Thursday, January 15, 2009

Turning into my "mother"

I don't actually mean that I'm turning into Momma Mel. (Well, that might be true too...)

I was thinking about that perennial story, that one where new parents realize they are literally turning into their parents--the things they do, the things they say.

It's not that I'm intentionally replicating the art teachers I've's just the main experience I have to go from when deciding how to do things.

About a month ago, I was overwhelmed by a bunch of pieces of scrap paper. It was all A4 copy paper, some white, some colored, and all used on one side. I didn't want to put it in the recycling bin. I also didn't have a jelly jar cabinet with that teal tray where we collected scrap paper in my kitchen in Pennsylvania.

I don't know where the idea came from, but I went to my paper cutter and chopped the paper into quarters. I think that means the paper is now A6.

I took the stack and put it on my desk. Now I use it to write quick notes, to do lists, etc. I wish I had a little beige metal tray to contain the stack. Then I would truly be copying one of my high school art teachers, Cathy Kammler!

In another such moment, I found myself singing (in my head) about the primary colors:

Red, yellow and blue
Red, yellow and blue
I see you, I see you
You are the primary colors
You make all other colors
I wish I were a color like
Red, yellow and blue

My elementary art teacher, Mrs. Blahut, used to sing this song to us. It wasn't until I was thinking about writing about this experience, "turning into my art teachers," that I realized the song is actually Three Blind Mice.

This week, I also did one of those things I thought I'd never do: I had my third grade students paint a value scale.

It's not that I intentionally made a pact against the task. It's just so traditional. It's a meaningless,* skill-based, production task.

Especially at the elementary level, students can learn about value and color mixing without making value scales and color wheels! At a basic level, my PreK kids understand tints. Color plus White makes it LIGHT! Adding black makes a color darker. (I wish I could figure out a rhyme for this.)

My kids learn color theory and value through experience. PreK, Kindergarten, and First Grade don't know I have bottles of orange, purple, green, brown, pink paint! I've only given them the primaries, white, and black. They've had to "find" all the other colors!

I haven't painted with second grade yet, but I don't think I'll let them use anything but the primaries, black, and white. I let fourth grade choose from the whole array, but encouraged them to mix A LOT. We were looking at The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. As a class, we established that he didn't use any color directly from the bottle (we don't have bottles of yellow ochre, otherwise that might not have been true...). They were intentional about creating just the right blue for their sky (or blue-gray, gray, blue-green, pink-purple sunset, etc.), the right greens for the vegetation, and the right natural colors for their animals.

In third grade, we're painting cakes, Wayne Thiebaud style! I did a lesson with 6th graders in England, so I was very excited when Miss Emily told me about a lesson she did with her third grade students in Pennsylvania. I decided it sounded like fun, plus it didn't require me to make enough cake for the whole class! (In England, I made two layer cakes. Each student got one slice and drew it, using contour lines, in their sketchbook. We then used tracing paper to repeat the image three more times so we had four slices of cake to paint. Of course, at the end of the class, if they had behaved, they got to eat their slice! Drawing from life, classroom management, and a tasty treat all in one!)

For Miss Emily's lesson, we spent the first class period looking at Wayne Thiebaud's paintings and learning to draw 3D solids. Cylinders for the cakes, triangular prisms for just one slice! We also used cones to draw none other than an ice cream cone! A sphere of ice cream, or a rectangular prism brownie! I'm getting hungry...

Between the first class and the second class, I started paging through some old Art Ed magazines in our office. Low and behold, a School Arts from 5 or 6 years ago includes this EXACT lesson! Drawing 3D solids, painting with tints, all while looking at the work of Wayne Thiebaud! I know there's nothing new under the sun, but really! Coming across this exact issue, in China, in the middle of my project!!! I don't know where Miss Emily got her idea, but I doubt she was reading a copy of School Arts from when we were still in high school!

This article talked about having the students do a value scale with different colors, noticing how colors respond when mixed with white or black. I read the paragraph a few times and eventually decided the author had a point. Some colors react funny when mixed with white or black. Who would think that yellow plus black would look greenish?

About 15 minutes before my kids showed up, I made the decision. We would do a simple value scale of the primary and secondary colors. My PreK kids may know what happens when you mix white with a color, but I didn't teach my third graders when they were in PreK. I have no idea what they have learned and how they've learned it! Before they waste a lot of paint and slop some crazy tints on their final piece, they should have a basic understanding of color mixing.

This class period also served as a chance for students to practice mixing on a palette, cleaning their brush, and painting neatly (in the box).

I went around and discussed some of the scenarios with the students. You need a lot of white to really change the color, but only a little bit of black. White is weak, but black is very strong.

One of my students got sick of washing out his brush between colors. He wised up and counted how many more tints he had to make...four. He made four small dabs of white paint on his palette, one on each side of the square palette, and washed out his brush. Then he counted how many more shades...five (he must have stopped in the middle of second color). He made five small dabs of black on his palette, one in each corner and one in the center. He had a little 9 square checkerboard on his palette! He then went color by color, mixing his primaries and secondaries with the white and black dots on his palette.

Surprisingly, the kids weren't bored with the task. They got quite excited about the results, especially the shades. Orange and black looked like chocolate!

This week, we'll revisit Thiebaud's paintings, comparing his colors to the colors on our chart. Hopefully, the kids will decide they need to use lots of tints in their final painting. Then we'll be ready to start painting...

*Not that the task has no value, or that there isn't a place to refine skill to this level, but there is no greater meaning, enduring understanding, big idea to reproducing a color wheel or value scale. I think this type of skill development is a better fit for secondary/post-secondary. Skill development in elementary goes hand in hand with exploration, creativity, and tasks with broader meanings.

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