we help adults teach art to kids

The Year’s Best Art Lessons

Not easy to pick a favorite lesson. It’s a bit like asking who is your favorite child. With every art project I teach, there are always a few children to take the lesson to a new level and make it their own. That’s what makes an art project special. Individual expression. But, if I had to choose which art projects work best, then that’s a different story altogether. Successful lessons have easy prep, quick clean-up, engaged students and then proud students. If I don’t achieve at least three of these criteria, then the project needs some adjustments.

Looking back over the year, here are the good and needs-work standouts…

My Favorites…

Maasai Warrior Line Drawing: Line drawings are always a good way to begin the year. For my first art rotation (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade students), we travelled to Africa. Incorporating a line drawing into my African theme was natural with a Senufo Mud Cloth drawing but I wanted more. Perusing images of the Maasai tribe, their powerful silhouettes and decorative clothing struck an artistic chord with me. Line drawings of a Maasai family and Warrior was one of my most successful lessons for 4th grade. The children watched as I demonstrated a basic technique for drawing the figure and with the help of handouts, they created their own. The lesson was featured in my African Art Lesson Booklet. The thing I loved about this lesson was that every child was successful and pleased with their results. It also requires very little supplies (paper and markers) which is not only great for budgets but makes for a super easy clean-up.


Ceramic Leaf Bowls: This lesson is not “mine.” Many art teachers have been doing this laef-technique for decades. And now I know why…it’s a sure-fire winner. The added blast of Colorburst underglaze really made the final results dramatic. I will do this lesson many times again. Kid’s loved it, parents loved it and it was one of the easiest (please note that I stressed easiest) ceramic projects ever. Here is the original post.

Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar: There isn’t a Picasso lesson that I don’t love and this has become one of my favorites. This lesson allows for self-expression and creativity. All kids mastered this lesson, surrendering to the power of paint and crazy lines. I was inspired by this lovely lady after visiting the Picasso exhibit at The Seattle Art Museum last Fall. Being immersed in Picasso’s world was inspiring and it was easy to translate that inspiration to the kids. My fifth graders loved this lesson.

Here is the original tutorial.


Frida Kahlo Portrait: I loved this lesson not only because all kids were successful, but it gave me a platform to talk about one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists. The lesson combined the beauty of David Diaz’s Book “Me, Frida” with a cool paper folding technique for drawing portraits. The results were stunning and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how beautifully my 5th and 6th graders created their “Frida’s”. I think this lesson fills a big void in introducing this fabulous and intriguing artist to elementary school students. Here is the link to the Art Lesson Booklet, Frida & Diego.


Chalk Adobe: This lesson evolved from a chalk landscape lesson that I’ve been doing for a few years now. I still wanted a small chalk drawing on black paper but was tired of the basic landscape subject. Then I found a painting of Adobes and knew that it would translate perfectly into a chalk drawing. Usually I reserve any lessons that require handouts for my Art Booklets, but since this was such a simple and effective lesson, I wanted you all to have access to it. The lesson takes about an hour to complete and requires just three things: black paper, black oil pastel and colored chalk.  Here is the tutorial.


Mexican Sombrero’s: Despite being hard to mount for the art show, these little numbers ticked every box of what makes a great art lesson: drawing lesson+mixing paint+lines+patterns+ embellishments=whole lot of creative fun. Need I say more? Here is the tutorial.


Needs work…

Its easy to select the best projects, but not so easy confessing the worst. I base my “worst” selections on lack of kid appeal or logistics.

Tint & Pattern Circles: Some turned out fantastic, others…well, not so much. The whole point of this lesson was to teach color mixing. I gave each student a plastic tray to mix white into primary colors and although it was GREAT fun, it just took a long time for some kids to finish. Most kids did but the details with oil pastels never quite made it. I really liked the results but overall, I probably wouldn’t do this lesson again because it wasn’t memorable for the kids. Here is my tutorial just in case! Overall Problem: Too many kids did not finish.


Victorian Homes: The first part of this lesson is fantastic, it was the second part that could use some adjustments. I love this lesson and using my cool cardboard trick, my 6th graders really got into the fun of becoming an architect. In my Art Lesson Booklet Architecture Made Easy, I keep the lesson as a line drawing because it takes a long time to draw the details. But what’s a Painted Lady without some paint? This year when I taught the lesson, the kids did the line drawing and then I asked them to color in all the small details with marker and the big areas with watercolor paint (from pans). Only a few kids were able to control the brush well enough for the paint to look effective. And because we didn’t use watercolor paper, the paint sunk into the drawing paper and looked rather flat. But the the biggest blunder of all? Adding markers. The markers covered up most of the small details that took the kids so long to draw. Colored pencil would’ve been a much better choice as it would have allowed the black marker to show through. So even though this is a great lesson, I have not found an effective, time efficient way to color in these detailed beauties. For now, it’s best to stay with a black & white line drawing. Here is this year’s tutorial. Overall mistake: wrong supplies.

Sunset Silhouettes: In my post, I explain that more students than not found creating the frame and silhouette section of this lesson challenging. The effects are lovely, but it’s not the best lesson for a large class with no parent help. I believe this lesson is much better suited to sixth grade rather than third (at least according to my student’s abilities). Still, this lesson is beautiful and the thinking and pre-planning the lesson requires teaches valuable skills. It’s also important to note that it’s through “mistakes” that most learning is done. Overall mistake: wrong grade level.


Shaving Cream Art: Far and away this lesson was a disaster. It required a trip to the drugstore to purchase stinky shaving cream, resulted in a bruise on my finger for pressing down on the shaving cream dispenser and basically involved way to much messy prep. The results were relatively good. Not great, but fun. Worth it? Nope. Oh, but wait. I did this lesson with Kinders. Perhaps an older age group might’ve handled the logistics better? Yeah…I don’t think so. Want to read me complain some more? Click here to read my post on a lesson in what not to do.


Clay Dinosaurs: Okay, I lied. THIS was by far and away the worst art lesson of the year. OMG. I made every mistake possible. I wrote extensively about it here but I thought I would end the dino drama on a good note. I made management mistakes and messed up what could have been a rewarding art lesson. So here’s what I learned:

1. Explaining how to create a dinosaur with clay is visual. Make sure every child can see your hands. This was my problem. The class was large (30 kids) and I didn’t have a projector, Smart Cart, etc. It was hard for so many kids to see my demo. Also, in one particular class, I had 3-4 kids arrive at different times. Confusing.

2. If you can’t complete Step I (Clay) in one class, make sure you are prepared to store the figures properly. A combination of a cardboard/styrofoam tray plus plastic wrap/bag seem to be the best option.

3. Do not allow the children to put their names on the pieces. After they are finished, they should have a parent/teacher etch their names on the underbelly of the dino. Not the feet since they tend to squish away any initials or personalized markings.

4. If there is more than one class making clay dinosaurs, KEEP THE CLASSES SEPARATE BY ANY MEANS POSSIBLE: Different containers, color coding, etc. In the end, I had to give the big box of finished dinos back to the teachers and have them figure out what belonged to whom. Needless to say, I owe these teachers a stiff cocktail.

Have you tried any Deep Space Sparkle Lessons? What worked for you? Anyone care to share your highs and lows? This is your time to vent!


  1. I found the Sunset Silhouettes projects were some of their bests all year long. I teach 4th grade and made sure that we did it during the fall which made it easier for the kids to connect with shadows and colors. A few other big hits this year were: Under the Sea Chalk and Glue Drawings and Watercolor Bird


    June 4, 2011

  2. Hi Patty,
    I used your ceramic sea turtle ideas with my 4th graders and they turned out really cute, and the kids loved them! I found the easiest way to make the turtles was to create patterns for the shell and flippers, and have the kids cut each shape out of a large slab of clay, forming the head out of the left-over clay. Then they scored and slipped each piece on. I love the magic crystal glazes, we used the blue-green colored glazes and they turned out beautiful. Thanks so much for all of your ideas and inspiration. I always look to your blog first!

    Mrs. M

    June 5, 2011

  3. Hi Patty, I love this best and worst column makes made me smile! The massai people turned out awsome I had the students add a sunset sky or a blue sky. I love the crowned pooches they always come out very nice. The color wheel flowers are always great. My mixing colors lessons seem to last a moment to long and everyhing turns to mud. I do not have a kilm and I really do not like the self drying clay my box tuned into a giant rock that I had to soak. But this year I had some model magic it really is magic no mess and easy to paint! I love that stuff. Thanks again for all the great easy to follow and sucessful lessons!


    June 5, 2011

  4. I LOVE that you include a Best/Worst project of the year post. It just makes me laugh and smile. I am a K-8th grade art teacher and each year I always have a few projects that seem like they are going to be amazing and they just completely bomb. So, I love that you have included a worst section along with what went wrong and what could be done to fix it. Isn’t being an art teacher fun? It’s a lot of trial and error and every day is different! Thanks for so many inspiring ideas!

    Mary Saca

    June 5, 2011

  5. Patty,
    Thank you so much for sharing your lessons. I did your Dora Maar lesson this year, and to teach the lesson I dressed up like Dora Maar and stayed in character for the whole hour. The kids LOVED the lesson and still asked if Dora is going to visit again 🙂

    Have a great vacation!


    June 6, 2011

    • I have used many of your art lessons the past two years. In first grade, we did your zebra lesson plan. 100% success! The second grade watercolor/pastel birds was perfect – we actually watched your video as a class! Thanks so much for all you do.

      Rina V.

      June 6, 2011

  6. I’ve used lots of your lessons- my most successful being the dancing giraffes from Giraffe’s Can’t Dance and an adaption of your Miro figures. Thanks for a great resource.


    June 7, 2011

  7. Hi Patty! Thanks for being so honest, it helps to know that not all of your wonderful lessons go as smoothly as planned! During my first year teaching art a wise 1st grade teacher saw the angst on my face and said kindly, “Dear, it’s OK to abort the plan…just start fresh next week, they’ll forget this week.” What a relief to know it’s not always perfect.
    Thanks for sharing all of your amazing teaching, have a great summer!


    June 7, 2011

  8. i am a homeschooler and love your site!! this year we did your colorful clowns and line drawing turtles. both were very successful –first grader girl and 4 yr old boy.
    looking forward to doing more with them this summer. thanks for a great blog!!


    June 8, 2011

  9. Hi Patti,
    I love your site and this is my first year of teaching art in Year 1-5 at our school so I have found it to be a great resource. I used your Cow painting activity with the Year 1 students and they turned out great (we did cows or pigs or sheep). Later in the term I am going to be doing the clay fish from your booklet and also the watercolour jellyfish which I am really looking forward to.

    Thanks again


    Danielle Campbell

    June 9, 2011

  10. I can so relate to your blunders! I did an air dry clay project with 6th grade and in my head it was going to be great…they came back the next week to pieces that TOTALLY just fell apart. 🙁 No worries, we just did something totally new. But, yes we all make mistakes. As for the shaving cream project…I do that with 1st grade and a helper or two and it is NUTS but the kids love it so much! I hear you on the A LOT of work aspect, but the kids love it so much I have done it two years in a row. This year we used the paper to make fish inspired by the book “Rainbow Fish.” Thanks for all you do and share. Your site is an inspiration.


    jessica ott

    June 10, 2011

  11. Hi Patty! I love this best/worst run down! I did the tinted circles a few years ago with my fourth graders with great results. The first class, I just let them play with the tints. I gave groups of four a paper plate with either red, green, or blue plus a big dollop of white and they had to make several different tints. Next class, I had them trace circles (small, then around that a medium, then around that a large, etc.) around their page. They had to finish with two tints during that class, then the remaining tints during the following class. The negative space was painted with a complimentary color. This was a long one for sure – about a month or so, but worth it!
    Thank you for all of your wonderful ideas!!!


    June 12, 2011

  12. I used all of the projects from the African Art Lesson Booklet in June for my summer art classes. (K-5) They were all favorites and went on display at a childrens clinic. Thank you for your fabulous tutorals.

    Joan Larson

    June 30, 2011

  13. I like the best and worst post as well.
    I loved the way the Autumn Painted Paper Compostion lesson I tried looked when finished, the gold paint really added a nice touch. However, I will not do it again. I made painted paper with 170!!!! First graders , spatters and everything… L.O.L. It was not worth the stress it caused me, no matter how lovely when done.:)
    Everything else I have tried has worked mostly successfully. Best was probably the Galaxy with chalk project, the kids LOVED learning how to shade the spheres with chalk.


    February 22, 2012

  14. A few thoughts about clay with elementary. 1. Have students write name & teacher code on 3×4 paper before starting the lesson. Have students show you that the have done this before you give them clay. 2. Large plastic bread trays from the grocery store work best for organizing clay projects by class. 3. Demo twice for pottery projects second time over is a quick review of steps and checking for understanding. 4. have students hand you the ‘name paper” with the project as you put them away (place name under artwork) You can label work after school.


    February 26, 2012

  15. I LOVE that you admit defeat when it happens. I have been trying to encourage my college intern to reflect after each lesson and be honest about the process and product. Every teacher fails at some point, but foolish people make the same mistake more than once!
    For clay issues: I use the very small cheap paper plates and have each kid write their name in pencil on the plate BEFORE we begin the clay work. When they turn it in at the end of class, the work goes on the plate to a back table. At the end of the day or the next morning, when the work is a bit drier and not so mushy, I etch the name or initials on the bottom PLUS the first letter of the classroom teacher’s name. The plates are usually usable for another clay project or 2…just have the next group use a marker instead of the pencil. I’ve used notecards too. You only have to play the “Name Game” once to learn that lesson the hard way!


    March 9, 2012

  16. Hi Patty! I love your lessons and have tried several, but the Van Gogh sunflowers I did with my second graders were stunning! We hung them up and I had parents calling me at home to comment on them. Thanks for all the great inspiration!

    melinda snyder

    April 10, 2012

  17. I have not used your lessons yet, but signed up for your e class. I do several lessons that are similar. I tried an ATC lesson this year and it was a hit with older students. MY FAVE was a clay activity with very young special needs kids. There are only a few in this self contained class. They all made clay models of the bottom of their sneakers. The patterns were awesome! We painted, glazed and cut them out. The response was great and I put ALL of them in the art show for these budding artists. First and second grade also did “fossil” medallions with the “fossil” being a small sea shell with texture around it. We painted them with gold or silver metallics and I used matching organza ribbon to hang them. They were a big hit!


    June 1, 2012

    • What a fantastic idea: model of sneaker soles! I agree that clay is one of the best mediums for young children. Everyone can feel successful and that’s a huge gift. Thanks for sharing and I’ll see you in class!


      June 1, 2012

    • Hi, I love the shoe print idea. I work with special needs students. Could you tell me where I can find it? What are ATC lessons?


      Claire Strock

      October 4, 2013

      • She probably is referring to a tile that you cut from a slab. Kids can press their shoes into the tile to create a relief.
        ATC is Artist Trading Cards. I have never done any, but you can google the term and hundreds of sites will come up. They are popular!

        Patty Palmer

        October 4, 2013

  18. Patty,
    I enjoyed discovering your website! Especially the best/worst comments. I have been teaching art in Florida for 20 years and while we all want every lesson to go “smoothly” it just isn’t reality! I think it is also good for the kids to see once in a while that art does not always work out perfectly every time. Part of the creative process is trying, failing, then trying again until a solution is found. Thus one of my favorite quotes: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” author unknown
    When working with clay that will extend beyond one class period I have my students write their name on a small slip of paper before they begin, then at the end of the class put their name tag and clay piece (directly on top) in a plastic storage bin. I literally snap the lid on the bin and do nothing until next week and they do not dry out. I put a piece of tape on the bin with the teachers name so I know which class it is. There is a separate bin for each class. Before the next week I put masking tape on a board and write all their names in the order they are in my grade book. When they are finished that week they simply put their clay piece on top of their name. After class I write their name in each piece and can even record a grade rather quickly as they are already in order of the grade book. Of course all of this I learned by doing things the hard way then sharing/listening to others and saying, “Ahh, why didn’t I think of that!” 🙂
    Thank you again for your wonderful website!

    Linda Hilterbrandt

    July 17, 2012

  19. Patty,

    I LOVE that you blog about your mistakes! It is my personal belief that if you have a flawless year teaching art, than you’ve gotten too comfortable. I love to try new things, too. I laughed out loud when I read your trouble with the dinosaurs. I had a class of 32 second graders make clay fish this year and I, too made the mistake of letting them put their own names on. (never again.) I forgot that alot of them struggle with legibility on paper, let alone wet clay. Thanks for keepin it real. I love deep space sparkle!


    August 18, 2012

  20. Patty, you are a saint for posting not only your best but your worst projects. Today is definitely one of those days where I’m off-kilter teaching, I feel disorganized and chaotic, and as a natural consequence my students suffer and so does their artwork! I REALLY appreciate your gift for teaching not only students but all of us and the character you have to take the time to admit where things haven’t always gone your way. It is refreshing to say the least and I am grateful for your site, all your wonderful projects and your ability to articulate how to teach a lesson well so our teaching and our students both mutually benefit. Thanks again for what you do and please, keep it up!


    November 26, 2012

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *