Saturday, June 2, 2012

Painting Like an Elephant

Have you ever seen an elephant paint? I haven't in person, but I have seen several videos on the internet. Most are abstract paintings but some elephants have even been trained to paint a "self portrait" that really does look like an elephant. I thought that watching some elephants paint could lead to an interesting discussion. I showed my 3rd graders some pictures and videos of animals painting (see my board on Pinterest) then we spent some time talking.
What is an artist?
Who can be an artist?
Can animals be artists?
Why or why not?

Most of the students right away will say that yes, animals are artists. I wanted them to think more deeply- sure, lots of animals can paint. But does painting something automatically make it Art? To explain my thought, I usually ask them something like:
What is the difference or is there a difference between painting a wall in my house a solid color and making a painting?
I want them to understand that it is not the mere action of painting, but the thought behind it. Then they are not all in agreement anymore about animals being artists and I'm happy because they are thinking and forming their own conclusions. :)

My conclusion- elephants are pretty intelligent so I think it is possible that their paintings could be Art if they are making the choices not strictly performing a task in which they have been trained. Continuing...
I also like to ask why zoos would want animals to paint- so the animals don't get bored, so they can raise money, etc.

Next, the students get to paint like elephants!
I made stations by setting up two big boxes I knew I would use sometime on the tile section of my floor. The students taped their paper to one side of the box so 8 were able to paint at a time. The students who were not painting during each shift were working on "free" drawings. The painters dipped their elephant trunk brushes into paint trays set on the floor and had about 2 minutes to paint. You probably don't want to give the students much longer than 2 minutes or you'll get mud. I did not make water available for brush cleaning so I just showed them how to dip, not stir to get a new color. When a student finished, s/he removed the painting, washed the paintbrush, and put it by the paint to signal that another student could take their spot.
How to make an Elephant Trunk paintbrush
1. Get a long ruler.
2. Tape a long paintbrush to the long ruler.
3. Hold paintbrush by the end of the handle and use your extended arm to paint.

I had the students put their wet paintings on some shelves to dry for a few minutes before we did the last step- handprint elephants. I had one student at a time come up to print their hand by just pulling the next painting in line. I used a brayer to roll gray paint on the palm of each students' hand and they chose how to print it. The paint was still wet underneath the handprints but not so wet that it smeared. We had to rush, but managed to get every handprint done in time. (All except for the class that had a fire drill right in the middle.) I know some people are dead set against handprint Art, but I think if you have a good reason, go for it. I knew that by adding an elephant on top of the nonobjective paintings, the artwork would look more finished and the students would remember the elephant/artist discussion. I knew that by using a handprint for the base the students would be less frustrated and parents would be more likely to keep them.
In the next class period, the students turned their gray handprints into elephants by adding outlines and details with sharpie then highlights with some watered down white tempera.
 I've been playing with my Animoto account and made a little video that I'll send to parents in an Artsonia newsletter. If you check it out, you'll see a few seconds of the students painting like elephants on the butcher paper that became our bulletin board!


  1. What a GREAT lesson to make your students think about what makes something a piece of art ! What makes them an artist? Why is that art? I get these questions all the time! Especially during our Abstract Expressionism lesson in 5th grade. Some of my students had a very hard time understanding how Rothko's paintings could be great art. This lesson seems to have made them process these questions for themselves and come up with answers to their own questions!

  2. this is SO neat!

    And thanks for all the sweet things you said on my blog :)

  3. I love this lesson! Ironically, I had a spontaneous discussion with my 2nd graders the other day, as we looked at paintings by Pollock, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. A second grader asked "why is that in a museum? I could make a picture like those. One of them looks like a bunch of scribbles, and the other is just some straight lines and colored boxes. So we discussed how sometimes an artist comes up with a new idea, that nobody ever thought of before, and it's that thought, that idea, that makes it special. We can copy a Pollock or a Mondrian, but it was their idea that made it special. We also discussed how they didn't paint that way because they COULDN'T draw any other way (since they absolutely could). But they had a new idea.

  4. How many people does it take to change a lightbulb in a modern art museum?
    2: 1 to change the bulb and one to say "my 5 year old could do that!"

  5. Great lesson- I love videos of animals painting, this is beautiful lesson :)

  6. I enjoy how interactive this lesson was for your students. By setting up several boxes with different sides it makes the project far more group related! The subject matter itself is so thought provoking for students. I know with more abstract art, my young students have a difficult time believing why something is considered art or why a certain artist became famous. I think that having students analyze why society or a community would be interested in having animals create art or be involved in art is also very reflective. Also, elementary students love animals, so this is a great lesson for them!