Upper Elementary

Complementary Colors with Paint Swatches

My mentor teacher had a small fortune in paint swatches and I figured they would be a good way to teach students about one of the most basic color harmonies: complementary colors. The swatches also offered an opportunity to talk about other fields that connect to the arts, such as fashion, graphic, and interior design. In every 3rd grade homeroom I did this lesson with, there were several students who had seen these swatches at various home improvements stores, and one student in particular recounted how she and her sister have fun scanning all the swatches to see how much the paints cost.

The options were to create either a picture or a pattern with complementary colors. Some students drew on their paint swatches to add details, too.

The first time I did this lesson, I gave the students stencils with various themes: traffic signs, zoo animals, vegetables, weather, etc. Though I warned them that using the smaller designs on these stencils would be too time-consuming as they had to fill their 9 x 12 background with a full composition, many students were attracted to these detailed designs, which they also had trouble cutting out. Very few students took me up on my suggestion to make symmetrical shapes by folding the swatches, similar to what we had done for papel picado, or by simply free-hand drawing the desired shapes on the back of the swatch. Reflecting on this challenge, I prepared tracers of simpler shapes at a larger size for students to use—if they so desired. They were of course still free to generate shapes by any other method they desired and/or could come up with.

A piece that explores changing the scale of the same set of shapes—with a cute little winking person sending positive vibes out into the world!


This student made use of the white lines on the swatches to enhance the movement of the arrows.


This student included all 3 primary-secondary complementary color pairs, and used the back of the swatch to add texture to the roof of the house in this whimsical night scene.


I was a bit surprised by how popular the “Traffic Signs” stencils were.


Future Warhol or Lichtenstein


Why stop at the paint swatches? This student cut designs into the background paper as well.

Besides the shaped format, this student’s work is interesting for the deliberate use of glue stains against the black paper. Perhaps both the first cut in the construction paper and the first stain were accidental, but this student discovered how to make them work with him rather than against him!

That said, the neatness of the piece (cutting and gluing) were part of the assessment for this project. I did a demonstration at the beginning of the second day of this lesson on how to glue neatly by leaving space between the edge of the shape being glued and the line of glue that gets put onto it. Just as important was the demonstration on how to clean up the glue without leaving stains when it does seep out anyway. Because even the best of us will get glue in the wrong place sometimes!

A simple rubric attached to the back of students’ work gave them feedback and their grade. (A “4” is equivalent to an “A.”) This was the feedback I gave to the student who made the moon-pattern piece at the beginning of this post.

Below are some examples I made to show the students. I was also using the “Leprechaun” piece shown earlier in this post as an example for the homerooms that did this lesson after the first one, in which that piece was made. Students tend to be more invested in their own projects when they see examples done by their peers.

“Sunrise on a Foggy Day”


This quatrefoil pattern is on everything from notebooks to towels right now. Broken down into its component shapes, it’s not as complicated as one would think.


November is still pumpkin season as far as I’m concerned!

Lastly, here are PDFs of the proper lesson plan and the slideshow I used to introduce this lesson. Due to scheduling issues, the first time I taught this (and the session for which the plan was written), I only had one day to work with students on this, but the other homerooms got two days, which is far more appropriate for the amount of work required.

Once all homerooms had made their complementary color designs, we let the students take home the remaining paint swatches. There were about five boxes of them left, but the kids cleaned us out! You would have thought it was Halloween candy they were stuffing into their backpacks. Some students said they were drawing on them, others said they were going to make something out of them. One glued several around a plastic plate to make a huge flower. I forgot to take a picture of it with everything else that has to be done in an art studio so you’ll just have to take my word for it. ^o^

Lower Elementary

Action Drawings

As children transition from the preschematic stage to the schematic stage, they begin drawing people as heads with torsos and jointed limbs rather than as circles and sticks. Even after the child’s brain is ready to understand representing humans in a more realistic way, they might not know how to show anything other than a person standing still while looking forward. This lesson, adapted from Nancy Beal’s book The Art of Teaching Art to Children, helps students explore a variety of poses kinesthetically.

A second grader draws a successful free throw (work in progress)

Students first brainstormed three activities that they liked to do. Many answered basketball, football, and playing outside. They listed three activities on the back of their paper, then picked one to draw. Once that was done, they took 11 small strips of paper and arranged them on a 12 x 18 sheet into a pose showing the activity of their choice. The strips were then glued down and outlined, with details such as hands, feet, facial features, clothing, and backgrounds drawn in with pencil.

Demonstrating on the white board
The Demo Person was made out of paint swatches mounted on magnets so that I could demonstrate arranging the strips into different poses to the whole class easily.
Deeply contemplating a touchdown scene
Third graders hard at work on their action scenes. The students gluing down strips had been absent on the first day and were catching up with their peers, who were coloring on Day 2.
The student on the left is using one of the examples I had made as reference to draw her own ballerina.

While I think it would be ideal if students always tried to come up with ideas on their own rather than making duplicates of an example, I believe it’s also important to give students the choice to copy an image if they want to. Drawing especially can test people’s confidence, but allowing them to copy an example when trying something new can help them become comfortable enough with the general concepts to take a leap of faith and draw freely later on.

A student asked what figure skating looked like so I demonstrated. I wore clothing to mimic the composition of the Paper Strip Person so that students could see the parts of the limbs more easily as I moved about and did poses as requested.

Working on a soccer scene
At the end of Day 1
The scene completed on Day 2
Some students painted their scenes with tempera paint. While this second grader did not fully grasp the use of the paper strips, she nonetheless created a fascinating piece.
The most dynamic examples from the second graders’ work were put on display in the showcase in the Upper Elementary Common Area.

Wow, I can’t even draw like that now
—A fifth grader admiring the work in the showcase

A Michael Jordan fan enjoying a hoverboard ride in front of his house. Wooo!

Below is the other example (besides the ballerina) that I made to show students this type of drawing at different stages.

Walking the Dog

Besides helping students learn how to draw people in different poses, this lesson helped them spread out on the page–something small children often have trouble doing. The paper strips technique made for many fun, BOLD drawings!