Category Archives: books

Review: Art Lab For Kids

Note: I purchased this book myself via Amazon. All views are my own.

When I ordered Drawing Lab, Amazon suggested I might also like Art Lab for Kids by Susan Schwake. I was skeptical. I don’t much differentiate between art activities for kids and those for adults; my kids (especially my older ones) and I use the same quality materials and do the same activities, so I’m a bit wary of “for kids” books. But eventually I ordered it anyway. Turns out, this is the book I wish I’d had a year and a half ago.

I began this blog because I wanted to make creating art together with my children a regular occurrence. I wanted to make use of the space we had and introduce my kids to different materials and techniques beyond the usual art supplies that were always available to them. I was hoping I could find a more or less sequential presentation of art activities–not crafts–that covered the basics (drawing, painting, printmaking) all in one place, so that I could gather materials and follow along without having to re-invent the wheel. I didn’t find that. Instead, I pulled together ideas from various sources, my own experiences, and my own head, and decided to document them here for my own use and anyone else’s, if anyone else was interested. But if I’d had this book, it would have done nicely.

The Lab series of books all present 52 “labs” or lessons in the chosen subject matter, so if you chose, you could proceed through the book using one lesson per week. The Units in this book are Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Paper, and Mixed Media. Theoretically, you could start anywhere. Pick and choose what interests you and your kids the most. But if you’re looking for a book to lead a group, or to build a homeschool art plan around, or to get started with family art making (like I wanted to do), this would be a great guidebook. Although the title says “kids” right in it, the activities look interesting and inspiring to me, too.

The first unit deals with setting up a studio. I suspect this section will look overwhelming to many, especially if you are new to the world of art supplies. She lists everything needed for all the units–you don’t have to have it all! I’d suggest figuring out the first few lessons you might want to start with, and gather those supplies. (Quite frankly, it’s a little astonishing how many of these items I have in my basement already.)

I think we’ll be working our way through many of the activities in this book, all of which meet my desire for open-ended art experiences for my kids and myself. I love books as resources. The Internet is wonderful, but it’s also huge. Trying to piece together ideas from here and there can be overwhelming, and it’s great to have everything all in one place–to let someone else plan the lesson and just follow along and have fun.

Further links about Art Lab For Kids:

Author Susan Schwake’s website
Art Lab For Kids website
Guest post on Whipup
Review on Maya*Made

Matisse-Inspired Collage

From What's The Big Idea? by Joyce Raimondo

The kids each received a Joyce Raimondo book for Christmas; this activity is from What’s The Big Idea? Activities and Adventures in Abstract Art. The books are suggested for ages 5-12 and are full of techniques to try based on famous artworks. The activities are open-ended, just the sort of thing we like here, and the books are a great addition to our idea shelf.

Materials: Colored paper, glue sticks, scissors

A busy table. My beach scene is in the closest corner.

The book suggested thinking of a place to represent with organic shapes cut from paper. The Matisse shown in the book (which is also on its cover) is Les Codomas, which shows a circus scene. I decided upon the beach. V decided to map out the living room. N didn’t want to think of a place, explaining that he likes to just jump in. (I knew that.) G, being 3, just cut and pasted.

I’m usually pretty open in the studio, but I did insist that the kids not use pencils to draw their shapes first, explaining that we were going to follow the guidelines in the book and “draw” with our scissors. N wasn’t too happy about this, but I held firm. I told him it might feel like a stretch, but stretching was good, and it forces us to figure things out in different ways. He had the option to stop if he wanted, of course, but he kept on. Here’s his finished collage.

N's (age 7)

He was most pleased with the spiral that has different colors peeking through. I agree–pretty cool!

Here’s V’s map of the living room.

V's, age 10

I think he has inherited my love of straight lines! “Organic” is not his natural inclination. (If only his room were as orderly.)

And here is G’s collage.

G's, age 3

While she’s younger than the age range of the book, and can’t be expected to fulfill the guidelines exactly, cutting and pasting is certainly something she can join in on. There are many activities in the Joyce Raimondo books that I can adapt so that all the kids can participate at their own level. That’s something I really appreciate in an art book. I found these while browsing the art section in the kids’ room at one of our local libraries while G was in story time and decided it was worth ordering our own copies.

You can read more on Henri Matisse’s cut-outs here.

Peek-a-boo Paintings

Materials: Drawing and/or painting materials of your choice; drawing or watercolor paper, depending; acetate the same size as your paper (we used this); tape; paint for the acetate–this can’t be too watery–we found liquid acrylic and gouache worked well, tempera not so much

The first day of summer vacation dawned grey and misty, giving us the perfect opportunity to get into the studio after breakfast and add one more activity to the Eric Carle birthday celebration. Several folks have created beautiful painted tissue paper collages. We painted tissue paper many months ago, but my boys really didn’t want to cut their creations. We are acquiring a nice pile of textured, painted, and printed papers for collaging with some day, but meanwhile, I knew our Eric Carle-inspired activities would go in another direction. Earlier this week we were inspired by Dragons, Dragons, and today we looked to Mr. Seahorse.

Mr. Seahorse is another of our favorites. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it follows a seahorse as he interacts with other underwater species in which the males help care for the offspring. But what we really like about it is that some of the pages are transparent, so you’ll have a fish that’s hiding, and then you turn the clear page and see him in full.

From Eric Carle's Mr. Seahorse

I was reading it to N earlier this week and I thought, Hey, we could do that! As I explained the idea to the boys, though, I realized it’s a rather complex idea. You need to think about your artwork in layers–what will be underneath? what will be on top? It’s a different way of looking at it, to separate the full idea into parts. But the boys were ready to try.

We knew the top picture, on the acetate, would be painted, but we had to think about how to do the underneath. V wanted to do watercolor resist, but I thought oil pastels would smear against the acetate, so we used good old-fashioned crayons.

V decided to draw fish, and N wanted to draw a monkey–he used some of our story books as a reference.

After we worked with crayons, it was time to add liquid watercolors.

Then we let the bottom layer dry. Next, I placed a sheet of acetate on top of the first picture and used a couple pieces of clear tape to hinge it on whatever side the kids chose. This way, we could paint our covering picture while it was lined up with the bottom image–much easier that way.

Here, V is checking on his work in progress. He chose to use gouache paints on the acetate.

G joined us too, of course. She loves to paint. N, G, and I used liquid acrylic.

So as not to completely overload the post with photos, I put all our finished-piece photos together–click to embiggen. (And even though I didn’t use flash, the ceiling lights are bouncing off the acetate–so sorry, but it was wet outside!) From left to right, we have V’s ocean scene (seaweed for the top layer), N’s forest scene (that’s a big leaf), G’s, um, lots-of-paint, and my big flower.

And now the peek-a-boo: V’s fish, N’s monkey, my bumblebee, and G’s fish.

I completely loved this project, and I’m not sure why we didn’t think of it sooner, except maybe because we haven’t had the acetate in the house all that long. It was so much fun to do, and the results are pretty fun, too.

Check out more Eric Carle-inspired activities at the link below!

(Also included in the Read, Explore, Learn link up.)

Inspired by Mr. Carle

Kate at An Amazing Child is hosting a week-long celebration of Eric Carle‘s birthday. We are lucky here not just to own and have read many, many of Eric Carle’s books, but we’ve also been to visit his fabulous museum of picture book art several times. I’m not sure what I like best about the museum–that it includes a great Reggio Emilia-inspired studio, that it contains a wonderful bookstore, that it has the best story-time (in its on-site library) that I’ve ever attended, or that it places picture book art in its proper place as a valid art form, not just there to prettify the words but to truly be part of the story. Isn’t it good I don’t have to choose?

(Oh! Look what I just found! The Carle Museum’s art studio blog is finally up! I’d heard in the fall they were planning on starting one and here it is!)

So, back to our Carle-inspired project. If you’ve visited here before, you know my kids range in age from two to nine, our projects are open-ended, and I try to make art alongside them whenever I can. So when we thought about Eric Carle, we thought about one of our very favorite books–and yes, we enjoy the caterpillar book, especially G, but it’s very much a toddler book. Dragons, Dragons, though, is a book for all ages, full of vibrant Eric Carle portraits of mythological animals to go along with a selection of poetry on the same. He also has another, Animals, Animals, which we haven’t read yet, that contains animals you can more easily see. (We don’t like to say that mythological animals aren’t real; just because you’ve never seen one doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!)

So our thought was to collage and/or paint an animal–mythological or not–and perhaps (this part was my idea) write a poem or find a poem to go along with it. The boys liked this idea, so I gathered my scraps of colorful paper, glue, paints, paper, and we got to it.

V wanted to paint a hawk, so he found our Peterson Bird Book and looked up hawks. G selected a field guide, too, ending up with the one on rocks and minerals. (It’s a first guide, and I think she feels like the smaller field guides are clearly hers.) N decided to look at the phoenix page in Dragons, Dragons, and I was inspired by the snake that lives under our front step.

G tore up some paper and used her glue stick to stick them to a large sheet of paper, then asked for some paint and picked up this scrap paper that had some holes punched out of it and used it as a stencil to paint a scrap piece of vellum underneath. I was pretty impressed that she had this idea on her own. When she was done with that, she painted another large sheet of paper, telling me the right side was the rock, and the left was the mineral.

N wanted to collage and then paint.

V painted one hawk with liquid acrylics and the second with tempera. He struggled, and I reminded him that he was using a scientific illustration as his guide, and it was going to be challenging to copy that exactly. I also pointed out that my snake did not at all look like a field guide-worthy illustration of a snake! I’m pretty impressed with V’s finished paintings, and he got the field markings in there, too.

V's red-tailed hawks, acrylic on left & tempera on right

My collage & gouache snake

V declined to write a poem. Here’s my snake poem:

The snake
Takes a break
A slash
In the grass
Flash
He disappears
Under the stairs

N decided he needed a whole story to tell about his phoenix, pictured here with the page he referred to in Dragons, Dragons.

His phoenix is holding a treasure chest, saving it from the burning castle that has been attacked by knights–I think. The story is in progress.

And here are G’s finished works, first her rock and mineral painting and second her vellum piece (which got thoroughly soaked–on purpose–with painty water, and I’m surprised it ever dried!) and her bits of collage.

All in all, I think Mr. Carle would be pleased with the various approaches! We have one more Carle-inspired project in mind; if we have time to do it before Saturday (my kids are STILL in school, so we might not) I’ll post it as well.

Thanks, Kate, for inviting us to the celebration!



(Also included in the Read, Explore, Learn link up.)

Working With Found Materials

I recently purchased Beautiful Stuff! Learning With Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. This is not a how-to book; it’s a documentation of how the authors and teachers worked with early childhood students, in a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom, collecting and exploring found objects. As the authors say in the preface,

Rather than focusing on the creation of products, this book is based on observation and recording of children’s and teachers’ processes.

Fabulous. That’s what I try to do, too. I bought this with our natural collections in mind–mostly rocks and seashells–although the book covers all found materials, mainly recycled, and not just natural ones. Our collecting really ramps up in the summertime.

kids + nets + salt pond = summer as it should be

Documenting is an integral part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Here, the authors share the process of collecting and organizing the materials, exploring them, and working with them.

The kids are involved in every step. The first chapter begins with the authors acknowledging that it’s “crucial” to involve the kids and parents right from the beginning, thus with the collecting. Anyone who spends time with children knows they are natural collectors anyway. N picks up rocks everywhere. I find acorns in pockets, sticks on the floor, and G’s buttons absolutely everywhere.

We did not collect these jellies. We just observed them and let them go.

The kids in the book collect, clean, and categorize their materials. They spend time getting to know these items. How many ways can you classify something? They sort by material, by color, by shape. They work with them in temporary ways and in more permanent ways. They re-create self-portraits using found materials, they create 3-dimensional pieces, they study blue and circles and metal, with materials and through drawing and in paint.

The latest haul, rinsing in fresh water

It’s impossible for us to visit the beach without bringing back treasures, and we visit the beach at least weekly in the summertime. (The crabs in the left-hand bucket, by the way, were dead when we found them. They were supposed to be left behind, but G slipped them in.) On the way home, N was considering what we could do with some of our items–we can make rubbings of the Irish Moss, we can try printing with the underside of a crab (although, he pointed out, the paper might smell bad afterwards), we can make rubbings of scallop shells, with all those wonderful ridges.

Beautiful smooth purple piece of clam shell

I also collect at the beach, and I’m fond of the small polished pieces of broken clam shell. This visit, I found several purple pieces. (The bits that became the most valuable wampum, N pointed out. See here; scroll down to #9.) Aren’t they beautiful?

The main idea to take away from this book, I think, if you’re looking for just one, is that collections are not necessarily meant to be displayed and looked at, or, alternately, turned into some end product in order to have value. They can be living, breathing things, to be touched, to be rearranged, to be worked with. We have, literally, buckets of quahog shells, and I’ve been thinking they need to come inside and take their place on the shelf next to the tree blocks. Some of our rocks need their own basket on the play shelves as well (some live in the sandbox). Some items (oh-those-purple-pieces!) may become works of art to be worn; others may find their way into collages or sculptures; others we may love so much we give them a place of honor on the shelf for a while. But the best collections of found items, I think, are dynamic, just like the children who collect them.

Note: This particular beach is a barrier beach. We found most of the rocks and clam shells on the ocean side; we found living (and dead) crabs and jellies, as well as oyster and scallop shells, in the protected salt pond. It’s a fantastically neat place.