Sugar Skulls Art Lesson

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a spectacular event. Not to be confused with Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday on November 2nd that honors deceased loved ones. Traditions include decorating alters with sugar skulls and marigolds as well as food and pictures. The art itself is vibrant, detailed and rich in history.

The sugar skulls fascinate me the most. They aren’t meant to be scary, but rather fun and celebratory. Still, relaying that message to young kids can be tough. Inevitable, someone (usually a boy!) will want to create the scariest skull possible–blood, vampire teeth and gore. Oh well. I suppose that can be fun, too. I just prefer the flowers and glitter!

So here’s what we did:

On a sheet of white 12″ x 18″ drawing paper, draw a skull and spine with a black oil pastel. Using oil pastels, add lines, patterns, flowers and any other decorative lines to the skulls.

Along the side of the skull, draw large and small flowers. Marigolds are the traditional flowers but I encourage flowers of any design, even a venus fly catcher was the case in one class! Using oil pastel or bright colored paints (my choice), paint or color the flowers. I bought a set of florescent paints this Fall, so I used a few colors in this project. Worked well, but regular tempera paint would have been fine.

After the skull and flowers are painted and colored in, cut them out. Glue onto black drawing paper. Encourage some overlap with the flowers, especially if a child has many.

As a final embellishment, set out a tray of craft jewels and allow kids to decorate. For glitter, use white school glue to draw lines around shapes and then sprinkle and shake with glitter! Sparkling, messy and a whole lot of fun!

Note to teachers in large classes: It’s my best advice to allow only an adult to sprinkle the glitter. Utter chaos could result if thirty 3rd graders are left in charge!

More Day of the Dead Art Projects

Day of the Dead Katrina Doll (3-D Papier Mache)

Day of the Dead Painting project for younger children

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  • Jodi

    Thanks!! I am hoping to do a Day of the Dead project next week!

  • Ana

    Thank you so much for sharing your art lessons. I truly enjoy looking at your students’ works of art, they are so vibrant!!!

  • stav

    Love love love this and all the other day of dead projects… can’t wait to try it.

  • c

    I have been following your blog (and now beautiful new website!) for a while. Thank you for taking the time to share these great lessons with us all!!!

  • Megan

    Love the new website. I’ve been inspired by your blog for over a year now! Thanks for the great ideas. I tried the papel picado tissue paper background for the back of my skeletons and they turned out great! Very easy too. The kids loved making them. There are pics on my blog. Thank you so much!

    • Megan

      Oops! It’s http://elementaryartroom.blogspot.com. Just started it and really have no idea how to make a blog…but at least I figured out how to put the pictures up!

      • Patty

        Blogging is fun and great for the parents to see what’s going on in the classroom. Have fun!

  • meg duerksen

    i love your new site!!!
    it looks great.
    very professional…..because you are professional! awesome.

    my dad got me a t-shirt when i was a kid that was about the Day of the Dead.
    i loved it.
    i wore it to death.
    the colors were really bright and it had dancing skeletons across it.

    i think my kids will like this project.
    the girls will add flowers and my son will add blood.

  • Anna

    I’m going to try this project with my 5th graders tomorrow! I’m a first year art teacher and have used your site as a resource several times this year already. Thank you so much for taking the time to keep your site up. 🙂

  • Gemma Davidson

    I just did this lesson with 6-7 year olds as part of a human body project and used the book funnybones. Used flourescent pens instead, results are brill. Thanks!

  • Anne Damon

    Hi, I’m in the BYW class too and noticed your mention of Day of the Dead…what a great blog! Your blog looks great and like you’ve learned a lot before you took the class. Good luck to you!

    • Patty

      Hi Anne,
      Thanks for visiting. I’ve been blogging for a while but still love all the fresh ideas. You have a great blog as well!

  • Shelley Whiting

    I love these skulls. They capture the joy and crazy humor of Mexican art. Impressive and fun artworks.

    • Patty

      Thanks, Shelley. I just checked out your blog…what a great style you have! Good luck with your studies!

  • Diana Garcia

    Thanks for all your wonderful art ideas! My 4th graders will be doing these sugar skulls for Dia de los muertos!

  • Jessica

    Patty, Have you ever had a parent upset about their child making this project? I am making a Day of the Dead project with my 3rd graders now and I have one child that said his parents won’t let him make it because of the content. How would you deal with this? Mind you, I try to keep it light and happy and not focus too much on the death aspect. I would love to hear if you have ever had any problems like this?

    BTW… Love your blog! I have been a fan for a long time. Great ideas!

    • Patty

      Hi Jessica,
      There are some hispanic teachers at my school who have helped me understand that the Day of the Dead event is a celebration of a life lived and loved. It’s really a beautiful thing. I have not had any parents approach me but I think that’s because I live in Southern California and in my school, the hispanic population reaches well over 50%. And that’s why I like the project because it has a significant meaning to many of my students.
      If ever you get a complaint though, talk to a more experienced teacher or even the Principal. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage in this type of dialogue as it opens up our stereo-types (on both sides). Oh, actually, there was one student who said he didn’t want to participate. The classroom teacher took him to the library for art time instead.

      • Jessica

        Thanks Patty! I guess living in the Bible Belt I was bound to get some negative feedback. I will bring it up to the principal just to bring light to the subject. My school is really pushing teachers to teach global awareness in the classroom, so I’m sure my principal will be positive about the project. We even have a Mandarin teacher from China that is built into the rotation with art, music and PE!
        Thank you for your input!

  • Belen

    I did this today for our say “no to drugs” door decorating competition! It looks great and the kids had a blast. Caption? “don’t be a bone head…drugs are scarey!”

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  • JK

    I LOVE this idea! I am so happy I found you! Such great ideas and inspiration!!!

  • Elizabeth Salmon

    I started Dia Day Los Muertos project with my remote learning classes! Now this will help in my F2F classes!

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