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^

Holiday, Lower Elementary

Expression Pumpkins

‘Tis the season for jack-o-lanterns!

For this project, lower-elementary students had to draw facial expressions on pumpkins. First, we talked about how different emotions register on our faces. For example, our eyes go wide and mouths hang open when surprised, while our eyebrows come down, shadowing our eyes when angry.

A second grader’s surprised pumpkin


Another student made a ferocious vampire pumpkin. Bold strokes of color make it seem like it’s coming to get you!


In the spirit of Halloween, eventually even Frankenpumpkins emerged. This one also seems to be part vampire, part Twitter beast?!


A Hulk Frankenpumpkin! This student imagined an elaborate backstory to explain her jack-o-lantern’s expression

Improvisation was the name of the game when the third graders got their turn. There happened to be some beads and feathers left out from the previous class’s weaving projects, which the students added to their expression pumpkins for some impromptu collage-making! Others set the mood through color and texture.

A bemused pumpkin with sequins for blushing cheeks


Fearsome yet fashionable!


The perfect Halloween combination of friendly and creepy! This student created a textured sky by coloring with the crayon on its side.

This is the jack-o-lantern I colored to serve as an example:

*Gasp!* Some students said this pumpkin looked scared or surprised.

The first graders had colored jack-o-lanterns with pre-drawn faces, but that didn’t stop us from imagining what the pumpkins’ expressions would be on All Hallow’s Eve.