Psychedelic Sunflowers

Article excerpt

My elementary students always enjoy seeing the works of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). They are fascinated by the fact that, although van Gogh lived only a short time, he painted approximately 2,000 paintings. They particularly like his many interpretations of sunflowers.

I explain to them that sunflowers were special to van Gogh and he painted them many times because he liked their bright colors and spiky shapes. We talk about Vincent's dream to live and work in the tiny French town of Arles. Once there, he would rise at dawn to paint the sunflowers that edged the railroad tracks near where he lived.

To begin our watercolor unit, I show the students pictures of van Gogh's sunflowers, including his early sketches made in the French town of Auvers. I also share parts of several books with them, to help them understand van Gogh's personality and career as an artist. I then place vases of real and artificial sunflowers around the classroom. The students start to sketch the flowers on 6" x 12" manila paper, paying special attention to petal placement and the shapes of stems and leaves.

We talk about overlapping petals and varying the size and placement of the flowers on their papers. We discuss adding visual interest by showing only a portion of a bloom, such as near the edge of the paper. We also practice drawing buds and flowers drooping from a side view.

When the students feel confident with their pictures, we sketch a new picture onto white 11" x 14" student-grade watercolor paper. At this time I stress holding the pencil lightly near the bottom to sketch, as an artist would. Once they have placed their blossoms on the paper, we add leaves and stems.

The next step is to place tiny dots along their pencil lines using a fine-point Sharpie marker. Although this step is time consuming, as soon as the students start to see the results, they really concentrate to get the job done carefully. It helps here to show work from previous classes, which excites the students and encourages them to persevere. This step usually takes an entire 50-minute class period. When the students have finished with their dots, we use oil-free erasers, such as Eberhard Faber's Magic Rub[R], to erase leftover pencil lines.

To begin our watercolor lesson, I start out with a history and technique. I tell the students that, in its broadest sense, watercolor paint is any paint that is water-based, as opposed to oil-based. When painting on paper, the paint is thinned with water before being applied.

We talk about the history of watercolor, such as its use on early maps and architectural and garden plans. I show the students samples of these early watercolors from books, posters and the Internet. I share with them the vivid watercolors of flowers by the Expressionist artist Emile Nolde.

We then review watercolor technique and color theory. Simply put, that color can be transparent or opaque. Next, I demonstrate the three main ways to apply watercolor paint to paper (see sidebar).

We set up our watercolors in the following manner: I use one water container per child, a folded paper towel, brush and the watercolor set. The students put three to five drops of water in the well of the set to moisten their brush if necessary. This keeps the water in the container clean. The students change colors by dipping the brush in the water container quietly, no tapping or swooshing. Also, before starting, they squeeze one drop of the clean water onto the paints in order to moisten them. We discuss the meaning of semi-moist before doing this. The water in the cup is replaced only if it becomes very cloudy. The paper towel is used at the end to clean the lid and table if necessary.

We use all three techniques described for our paintings. For each individual part of the flower or background, the students are instructed to use at least two colors of paint and I demonstrate how to apply the watercolor and how to blend it. …