Everyone has done a birch tree art lesson. They are such a lovely tree, stripped of their leaves and shimmering with black and white bark. Most kids in Southern California have never seen a forest of birch trees, unlike my 10-year old self who collected the bark to someday build my own birch-bark canoe like the Mi’kmaqs had done. But this lesson is not just about birch trees. It is also a lesson in color and in particular, winter color. Again, this is a bit foreign to my students who live in a perpetually sunny, color-filled world, but it’s an important concept.
This is not a lesson that originated from me. I wish I could find the source but it has long since disappeared from bookmarks and menu-bars, lost in space two computers ago. The original author tied this lesson to Monet’s painting “Magpie”. I think it’s a wonderful example of how an artist uses minimal colors to create a winter landscape. Even though there are no birch trees in “Magpie” it’s worth talking about Monet’s color palette. This site might help: Evaluating Monet’s Magpie.
Supplies: 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper (school grade “Biggie” Brand or Canson), watercolor palette including white (if you don’t have white watercolor/gouache use tempera paint), masking tape, salt, small and medium size watercolor brush.
Apply Masking Tape
Tear strips of masking tape in half lengthwise (not easy) and use ripped or torn edge for the outside of tree. Place the straight edge towards the middle. Do again so there are two torn edges creating the tree. Add branches if you would like. Smooth down with back of fingernail. Make sure ALL trees extend off the top of the paper. If you don’t, it will look like a lumberjack swept through the forest with a power saw.
Paint a line across the trees near the top. (horizon line)
Painting the Sky
Mingle two or even three colors together to create a winter sky. I like blues, reds, and purples but the children will know what colors they like. It helps to lay down a layer of water so that the colors blend easily. As soon as the color is on, sprinkle salt onto the paper (right).
Painting the Snow and Shadows
Painting snow can be a bit tricky. I suggested that the students mix a bit of white paint with a touch of brown and paint over some areas of the painting. You could also choose blue but brown makes a better contrast to what is almost always a blue sky. Some kids painted over the entire area, some didn’t. I’d resist the urge to “police” this choice as the painting will come out similar enough, you want to encourage as much individualism as possible.
Now, it’s time to explain shadows. On the white board, next to my sample painting, I drew a sun in the top right corner of where my painting hung. From there, I could draw an imaginary line to demonstrate where shadows would fall. Kids got this right away, so the next step is to paint shadows. Whatever color they used for the snow they can use for shadows. Only trick? Paint all the way off the paper.
Using a small brush and black paint, draw trees along the horizon line. Paint right over the masking tape.
The quickest and easiest part of the lesson: bark. Peel off masking tape. If it tears, don’t worry. Just glue wayward piece down (glue stick,not white glue). Using a small brush and the black watercolor paint, paint small curved lines across the tree. Add a fence along the horizon line and in the foreground too. Now step back and admire this beautiful piece!
Sixth Grade “Magpies”…