Thursday, July 7, 2011

3rd Grade Surrealistic Sand Pictures

Play sand is quickly becoming a favorite art supply for me.  (Check out the Tactile Sand Paintings my 2nd grade students made here.)  I wanted to do a lesson based on my favorite Surrealist painting, one that  hangs out in the shadows of better known paintings like Salvador Dali's the Persistence of MemoryAndré Masson threw sand onto wet gesso as the means to stimulate an idea.  The shape of the sand suggested an underwater battle scene.  Click on the picture below to read more about Masson's work on MoMA's website.

André Masson, Battle of Fishes, 1926
I showed the students a PowerPoint about Masson and his automatic drawings and sand paintings to start us off. Next, I passed out supplies and demonstrated the process we would be using.  For the first day, we needed tagboard or sturdy paper, bottled glue, cotton swabs, and sand.  
  1. Have students get their glue bottles ready to squirt: give it a shake, lid open, hold it up in the air over the paper, but do NOT squirt yet.
  2. Prepare the students.  Tell them they will have 2 seconds to drizzle glue over their paper.  This should be like an automatic drawing.  It works best when the bottle is held over the paper instead of the tip touching like I usually suggest.  The best results come when the glue has an irregular shape- spread out but not just swirls over the whole surface.
  3. Drizzle the glue.  Seriously, about 2 seconds is all you need and some students get WAAAY too much glue even in that little time.
  4. Put the glue bottles away, no adding to it.
  5. Use a cotton swab to gently smear the drizzled glue.  The glue should still look white.  If the glue is spread too thin, the sand will not stick very well and the shape will turn into a giant blob.
  6. Sprinkle sand on the wet glue.  Dump extra sand back into sand cups.
  7. Let dry.
If students had extra time after cleaning up, I gave them free draw paper for automatic drawing.  If you have never done automatic drawing before, it's pretty simple and a good way to practice skills needed for the second part of this project.  Fill a paper with kind of "scribbled" lines then go back and look for shapes that suggest images.  The students just used pencil for the first part of the automatic drawing and to add details to define their images.

TIP: I use a recycled gallon ice cream tub to hold most of my sand and have found the easiest way to distribute sand is to have a cup at each table.

On day 2, I passed out projects and encouraged the students to try turning their paper different directions to look for pictures that jumped out at them from their sand splotches.  They were allowed to use the whole shape of the sand or part of it, the positive space or negative space.  We used black tempera paint and thin paint brushes to add lines and shapes to create the picture.  As long as the image was informed by the shape of the sand, that was the most important part.  We talked about how things don't always make sense in Surrealism so they were encouraged to keep that in mind.  We had a lot of "_______ in Space"!  After enough detail was added with paint to make the picture clear, I gave the students black sharpie markers to write a title on the front.  I love the titles the students think of on projects like this.

I also had students with extra time write artist statements on the back of their papers.  I wish I could find the exact wording that one of my students used to give his very honest opinion.  To paraphrase it was basically: I hated this project.  I didn't like the sand and glue to make a picture.  Most students really enjoyed it once they let go of it being "perfect" and just had fun.  I will warn you that I had a couple students very close to tears at the beginning of day one.  I made a big deal of telling the class that they were smart enough and creative enough and imaginative enough to "find" their own pictures in their artwork.  (This is where the automatic drawing practice comes in handy.)  I said that the pictures didn't have to look realistic and if they couldn't think of something right away, keep trying or turn it into some sort of made up creature or machine.  When I had 3rd grade boys close to tears, I did offer a little more help.  The other students at the table and I helped point out a few ideas.

Take a look at some more examples below or check out the Artsonia exhibit!


  1. Katie, these are very cool.

    I have a bag of play sand in my classroom too, but I've used it for a totally different purpose. We put some in the bottom of tennis ball containers for weight. Then we added features to make tikis and covered w/papier-mache and painted and embellished. The sand makes them so they don't tip over and you are right, it is really CHEAP!!

  2. I especially like the barking dog! I had to do this activity in high school when learning about the Dadaists. Thanks for reminding me - might give this a try.

  3. These are pretty cool. I am thinking you are pretty brave to try this with a whole class at one time!!!!! I might give it a try with one group at a time -- maybe working outside on our patio. The potential for mess SCARES ME!!! Did you have any issues?

  4. The only time we had a little mess was when the students tried to help clean up the sand by sweeping it with their hands. I asked them to dump the excess off their paper back into the sand cups but to leave the sand that fell on the table. I picked up a cheap little dustpan and brush just for sand so I could sweep the extra sand up off the tables. It works much better than hands. Then I just gave the students wet wipes to wipe their hands then their spot on the table. We actually didn't have any really messy messes!

  5. I love this idea. I don't have a classroom and I'm thinking the classroom teachers would kill me if i dragged a bag of sand into their class. I think I will wait till spring and bring the kids out side for something like this :)
    thanks so much for sharing.