Every art teacher could use a little boost

Issue 4 | March 2019

a mini magazine for art instructor subscribers


All content is on one page. Just scroll – or click a title to jump down.

1 | FEATURE | Color Scheme Conundrum

Here’s a great color scheme to share with your students.

| ARTICLE Brain Connections

Teaching with 3D – live sculpting & drawing.

| CLASSROOM | Teach Proportions

Proportion seems like it would be easy to explain…


Modeling clay is such a great teaching tool.

| GRAPHIC Working In Clay

How to manipulate clay for the best results.

LESSONS What’s Coming Up

This month’s lessons – overviews for each week.


Teaching kids about triads, double-complements, and quadrads, in addition to complementary and split-complementary, might be more than we need to do.

Especially since these neat geometries don’t always fit what’s going on.

Color scheme models attempt to make something incredibly complex fit into a set of fairly simple rules. That is a laudable goal, and the models we have do a pretty good job of it, using a 12-color wheel as a foundation. The basic wheel has 3 simplified primaries, 3 simplified secondaries, and 6 tertiaries. Even though real color can’t be reduced to such a simple set of hues, this wheel and the resulting scheme geometries are very important for us. Without them, we would flounder in the myriad colors and combinations of them. It’s equally important though, to understand that this system is very simplified, and that color schemes can move far beyond both the wheel, and the standard schemes.

Let’s explore some color schemes that don’t fit.

Color Scheme Variation 1

This color block has a lot going on with 5 distinct points on the color wheel. It’s pretty loud, somewhat complex, and yet pleasing. What would you call this color scheme?

Scheme 1 Diagram

Drawing a line from the center of the wheel to the 5 colors in our graphic, we see a star pattern that doesn’t seem to fit very well at first glance.

Scheme 1 Examined

Looking closer, you see that this isn’t as complex as we thought. It’s a basic quadrad (4 main end-points make a rectangle, or you can call it a double-complement). But there’s also an extra accent in an adjacent (or analagous) color to one of the quadrads. A student will generally have a difficult time analyzing this. The extra accent color throws the whole thing into unknown territory.

Variation 2

Here’s a variation where we’ve toned down the loudness by changing the yellow-green to orange. This scheme is much more calm by making only one color change. You would think that this will fit better into one of our simple color scheme geometries. But can you define this color scheme?

Scheme 2

What the heck is going on here? This is even farther from a known color scheme. How can you explain this to a student after you’ve taught them split complements, triads and quadrads?

I can see a pair of complements, and also sort of a set of analogous colors. But this is pretty wild considering the nice and simple look of the graphic.

Scheme 2 Examined

This is basically an analagous scheme, even though the red-purple is a wide point to the oranges and yellow. There is only a bit of the blue-green accent, and it’s a nice direct complement to a color at almost the center of the set of analogous colors. This is a great color scheme. It just doesn’t fit our models. We could call this a tree color scheme if we needed a name for it, but that would make the small accent the trunk – implying a weight that it doesn’t have. So this doesn’t really fit easily into a existing scheme model, or even a new idea we could attach to it. 

Variation 3

Again, this variation turns down the loudness by changing the red-orange circle to purple. We have a bright and pleasant scheme, but with 5 colors it’s still complex.

Scheme 3

We have another crazy star pattern here, and it’s completely different than anything we’ve seen.

Scheme 3 Examined

Here again we can see that there is a hidden quadrad in the star, and a single accent color off to one side. This really does not fit well, and can be hard to figure out.

So how do we teach color schemes without limiting students to a few simplistic triads and quadrads?

An easier way.

Good looking color schemes are almost always limited to 5 colors or less.

The basic idea of color schemes is to either have low contrast, or high contrast, with variations of colors that subjectively look like they fit together – harmony.

A low contrast color scheme uses analogous groups of colors, but can also have an accent for a small bit of high contrast. Conversely, a high contrast scheme such as a triad can use a few analogous variations to calm the group down a bit.

The trick is to realize that you don’t have to stay inside the boxes of evenly spaced analogous colors or triadics. This doesn’t mean there are no rules, it just means that color schemes are myriad, and you just have to test it and see if you like it. Finding other color schemes you like and borrowing them is a great way for students to learn to select good colors.


• The most basic rule for colors (hues) is simply not to use more than 4 or 5 of them for your scheme. You really don’t need to know all the names and geometric shapes. That’s always going to yield a color scheme.

• Add to this rule, the concepts of experimentation and evaluation – to see if you like how it looks. This is the easiest and most effective method for students to know how to arrive at good color schemes.

• Finally, using colors that are similar in intensity can be helpful, as well as grouping alike colors together, and letting accent colors break the rules.

You can always teach the tried and true quadradics and triadics because it’s fun to know things, and that gives a feeling of control over the complexities of color. But it’s also good to let students know that simply limiting their palette and evaluating how they like it, is really all you need.

A Fantastic 3D Teaching Method


Using models for drawing creates more connections in the brain and a greater understanding of 3D form and spacial relationships.

“I figured understanding how something should be drawn to look like it’s 3D, would be easier if you held it, turned it around in your hands, and even made it yourself.”

This whole article is summed up in that sub title above. The brain is making connections between neurons whenever it is learning. So, it stands to reason that if you use more neurons when you’re learning, it makes a lot more connections. You can find articles about this easily, and there are two of them linked at the end of this article.

This is why The Art Instructor has several tactile learning lessons, where the student first creates something themselves, using modeling clay, and then draws that same thing immediately afterwards. I believe this leads to more intuitive abilities when creating artwork.

In February and March, we’ve been learning about the face by modeling parts of it, and then drawing the model. We have an eye, a nose, and a mouth lesson using this methods. It really helps our students, and we’ve been doing these lessons for over 10 years.

I have a little story about why I think this kind of learning really works wonders. That story ends up with a tattoo of a dinosaur on my arm.

When I was a little boy…

I just always wanted to start a story that way. Anyhow, I taught myself to draw as a pre-teen and young teenager. I didn’t have an art teacher, so I used books. My mom really encouraged me, but she didn’t have any instruction either. She bought me the books.

Books are in 2-D. I didn’t realize at the time how limiting that was. What I did know, was that a friend of mine in 5th grade could draw anything, and it looked fantastically realistic. He understood things in a way I did not. I worked and worked to try and draw like him.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t even try to take an art course in high school until I was at the end of my 11th grade year. I went into the art room one day in April, and it was full of seniors. Interrupting her class, I asked the teacher if I could jump to Art 4 for the next year without taking Art 1 through 3. The seniors all laughed at me. The teacher said to bring in some work and she would see.

The next day I brought in all this work I had copied out of books. The teacher was so impressed that she called up her entire class of seniors and used my work to teach them. It was one of those rare moments in school that are quite satisfying.

But the books only showed me other drawings. Even though everyone thought I could draw really well, I had a harder time drawing from photos, much less real life. I struggled with anything I could not place in front of me in 2-D and work on for hours, copying the work exactly.

I eventually realized I had always needed to draw from life, because in art school that was required. As I worked more and more from still life and models, my abilities improved. It still took many years of struggle to feel like I understand the 3-D world when I’m drawing, even though I score highly on spacial acuity.

So what about that velociraptor on my arm?

That brings me to my great experiment. I figured understanding how something should be drawn to look like it’s 3D, would be easier if you held it, turned it around in your hands, and even made it yourself.

I have a son – he likes to draw like I do. When he was just shy of three years old I began an experiment – to try to give him what my 5th grade friend had – that superior inate understanding of the 3-D world. First, I decided I would have him draw from life at the earliest age possible, and as much as possible. Second, I would have him draw things he could hold and play with. He would draw the things he was most familiar with.

So dinosaurs!

We played with them and drew them and sculpted them and painted them. He loved dinos so much that he would pretend to be one, running back and forth in our kitchen, arms in claw position, slobbering and growling, for hours on end. He was a dinosaur.

Well it totally worked. He could draw in the 5th grade so much better than I could it was astounding. By high school he was beyond my own abilities as a professional illustrator.

Evan eventually fulfilled his dream of being a premier tattoo artist. I never in my wildest dreams expected to have a tattoo, but well, things change. Here is his Instagram post of my velociraptor tattoo right after he finished it.

So… I kind of like to draw dinos too.

Was it just a fluke?

While it can’t be proven either way, I don’t think so. To back up my story, I proudly submit another tattoo, this one on my shoulder and from a drawing by my amazing daughter.

Val was adopted from Russia at age 3 1/2.

Further Reading

Buttons open a new tab/window

Science Daily

ARTICLE: Neurons in Human Skin Perform Advanced Calculations.

This article talks about how neurons in the fingers send more than simple tactile information to the brain, they actually make brain-like calculations and deductions about what they touch.

Science News for Students

ARTICLE: Learning rewires the brain.

This article explores how the brain reworks connections when learning – even as adults.

How to explain Proportions


Teaching proportions seems like it would be easy… until you’re teaching it.

By Dennas Davis

This is taken from one of our Pocket Pointers; handy mini lessons you need to pull out as needed when a student is having a specific difficulty. Sometimes it’s good to stop the class and let everyone listen in when you make a quick point like this.

Here is a great way to explain proportions to young students, along with some visuals you can show to help them understand. Older students also benefit from seeing proportions and understanding that their thumbnails and other sketches need to be the same proportions as their canvas or frame.


Students have an especially difficult time understanding how proportions relate to their work and to accuracy. Any time you see inaccurate proportions in the ‘frame’, or rectangle that contains a work, or in the elements within the work, use this slideshow to help students realize why they are struggling.


For individuals and small groups you can show the slides from your handheld device. Connect to a larger display if needed. The teaching section below is similar to the captions for the slides so you can read as you show them.

How Proportions Work (tap any image to open viewer)


Modeling Clay

Clay is interesting to use in the classroom. A few students don’t like the feel of it, but we’ve never had any insurmountable issues. Kids also tend to think it should work like play dough, and be easily squished. Then they complain when it can’t. The next thing they do is start pounding on it.

You can stop this chain of events by explaining how to use clay (with our handy chart in the next section) before they even get the clay in their hands. Demonstrate by using the photos in the chart.

We tend to use clay mostly in the winter so it doesn’t get too soft, but it’s really mostly about the heat from our hands. If clay gets droopy, set it down and let it cool off. If it’s too hard, twist small pieces off and roll them into worms to warm it up.

Keeping the clay on – and over – some paper (we call it clayper and the kids love that), makes cleanup easy and keeps debris from getting stuck in the clay. Toss it in a plastic bin or tub after your done. A cover will keep the dust off it.

Modeling Clay 1

We use the 4.5 lb blocks of this brand in their white clay. Here is the Blick link to purchase:

Modeling Clay 2

We have not used this budget version of their soft clay, but Sculpture House makes fantastic professional quality plastilina clay. Here is the Blick link to purchase:


Instructions PDF

When your students are working with modeling clay, you can either give them our instruction handout or use it to teach them the basics. This is an 8.5″ x 11″ poster or graphic handout.

Our March curriculum


Read an overview of this month’s lesson plans below.

If you’re not already a member, tap the buttons to view sample lessons and learn more about how The Art Instructor can save you time and make the art classroom more rewarding for everyone.

Hand-crafted by the folks at The Art Instructor
Like a three-legged stool, our art room curriculum has been built as a complete foundation for students, using three deeply connected principles.


Connect the Mind

Lessons provide understanding


Connect the Hand

Lessons show application & movement


Connect the Heart

Lessons for fun & self-expression



KidsART is for grades 1 & 2

Foundations has two versions:
grades 3 – 5 and grades 6 – 12


Week 28: Crazy Color

Students will create paintings of familiar subjects using colors that are not realistic. They will also learn about using guidelines, or whisper lines, to help in creating accurate paintings, and use bold lines to outline areas of color.


Week 28: Face Sculpture

Artists get to create a face sculpture out of air-dry clay or salt dough that will be painted next week. They’re free to have fun with ideas to make the face anything, even an animal face. Before they work on the sculptures, young artist create a fun face warmup and then make practice faces in modeling clay. Older students finish their portrait and then move to the sculpture.




Week 29: Trees & leaves

Overview: Artists make trees by twisting pipe cleaners, and paper leaves are attached. Then everyone designs and creates a tiny tree house to go onto their tree sculptures. The whole thing is glued together and onto a base for a fun project to take home.


Week 29: Paint Sculptures

Last week’s face sculptures have been drying all week. The first half of the lesson this week, is painting the sculptures with acrylic paints. The second half is artists’ choice with dreams: using the acrylics in an expressive painting of a happy dream.




Spring Break


Spring Break




Week 30: Big Shape Animals

Overview: Students will start with an expressive and wild oil pastel of an elephant by looking at a photo. Then they learn how to see big shapes and draw it more realistically before painting in watercolors. The second half of the lesson is about exaggerating and simplifying to create a fun cartoon. They draw it and then sculpt their cartoon out of air-dry clay. A little hat is made out of paper to fit on it’s head for a bit of whimsey.


Week 30: Skin Tones Color Journal

Overview: Students will warm up with face sketches and create a skine tone Color Journal of 25 colors (only 16 for younger grades). Then there is a slideshow about the different color areas of the face and some exercises to practice making flesh tones work together. Young grades have some fun with alien faces too.

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