brush stroke work, where students learn to make orchids, leaves, dragonflies, bamboo, trees and other predetermined objects that are designed to reinforce certain motor skills. These motor skills are essentially, how to use the tip, how to press, and how to combine these two movements. The methods are: tip, press tip, and tip press tip. It’s really all about lifting up and pressing down with the brush to make a line grow thicker and thinner. Once a student gains confidence by understanding that any object can be created by simplifying its forms into the different brush strokes, its fun and much more creative to invent new brush stroke images. Using the files as a resource, or bringing in objects to observe, this lesson is great for expanding a student’s ability to see forms in new ways.

These brush stroke lessons can also be done over wash lessons to deepen the experience and get students familiar with the layering concept. We have students create several separate wash backgrounds that experiment with variations of color blending and color density. After letting these dry, the key to layering, we do brush strokes on top for detail. Students learn that watercolor is very much about balancing these two elements, washes and details, by layering.

It is essential for students to learn the proper care of their water color materials. They must know to never leave a watercolor brush bristle down in any container as the bristles are so soft they will permanently distort very quickly. Also, it’s up to the artist to keep their tray of watercolor paints clean. After they work, each color should be wiped clean with a paper towel of sponge so it can dry as its original, unmixed pigment.

Preparing a tray of watercolor paint is a task that should be done days in advance so that the paints can dry into easily controllable consistency. Wet watercolor paint from a tube is very intense and can be very fun but requires more advanced skills. In preparing a tray, we like to make a few separate squirts of each color so that we don’t have to clean up as were going. We want to be able to mix yellow into greens and yellow into reds, so two yellow pools do the trick.

Once a student understands the basic techniques of watercolor the sky is the limit as to what can be created.  It’s such a fun media for watching colors swirl and blend in unpredictable ways.  Watercolor requires the artist to let go and watch the magic happen, which is such a valuable creative experience. It teaches that not all art is under our control, and that some of the best things come from this loose place.

Oils and Acrylics

We have grouped these two media together because they have more similarities than differences. Acrylics are the modern, synthetic incarnation of oils.  And oils are the modern incarnation of temperas, egg , and other media that stretch back to the 1200’s when artists were experimenting with ways to make pigments hold together. Most of those old cracked paintings we see in museums cracked in the first few years of their creation because of poor quality biding agents, not as a result of age. The discovery of oil as a binder was a huge step in the history of art that remained relatively unchallenged until the 1950’s and the advent of plastics. Acrylic paint is essentially plastic mixed with pigments. Both contain variations of translucency and opaqueness and have buttery, spread able textures. There are really two major differences between the two.  The first is that oil based paints require solvents to be thinned or broken down while acrylics require water only. The second is drying time. While all acrylic paints, even applied thickly, dry well within an hour, oil paint is much slower and subject to much more variation. While oil paint may develop a dry skin in a day or two, the underlying paint can take years to dry fully, depending on thickness. Because of this it is important to not seal an oil painting with varnish right when it is finished. Varnish, a clear coat applied to protect the paint, should be applied much later, relative to the thickness of the paint.

      Just as watercolors demand high quality paper to be successful, oil and acrylic paintings need to be done on primed surfaces like wood or canvas so that the pigments don’t destroy the surface over time. Today’s water based primers are excellent for both oil and acrylic painting and have made the old rabbit glue techniques of the past largely obsolete. Priming also allows the paint to adhere to the surface or just about any found object.

     Because acrylics dry so quickly, it is easy to change mistakes. This is why we almost always start our students out with acrylics. In oils, a student must wait a day or more to make a change or add a layer which can lead to frustration or feelings of failure, our biggest no no. Also, clean up is much easier, and there are no ventilation/odor issues as with the solvents needed in oils. That being said, it is our ultimate goal to lead our students through the lessons in acrylics and into oil. This is because, for all its practical applications, the plastic of acrylic doesn’t come close to the richness of the oil experience. Once students switch to oils, they rarely ever go back. We think it has to do with relating to natural materials as opposed to synthetic. Natural things feel more natural.  And once a student understands the basic principles of blending colors, and is mature enough to incorporate drying time in the process, oils hold greater freedom. A student can spend much more time working on detail and blends without the paint drying, which can be frustrating for an older student with higher expectations of success.

     There are infinite ways to explore painting. So many styles and eras and ideas that are of this, one of art’s oldest, tradition. We encourage our students to explore all that has come before in this media in their pursuit of their ingenuitive self.  With small children we emphasize color and emotion and life experiences in their imagery. In older students we support their need to deconstruct and reconstruct the world around them through lessons in realism. And once student feels confident in these skills and long for a more personal expression, we return to a more advanced approach that delves into abstraction and other philosophies that require grounded technical craft for further exploration.  So many times you will hear a youngster say they want to make abstract art. What they are really saying is that they want to make an image that shape and color and techniques without any base in realism. Abstraction means expressing an idea through symbolic, sometimes archetypal, relationships to form, color, pattern, texture, lines. The fundamental difference is that one is based on an idea, the other pure experience. Both are valuable, but should not be confused as we are always striving to instill in our students an understanding of what they are experiencing in their work.

Tempera, Guache

     More accessible media, but not necessarily better. Often people choose these thinking they are cheaper. Student grade acrylics are MUCH better and don’t cost anymore these days. Even Tempera’s stain clothes, so that’s really not an advantage. Disadvantage- they crack and fall off. SO , yuck.

Paper, paper mache, poster board, primed surfaces are all good for tempera, but are all fairly temporary.  Their life can be extended by varnishing over, but ultimately they will discolor and crack and break down.

Here is a list of essential pigments needed in all kinds of painting. The exception is pastels because they will most likely require greater variations.

Titanium white ( in oil, permalba white )

Mars Black

Cadmiun Red – hot red

Alizron Crimson- pinky red

Cadmium organge

Cadmium yellow medium

Hookers green- planty/earthyÖ.Chromium green when not available

Phthalocyanine green- turquoise oceany

Cerulean blue- light, soft

Ultramarine blue- intense, richÖ.or cobalt blue- very beautiful

Pthalocyanine blue- oceany turquoise

Dioxazine purple

Yellow oxide or orche- golden, sandy

Burnt sienna- redish brown

Burnt umber- grey brown

Extras –

permanent green- bright, great for younger kids

naples yellow- advanced skin tones

portrait pink, permanent rose-  advanced skin tones

magenta- extra bright pink

These are all pigments that have stood the test of time and will not cause problems like cracking or fading.  There are many, many more experimental colors available. We do not recommend them except for fun additions and experimentation. We believe in teaching students to use the standard classical colors listed here as they are universal, and are the basis for almost every need. The only exception is Hooker green which is made of phthalocyanine green, black, and yellow oxide. Chromium green is the classic option for a natural green, but we feel that hookers green has more richness and is easier to change into useful variations. Chromium has a duller quality and has to be mixed with more colors to achieve desirable effects. Ultimately, we want to use these high quality materials because every piece of art could be a greatest accomplishment and so should be made of materials that will last.

Safety concerns in painting revolve around the fact that many pigments are toxic. Cadmium is lead, many whites have led ingredients, cobalt blue is toxic. It is best to assume that all paints are toxic and minimize harmful exposure by never holding brushes in your mouth, refraining from eating or drinking while at work, and wearing protective hand creams.  

There are some fundamental steps to know in approaching painting that will make for a positive experience.

Plan your work-

Students should always plan their pictures with something that can be easily erased or covered over so that they can feel free in the process.. We like cheap colored blackboard chalk for oil and acrylic work because it erases with a wet rag or paper towel and is the right scale for brush work . Light pencil works best on paper for watercolor, and a non obtrusive color pastel or conte ( smaller, sharper pastels )  for pastel work. Artists need to feel easy and free during the planning stages. It’s a time where basic elements of composition and structure are created with an expectation that things will change during the creation of the work. This essential step help will avoid frustration over different limitations of  the different painting media. We also believe it is important for students to begin visualizing their ideas in the beginning as its an important element of finding out who they are and what they want to say. There are exceptions to this rule. Very young children, all the way up to age 7 or 8 can sometimes feel stifled by the planning process and should be encouraged to follow their less structured creative urges. A child will make it very clear when her way is a different way.

Plan your picture, but be prepared for it to change a lot. Know that you will probably accidentally paint over your plans in the beginning. Keep chalk handy. Planning can be done separately, but we encourage a more organic process. It can be sad to have to redraw and idea onto the real canvas or paper. Also, planning can happen after a portrait style background has been applied.

Before Painting

Before students start painting, make sure they are set up for success. In oil and acrylic its;  newspaper, easel, water ( thinner for oil ) rag. Newspaper is for making a big mess, easel to see work from across the room which is essential in painting. The media is not meant to be seen up close, but to impact a room. Water and rag are for cleaning and drying brushes so they don’t get all mixed up and drippy.

In watercolor the set up is; paper towels and two cups of water. One cup is for cleaning the brush, the other for adding water to paints. Paper towels are for soaking up excess water or pulling up unwanted pigments form the paper.

Pastels just require a big place to spread out all of those different sticks, and some materials for blending; fingers, tissues, q-tips, cotton balls are all options. Apply protective cream or gloves.

What do you paint first?

In oil and acrylic, paint the background first. This is because the paints dry fast and aren’t see through, so layering forward will make things look real.   This is especially true for realism, and youngsters learning spatial relationships in their work. We layer up the detail, working furthest away to closet up. In watercolor and pastel, put the lightest parts in first and build up to the darkest colors because the media is see through and its hard to cover up dark pigment. YOu may notice that our recommendations are simplistic. they are always based on students having a gently relationship with the media; an ability to change things along the way. The hear to f successful art education is for each person to feel empowered to express their will, balanced with a genuine curiosity and appreciation for oopsertunities.

How do you know you are done?

Think of Popcorn. The first brushstroke creates a compositional problem or a pop. As you continue on, solving that problem with more brush strokes, more problems are created.  In the middle, a painting can be deafening with popping problems all over. As you get closer to finishing, the popping lessens and lessens, until tiny adjustments are all that is left. But don’t miss that last pop! This is about knowing when to stop. When there are no more problems left to solve, the piece is done. We know this is a very unromantic metaphor for such a magical thing as painting. But it really does serve to put the challenge and struggle into perspective.  Painting is not easy. In the middle it can seem overwhelming, like a thick forest with no way out. This metaphor helps us take it all one step at a time.  After all, who doesn’t enjoy the sound and aroma of popping popcorn!

Color theory

We have experienced personally and observed in students that  learning color theory via the traditional methods turns most people off from art.  Technical exercises that don’t inherently support personal imagery simply anger and bore most students. It tends to be a big part of introductory art curriculums because it is the foundation of painting, but it absolutely can be taught in fun, easy, and relative ways. We teach blending while the students are creating original work. In watercolor, it’s when they experiment with washes, and with oils and acrylics its in the first step, the sky, and every other element that is effected by the sky. Once a student is shown how to create a source of light, and how to blend colors from dark to light like in a sky or an ocean, they simply need to apply that information to everything in the picture. After all, blending is a fancy word for smearing, and once you know how to make colors mix, it is mostly a process of exploring what colors mix to make what other colors. We teach students as they go, and we even have these mixtures posted so students can learn on their own how to get certain effects. Here are a list of simple color combinations that teach color theory. These are certainly not definitive. Its just nice for students to have access to color combinations they can explore, and then expand upon. When a class is busy, it is nice for students to be able to look up their color information, not to mention the ultimate goal of independence.  All of the lists included in this book are meant as examples for how to create a self directed environment.  It’s not the content of the lists that is essential, it is the presence of stimulating information that broadens students horizons that is at play.  Often we provide basic combinations of colors for students to achieve simple and successful effects. More advanced students learn more complicated color theory to achieve a broader range of interesting effects.. We have found that beginners can get frustrated by advanced color techniques.

Daytime sky-

White- and one of the following blues ( whatever you like best )

brilliant, ultramarine, cerulean, cobalt. Dark on top blending to light on the horizon

advanced color theory rule # 1 - Pretty plus ugly equal real.

It’s a simple idea. Mix dull colors into vibrant colors to achieve more subtlety. the sky is the limit to as much experimentation one is capable of with this theory in mind.

Tropical Ocean-

White, Pthalocynine Blue, Phthalocynine green. Dark where the water is deep, light where its shallow. Apply rule #1 at any point.


White, yellow oxide ( yellow ochre ) dioxazine purple. Dark where it’s wet, light where its dry

Again, many many many many warm colors can be added to get wonderful effects. Adding cool colors is cool too, but can be tricky.

Sunset sky- fiery

Cadmium red, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow- lightest on the horizon

Older students like to have black at the top blending into cadmium red, its rule #1

Sunset sky- pastel

White, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, favorite red


White, dioxazine purple, alizron crimson ( pinks and purples )

Night sky- magical

Dioxazine purple, phthalocynine blue , white

Night sky- dark

Black, phthlocynine blue, white

Stormy sky-

White, phthalocynine blue, black, dioxazine purple


Hookers green, yellow oxide, white, cadmium yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna, black

Green Trees-

Hookers green, cadmium yellow, white, burnt umber


White, yellow oxide, purple

Human skin-

Burnt sienna, white- add burnt umber for darkest tones

Advanc- naples yellow for base tone adding burt sienna to darken. Burnt umber and cerulean blue for shadows.


Black, white, every color you can see in the rock- the whole spectrum is possible.


White, black, any blue, any purple

White in the sun light, mix all together for the shadow parts

Advanced- when it’s dry add yellowand pinks and peaches to the sunlit areas.

Green mountains-

Hookers green, cadmium yellow, white, black. Light green in the sunlit, dark green in the shadow

Far Away mountains-

Mix the mountain color with the sky color. More sky color = further away

This is true for all objects. Mix the color of the object with the color of the sky to make it appear more distant. things barely visible are mostly sky , or background color.

Autumn foliage-

Cadmium red, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, yellow oxide, burnt sienna

Trunks-  white or dark brown ( burnt umber /black ) gets best contrast- avoid burnt sienna- it looks the same as leaves. Notice out in nature that most tree trunk are more gray than brown.


All colors should by mixed with white to create light


Cadmium red, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, black

( sulphur cloudy sky, add yellow oxide, dioxazine purple )

These are all very simplified color combinations. For example, when one really starts studying portraiture, the human skin will have yellows and pinks and greens and every other color. These listed combinations are for the very first lessons in realism, when students are just learning to trust their abilities. If the colors are too complicated they will tend to get muddy and lead to dissatisfaction with the work. Later lessons go beyond these simple recipes and play with warmth and coolness of shadow and light and reintroduce color as emotions.  

And Remember rule #1,  to put ugly in the pretty to make it real. The above listed color combinations are based on pretty. They are not complicated. Most students all the way through their teenage years and even adult hood will be drawn to their simplicity, their beauty. Most people are just so excited to discover their ability to make something beautiful.  But for those who seek a more refined experience, adding ugly to the pretty is a great dialogue tool. Essentially it means to tone down the vibrant colors with muted ones. And in this the choices are infinite and individual, and best discovered through making art rather that studying chips of paint in catalogues as is traditionally taught.

What shape, what color?

This is another great dialogue for an artist to have when trying to breakdown the structure of something he is trying to paint. Really, there are only two things to do in painting; make a color, and paint that color into a shape. There is nothing more on the canvas. The rest is all in one’s perception of the world around or ideas in ones head. This is a pretty interesting dialogue to place over abstract ideas. What shape is my pain? What color is my memory? How do the two mix? It’s incredible to think that the fantastic works of art we experience are really such simple matters.  Like Magritte’s famous painting of a cigar titled, “This is not a cigar”.

Painting Lessons

In the studio lessons are posted on the wall for students to see and decide if they want a lesson. These lessons are broken down by media, and here is an example of the list of lessons we offer. Lessons for children under the age of nice are all about expanding their awareness of their world. They are about exploring the world from a subject based perspective rather than environmental. For little ones we have what we call the wall of inspiration which are just lists and lists of vibrant ideas to get their imagination working, to spark what is exciting to them. There is no limit to this extremes of this exposure. Sometimes kids will listen quietly for quite some time before they get the idea that every idea is a good one and what you feel like doing is what matters. When inspiring these students, ask lots of questions about what the student thinks or likes or knows to lead their imagination.

Painting inspirations for Little Ones

Generally 8 years old  and under:

A bunny eating a carrot in the garden

Unicorns dancing on clouds

A shark over a coral reef

Taking a balloon ride

My dog’s favorite place

My family on a picnic

Silly monkeys in a tree

A scary night

The monster under my bed

The vegetable orchestra

Beautiful flowers and butterflies

A fruit bat hanging in a tree

Surfing a giant wave

Dolphins playing

A secret cottage in the woods

Jack and the beanstalk

The three little pigs

Swimming with the turtle family

Half giraffe half alligator

A swing in a garden

A pirate ship at sea

A field of wild horses

The cockroach race

Christmas trees in the snow

My dream bedroom

A fantastic castle

My favorite bird in its favorite tree

A spaceship in outer space

Where martians live

The flea party

What if gravity stopped

Three naughty kittens

A tiger in the jungle

A city in the future

A flying car

A wishing well showing its magic

A fairy in her fairy home

The mermaid and her best friend

Raccoons in the trash

A deer drinking by the stream

My secret garden

Skateboarding at the park

Dancing porcupines

Invent your own machine

A nest of baby birds

Grandma and Grandpa

Bumble bee on a flower

The flying jet

A knight riding a horse

A princess in a tower

You can see it’s really all about getting their imaginations started. Have a range of emotional options is important as it tell the students that how they feel right in the moment is being honored. Scary, funny, sweet, silly, sad, exciting; make sure they are all represented.

The Lessons in Realism

For Ages 9 and Above

Next we list the lessons in realism that are environmentally based as they are the beginning steps to understanding and rendering the world in three dimensions.  These lessons are appropriate for anyone ten or older, including adults. As long as they are aware of the three dimensionality of their environment this is a great way to learn how to capture it.  Prior to this a person’s visual relationship is more emotionally driven and these lessons are inappropriate. A student who is not ready to learn about horizon lines and other elements of realism will not be attracted to the lessons and will quickly show you that they just don’t get it, which is developmentally absolutely appropriate. It is a terrible thing to impose these lessons on a student who is not ready as it can quickly lead to feelings of low self esteem and failure. Parents and teachers should never force their children into advanced lessons in the pursuit of higher skills. It can be the most damaging experience to a young artist.  But when a person is ready, when they express interest, ask lots of questions about what the student sees to expand their awareness of their world. It should be noted that no one ever outgrows the earlier listed lessons on imaginations. Quite often teens and adults enjoy the imaginative freedom they provide. Remember that these lessons are simply a tool for learning skills in color blending, the effects different brushes can make, and the effect of light and shadow on all three dimensional forms. A teacher can create any list to share the knowledge they posses. The key here is simplicity and choice. The list here starts with the simplest and most essential skills and leads to more complex skills. The first paintings can be done in a day or two, the latter take longer. We like to start simple so that students can quickly see that they are good. If a student wants to start with a latter lesson, we explain that it will take longer because there are more steps involved, but we never say no. We may advise an easier one first, but nothing is off limits.

The sky and the sea facing the ocean

A breaking wave

Sunset silhouette

Night scene

The sky and the sea with the beach on the side

The sky and the sea looking to shore

Hawaiian mountains

Snowy mountains

Snow scene

Autumn scene

Black canvas waterfall lesson

White canvas waterfall lesson

Forest scene

Meadow scene

Reflections in water

Outer space

Flowing stream or river

Desert scene

Garden scene

Flower arrangement

Animal portraiture

Animal in a scene

Human portraiture

Human in a scene

Cloud studies

Birds eye view perspective

Worms eye view perspective

City in one point perspective

City in two point perspective

Urban night scene

Famous art study

Multi-media approach to all of the above

Lessons in abstraction:

Generally high school and up

Often students will request to do an abstract painting, but nine times out of ten what they are really saying is that they want to play with the paint without meaning, which is not abstraction. It is important to explain what abstraction means. Abstract art is the abstraction of something; an idea, a feeling, an experience, a piece of information, and object. Abstraction is based on something. It is not based on nothing. It is what an artist does when they want to show the true essence of something beyond just what it looks like. Knowing this a student can be offered lessons in abstraction that can be very easy and very difficult. It should be noted however, that a student absolutely can just play with paint, just remember that this is different from Abstract art.

Hot and cold color study

Emotion and color study



Point perspective, three dimension study

Famous artist inspiration study

Expressing an idea through metaphor

Multimedia/ collage

Lessons in art movements

Can be designed for all ages:



Abstract expressionism






Asian styles

Tribal styles

Islamic styles

Egyptian styles



Pop art/ grafitti

Elements of Design and Composition that Play into All Genre’s of Art

     There are so many books available in the topic of design elements in art.  We want to visit this subject from the perspective of universal themes that run through all media so that you can develop a more natural relationship with them as a part of your own visual language. Simply put, these design elements address the way we experience the world. By putting names on them, we are not creating rules to conform art to, but expanding our understanding of the impact different effects have on our experience of art and our world. Just as we have stated earlier, rules in art are made to be broken, and these elements of design are simply tools to be manipulated in our quest for self expression. All too often these rules are presented as steadfast essentials for success as an artist. But really, they should always be kept in the perspective of each artist’s goals. Sometimes using rules is advantageous, sometimes breaking them is the key to a successful work of art.  It is also very fun to think about the metaphorical and philosophical roles these elements present to our lives as artists and beyond.

How we each manifest these elements is apart of the infinitely unique beauty of art. For some, the work might feel melodic and colorful, dancing with action and visceral experiences. For some, metaphors and imagery are more akin to epic poetry laying out grand and complex philosophies. Still others may find their work to feel like a novel full of revealing plots and characters, or even a photo album full of memories. The possibilities are endless, and a part of the great joy of experiencing each  others work is  the wonder of these infinite variations.

The basic elements are as follows:

Positive and negative space- Spatial relationships

Divine proportion- proportional relationships and composition

Contrast- Light and shadow- complimentary, contrasting, analogous colors



Color theory- color value

Positive and negative space plays a role in both two and three dimensional art. Positive space is generally the things we are used to thinking about, ìI am looking at a pig.î Negative space is the more abstract opposite. It is the space around objects we are used to identifying, and these spaces hold their own dynamic form. It sounds funny to say, ì Look at the shape of the space around that pigî but essentially, this is what its about. As artists, we must always think about what is present and what is absent, as both have an impact. Interestingly, this can also be said  of many dynamics of the human experience, and is a way of thinking that helps us develop minds able to image and predict abstractions, future scenarios, and unknown influences.

Divine Proportion, or the golden mean is know in the world of science as the ratio of 1 to 1.618...  A mathematical way of understanding a consistent presence in our natural world. It is the equation that governs how leaves are dispersed on a branch, how a pineapple or pine cone fill their surfaces with eyes, how a hurricane moves, the proportions of the human body, how a seashell spirals outward, and interestingly, what makes for a peaceful or pleasant composition in art. Great publicity has been given to Leonardo Da Vinci understanding of the divine proportion, and most every western artist to follow has considered this proportionate role in their work. Many have used this ratio to govern their placement of objects in a composition to feel right and restful to their viewer’s eyes.  It’s a fascinating relationship between free will and instinct.  SO often we will naturally prefer the compositions based on this proportion with out even knowing it.

Contrast. We are dramatically drawn to contrast, to bold differences shown next to each other blacks next to whites, smooth next to rough, bright next to dark. Contrast can be  present in relationships of color, form, texture, shade, composition. It’s a visual phenomenon that jumps out and says, “Look at me”. Contrast creates excitement, which is even true in our personal lives, the world of entertainment, politics. The presence, or lack of, contrast  will substantially affect the mood of  just about anything including interior spaces, fashion, art,  relationships, elections, advertisements.

Line is very much about movement. It is how we feel as we travel through the world. Dancing light and free, heavy and burdened, sharp and erratic, soft here and hard there; there are as many manifestations of line as there are ways  of being alive, and the quality of a line can take you to an emotional place as you feel it with your eyes. A line can create rhythm, a line can hypnotize, a line can tease, a line can soothe, a line can surprise, a line can infuriate. A line can move us! A line can inspire!

Texture creates intimacy. It takes something you look at and makes it something you feel. Either tactilely or visually, texture, or lack of texture will affect your relationship with what you are experiencing. It can make you feel very close, or very distant. It can encourage you to stay someplace a while longer, exploring a surface, or it can repel you to look away. Texture, both actual and simulated will tell a viewer how close to get, how long to stay. It is a most animal element. All these different elements dance together in our overall experience of art. Their presence and absence being equal players in the language of visual art.

This chapter has been an expression of how we do it. Please consider it simply the way we continue to evolve, and certainly not anything definitive or dogmatic. Any art taught from a static sense of right is doomed to rust  There is no such thing in nature as stability, only growth and decay. .Keeping a spirit of growth and change and renewal in one’s art program will insure a vibrant experience for all.