Somebody call 9-1-1.
Hold the phone. It’s not an emergency.
But it is a breakdown.
This post is devoted to teaching acrylic painting successfully at the middle or high school level. On a scaffolded approach – with great results for all students.
I will get to the particulars in a bit, but let’s start with the basic questions. The things we as artists and art teachers already know but the kids – not necessarily…
How fast does this stuff dry?
How do I decide which brush is best?
How do I clean the brush? (Clean…not just rinse LOL)
How do I load the paint on the brush?
How do I move the brush to mix the paint?
How do I move the brush to push the paint onto the canvas?
How do I effectively create a tint without mixing a cup of paint before I get the right value?
What the heck is value?
How on earth can I expect them to paint with confidence and success if they don’t even know how to mix the paint? Or how to load the brush? Or move paint across the canvas? I know we all want to see them dive in and take risks but you can’t dive if you can’t get to the side of the pool afterward.
Ok. You get the point. I realized in the beginning stages of teaching acrylic that I wasn’t addressing the above questions. As a result, the work was weak and the kids were very frustrated to the point of giving up. It was rough. I couldn’t figure out why the vision in my head wasn’t realized in the work…see last week’s post for a similar situation regarding graphite pencil shading. I had a lot of cloudy visions in the beginning….A LOT.
At this point my wise co-worker (see last week’s post) had relocated to Ohio, so I had to figure this one out on my own. So I followed the logic. When it came to drawing, she had said to “Break it down.” I also remembered her saying once, “I only give them the primary colors (one warm and one cool of each – and white). The focus is on color and value creation from scratch.” This approach will build their confidence by building their knowledge. So I went back to square one – well, rectangle one…Literally.
I abandoned painting “things” and “scenes” and returned to the most basic exercise I could think of.
The Value Scale.
I also re-evaluated WHAT I wanted them to learn. To start – color theory and color mixing – proper hues, tints, tones, shades. Secondary and tertiary colors. Chromatic neutrals. Chromatic black. Crisp edges without using tape. Brush control. Media manipulation…simple techniques.
And hence, the Acrylic Value Scales Lesson was born. The kids use a warm and cool version of each primary and white to create a variety of four and 7-part value scales. They also learn to mix grays and a chromatic black. It was an immediate slam dunk. For everyone in the room (that year it was a class of 27). On the course evaluation they said they learn the most about painting from this one lesson.
If you’re thinking, “How boring…” you’re right. No frills here. No concept. No risk.
Here’s my philosophy in a nutshell. They need to “get to know” the medium before they can evolve into successful risk-taking painters.
I teach high school, so I explain it like this. Learning to paint with acrylic is like getting a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Until you spend time with this person and learn all of their quirks, habits, etc., you can’t predict what they will do in any given situation. I think nowadays they call this “talking.” Back in my day you had your friend pass a “Do you like me check ‘yes’ or ‘no’” quiz written on notebook paper and folded in the shape of an arrow to the potential partner in the hallway…oh, the 1980’s. Great decade. I miss it.
The same is true with acrylic paint. The beginning lesson is the “get to know you” phase. This is where we work the kinks out, because who cares if your value scale gets jacked up and it needs re-painted? It’s just 7 rectangles…no biggie. The goal for the assignment (as laid out in the rubric) is just proper mixing of hues, tints, tones/shades (we call them tones but some call them shades) and crisp edges between the sections of the scales. Easy. It’s not supposed to be anything except a rectangle. No pressure.
This brings us to another “Fox Mantra”…”SWSW”.
So what if you have to repaint it. So what if you don’t. Either way, the world will continue to spin on its axis. It’s acrylic paint. It can’t hurt you. Just celebrate the fact that we can mix paint and create some beautiful value scales and enjoy being able to do so. Life is hard enough.
Sounds a little frank, yes. But at the end of the day these are things I tell myself as well. It’s just painting. I will cheer the kids on as they begin to mix the paint and discover all of the beautiful combinations they are capable of creating by just using the primaries and white. I know it’s only a bunch of rectangles, and yes, it’s simple, and yes, it’s not original at all, but the learning is endless and the confidence soars. Remember the goal is that everyone is successful.
Added bonus. I have created a bunch of color snobs (and you will too). My kids wouldn’t squirt green out of a tube if you gave it to them. They take pride in the fact that their colors are custom hues, personal and exclusive to them. I was just watching them yesterday and they were mixing grays and tans with ease (during the Value Scales Lesson I heard a lot of “I can’t make gray! It’s so hard!”). It is so wonderful to see the mix with confidence. Mastery in action.
I actually had a beginner student stop by and tell me that they are so glad to only be using the primaries because before this they never knew which color to choose and now that they have to mix everything it takes all the confusion away. They said, “I always thought painting was so hard until I realized I was in control and I could mix any color I needed.” Whoa. Facts.
And let’s talk money dollars for a minute. Purchasing seven hues is a lot cheaper than purchasing 12 or even more (before you know it you’re purchasing flesh tones and browns and grays and black and the list goes on).
So you may be wondering what comes after the Value Scales Lesson. In my classes I choose to focus on realism. Yes, there are many styles we could experiment with, but without extensive practice and a lot more time only a select few students would be successful and the rest would be frustrated. We are after success for everyone.
At the beginner level, people like to paint things that look real, and I have a limited amount of time to get ALL of them to a highly skilled level. Painting an automobile is extremely satisfying if it looks real. This is a big victory for a beginner painter, and I’m always after the big victory.
More importantly, I may never see some of these kids again. They may not return to Painting 2 or AP for no other reason than their schedule won’t allow it. This is my only chance (my Elevator Pitch) to show them how incredible they can be with a paint brush and 7 tubes of paint. On the flip side, the students who do have time in their schedule will take every class I offer because they know they will do amazing things. They trust me and they trust my process, no matter what I throw at them, they do it with effort and excellence.
For the reasons mentioned above, I don’t venture into painting “things” until the fourth lesson in the scaffold. It’s too much pressure. I tell the kids I want them to approach the first painting of ‘stuff” as if they are pros. I want them to say, “Whatever, Mrs. Fox, why don’t you give us something hard to do.” Total confidence.
So that’s it.
The whole rectangular story.
All Hail the Value Scale. LOL.
When it comes to teaching painting, I can say one thing with absolute certainty.
“Trust me. This works.”
Because it does.
We have 11 years of successful work to show for it.
Check out my Instagram feed @mrs_fox and my Pinterest MrsTFox Resources. Spend a little time scrolling through and see what you think There are also project examples on the Acrylic Painting page of this website.
If you require third-party verification (like Google) then check out the Instagram @fbhs_art and the AMAZING paintings by the students at Fernandina Beach High School under the expert direction of Joy Keith. Joy purchased my curriculum and has been using it during the 2020-21 school year. This is an excerpt from her product feedback on TPT:
“I was looking for a real scope and sequence to build skills instead of unachievable lessons that frustrated my students. I was about to develop it myself until I randomly decided to look for something I could build off of to fit my needs. Then I found THIS!!! The skill building is there. The videos are there. The rubrics are there. The step by step directions are there!! I saw my kids really start to take pride in their work but really starting from scratch. Building off the basics. I have changed my entire art program. I genuinely look forward to going to work in the morning knowing I have a full proof plan that will give my students (and me) the confidence to create gorgeous art. Every. Single. Day.”
Thank you once again for stopping by and checking out my blog. I appreciate it!
My sincerest goal is to help art educators build a successful art program in all areas of the classroom. To look forward to every day knowing the students will bring their best and the outcome will be nothing short of amazing.
If you are interested in further lesson details, the Acrylic Painting scaffold progresses like this:
Color Theory, Color Mixing, Value Creation, Paint/Edge Control
Value Blending (Soft & Crisp)
Value Blending (Soft & Crisp) with special focus on contrast
Surface Texture – Reflections/Highlights/Shadows
All of the above lessons with added difficulty in subject matter
All of the above with added difficulty & collaboration between students (4 students working together in each group)
**Basic philosophy in one presentation “Teaching Acrylic Painting”