First steps to painting a rainforest mural with kids: leaves

Here is the first of the promised posts describing the step by step, week by week progression of art work that built up to the mural. Please note that each weekly session was generally one and a half hours long and this covers the first three sessions that focus on leaves.

My Learning objectives.

I rarely tell the children what they are learning in a formal way such as a LO because I like to avoid too much talking during art. I feel that the more of an art lesson that is spent in right brain activities the better. A formal LO also implies that someone must be successful at it, in order to achieve that LO. This is inappropriate for creative flow and confidence building.  However I always have learning targets in my mind that I know the children need to achieve as a class and individually. Its very important to clearly explain what is required of them and why as this sets the scene for the lesson.

Learning targets: Session 1

  1. Study other artists from other times and cultures.
  2. Learn about artists choice of material and processes and how these are matched to their ideas and intentions.
  3. Use sketch books to record experiences of other artist’s work.
  4. Build skills in critiquing artists and paintings.
  5. To make thoughtful observations, ask appropriate questions and discuss the work of other artists.

Session 1: Start with Art History – Henri Rousseau – Jungle paintings

First I introduced the children to Henri Rousseau. We looked at about 4 or 5 of his jungle paintings and discussed his use of colour, subjects, composition etc. I told them a little about his life, that he taught himself, that he loved jungles but never visited one (and even lied about it), that he had his own unique style that Picasso admired but the Parisian establishment made fun of.

We compared the way Rousseau would have researched the animals/plants he wanted to paint, with the ways we are able to research now. Rousseau had to visit the botanical gardens, work from stuffed animals, use plants he was familiar with and blow them up big, work from other artist’s paintings/drawings. We can research using the internet, look at houseplants (we have central heating that allows us to keep tropical plants at home), look at books in colour, use photographs, ask friends who’ve visited the rainforest to share photos, visit a local zoo, keep a tropical animal as a pet (snakes, lizards, tarantula etc). The children found it interesting to point out the inaccuracies of Rousseau’s paintings such as the upside down bananas in this painting or the fact that there’s a lion in the rainforest when you generally find lions in the Serengeti. In addition to that, the lion is eating a crocodile which seems even more surreal and is yet again surrounded by more upside down bananas. They also began to appreciate how lucky we are in comparison to Rosseau. We now have access to so many accurate ways of researching the rainforest. I showed them the stuffed animals that Rousseau worked on to paint this lion attacking an antelope and described the process of stuffing an animal which leads to its distorted features.

Having enjoyed the introduction to Rousseau and engaged with his paintings with a critical eye we then began to use our artistic skills to appreciate his use of colour, shape and sometimes pattern. I got the children to spend the last 30 minutes of the lesson drawing as many of the different shaped leaves as they could spot in Rousseau’s Surprise, they worked in their sketchbooks and some went on to put some colour on the leaves using chalks. I asked the children to write on post-it notes anything they had observed, or anything they remembered from our discussion about the 4 paintings we looked at and I put these up after the lesson as an interactive display.

Learning Targets: Session 2

  1. Observation skills, how to look through artist’s eyes.
  2. Build up a bank of drawing skills.
  3. Explore, observe and record the shapes and details of leaves.
  4. To draw a small object much bigger.

Session 2: Back to nature -Observational drawing of leaves-Outdoor learning.

It was a sunny day so I took 30 children at a time out into our school grounds to silently choose three leaves that captured their fascination and interest. They then spent the rest of the lesson on observational drawings of these leaves. I equipped them with magnifying glasses each, pencil, paper and boards to lean on. The main instruction was to draw these leaves huge, fill up at least half an A3 sheet of paper with one leaf. We were emulating the way Rousseau worked in his jungle paintings.

Its amazing just how much I could see the children drawing from their idea of a leaf and not actually drawing what was in front of them. I pointed this out and talked them through observing the veins, their shape, the tattered areas of a leaf and how that can add interest to it. Our knowledge of angles came in handy to approximate the angle that the sub veins leave the main vein. I consistently went round the class pointing things out and guiding any strugglers. Here are some examples of their work.

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Learning Targets: Session 3

  1. Working as pairs to understand and explore water colour mixing.
  2. Develop a bank of water colour skills that can be built upon as lesson progresses.
  3. To choose the appropriate tool (brush size) and colour (paint) for the task.
  4. To adapt and improve work, incorporating advice and extensions when given by adult.

Sessions 3: Water colour techniques: washes, layers, colour mixing, veins, leaves.

I could see that the children found the last observational drawing session rather dry. So to wet their palette, (no pun intended) I introduced them to the wanders of water colours. Each pair had a palette for mixing, a set of 12 water colours, water, and A3 paper and fat and thin brush per child. We wet our brushes, wiped off the excess water and made circles on the palm of our hand to create a point on the end of the brush and.

I began by banning any use of ready made green! Then I invited them to talk in pairs and create a light green and a dark green (you’ll be surprised how few actually knew the two colours to make green). Having demonstrated how to make a graded wash from light green to dark green, they then had a go. Then they tried the same wash using a light to dark purple. We then explored mark making with out fat and thin brushes-really thin lines, wiggly lines, lines over washes, wetting the paper and then drawing lines over the wet wash etc. Here are some photos.

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I already had leaves that I had done earlier, so using these to focus the children’s ideas I demonstrated doing a wash in a light green/purple that was a leaf shape. We did several so that it would give the first ones time to dry. Here was my example showing three different ways to paint leaves.


With no pencil drawings first, the children did several leaf washes (fat brush) in a light colour, I then showed them the first and simplest technique to add the veins. Using a dark colour and the fine brush they carefully painted on veins gradually getting thinner and more delicate and wiggly. The bottom leaf (above) is done in this manner. Here are some of their paintings which are just so varied and fresh.

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The second technique is to paint the negative space between the veins. So you’re not actually painting the vein itself but the colour around the vain. This is done over a lighter wash so that the wash colour will show through where you’ve not painted in the darker negative space. The children found this difficult, but rose to the challenge and realized just how much concentration this required. The person below struggled with this concept, but when I demonstrated on their piece of paper (smaller leaf) they were much more successful (2nd photo).

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You can see that this person started off with very fat veins. I had them look again at a real leaf and remember the thin wiggly lines we practiced at the beginning of the lesson and demonstrated how to achieve those fine lines. They then improved.


This next person thought they had finished early, I then pushed them further, encouraging them to add more detail on the veins with a dark red-purplish colour.


Things to avoid.


Above is a good example of where the first base wash was too wet, resulting in blurry veins that are mixed into the background colour. Some children do tend to work very wet, and they need to be given tissue to dry their brushes a little. Other children tend to be impatient and spend very little time loading their brushes with colour which results in faded, pale work. There are also a few who do not wet their brushes enough, and then even worse, let their brush go all splayed out. These children need to be shown how to use the brush neatly, keeping it wet but not sopping.

Set up the class room for the children but leave 7-10 minutes for them to tidy up so you aren’t stuck with a messy classroom at the end.

The children loved this session and were so proud to see their work displayed around the school. Displaying art work as soon as you can after a lesson reenforces everything they have learnt and builds confidence, interest and enthusiasm in the work.


3 thoughts on “First steps to painting a rainforest mural with kids: leaves

  1. Pingback: Second steps to painting a rain forest mural with kids | flaircreationsblog

  2. Pingback: Third steps to painting a rainforest mural with kids: Animals | flaircreationsblog

  3. Pingback: SPACE Illustrations – 10 year olds | flaircreationsblog

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