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Painting watercolor fractions
Arts & Activities,  April, 2005  by Ellen McNally

A second-grade teacher at our school had asked for my help in preparing his students for the standardized math test they would soon be taking. There are fractions on the test and he would like to reinforce his students' skills with a hands-on visual experience. Our previous math/art lesson on symmetry had produced excellent results on last year's test (see "Symmetrical Aliens," Arts & ActivitiesOct. 2004). This would be another great opportunity to create a new lesson, combining two of my favorite subjects: art and math.

The title of our new lesson opened eyes and produced comments from "Oh good, I love math," to "Oh no, not fractions!" There was mostly intrigue at the thought of bringing math into the art room and curiosity at how we would go about painting a fraction.

To proceed with our lesson, we needed to review our color wheel in order to identify warm, cool and neutral colors. From an "Elements and Principles of Design" poster we learned that rhythm is the repetition of colors, as well as shapes. lines, values, forms, spaces and textures. It is what we can use to make our paintings active and exciting.

We looked at reproductions of paintings that were divided into grids and observed how the artists used repetitions of shapes and colors to create beautiful art. (Spectral Squares, by Richard Anuszkiewicz, Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance by Ellsworth Kelly, and Flora on the Sand by Paul Klee.)

We began by folding a 12" x 18" sheet of 80-lb. drawing paper in half both vertically and horizontally. The paper was now divided into four rectangles. I placed containers of crayons at the tables. Working together, we used a red crayon to divide the upper right rectangle into eight smaller rectangles. We used blue for the upper left, black for the lower-right and yellow for the lower left. We now had 32 rectangles, eight of each color. The students then wrote their name on the back of their papers. We were finally ready to paint our fractions! Watercolor sets containing 16 half-pans of warm, cool and neutral colors were distributed. The white was made into gray by adding some black. We treated white (the absence of color) and black (all color's together) as neutral colors, along with the gray and brown. To obtain white, a rectangle could be left unpainted.

Before we started, we reviewed our knowledge of fractions. If there are eight blue rectangles, how many would we paint if asked to paint 3/8 of the blue rectangles a warm color? This was the format of the math test. We used the same format to reinforce the learning experience and connect the mathematical and artistic processes. I directed the activity.

We worked on the entire paper, going from painting, for example, 5/8 of the yellow section in a cool color to 1/8 of the red section in a neutral color, until most of the sections were filled. I then let the students choose what colors to paint the remaining rectangles, which allowed all those who needed it, time to catch up.

There was lots of interaction and sharing of knowledge during the process: "Was that 3/8 of the blue section?" Is magenta a warm color? Yes ... no ... look at the color wheel!" My students enjoyed both the process and the great range of beautiful colors from which they had to choose. Because of the nature of watercolor paint, we made use of our "accidents" by creating colors with feathery blends and tie-dyed swirls.

Part II of our lesson involved transforming our 12" x 18" grid painting into a 9" x 12" collage. Holding our paintings horizontally, we cut them in half. One half of our painting was kept intact. The other half was cut into 16 colorful rectangles. Then out came the paper punches in a variety of shapes: snowflakes, stars, moons and ovals, extra large leaves, a musical note, a hand ... And, the Fiskars[R] Paper Edgers[TM]: Victorian, Seagull, Scallop, Wave.... I put six or seven of these tools on each of six tables and the students shared. (The one rule I asked the students to follow was to only cut and punch shapes from the smaller rectangles, leaving the 9" x 12" paper whole.)

We referred back to our Elements of Design Poster on Rhythm and found the following quote. "Movement and rhythm work together to create the visual equivalent of a musical beat." There were 16 little rectangles from which to create designs. In addition to repetitions of shapes and colors, we kept in mind the visual effects of contrasting colors and, most importantly, positive and negative spaces. After a yellow paper was used to produce many little positive shape stars, the negative star spaces became positive again when the paper was glued onto an orange rectangle.

We overlapped lines to create plaids and created little landscapes. Some of our rectangles had radial symmetry, while others achieved asymmetrical balance. At one table, a group of dragons appeared! Because our lessons last just 45 minutes, we made folders from 12" x 18" sheets of manila paper. At the end of one session, our collages were placed on the drying rack and our remaining colors of paper were stored in our folders.

My students were very happy with the results. Our collages were displayed at our school's annual art show and received many compliments. A beautiful part of these collages is the quality of the colors, which were painted by the students as they were learning about fractions. Math is very often an integral part of artistic creation. It is gratifying when art can be used to teach and reinforce mathematical concepts and help our students to succeed.


Students will ...

* divide a rectangle into eight sections and be able to identify parts of the rectangle as 3/8, 5/8 and so on.

* identify primary and secondary colors, warm, cool and neutral colors, as well as color value, hue and intensity.

* be able to recognize repetitions of colors, lines, values and textures that create patterns.

* be able to identify positive and negative shapes.


* 12" x 18" heavy white drawing or watercolor paper

* Watercolor sets containing 16 half-pans of warm, cool and neutral colors

* Yellow, blue, red and black crayons for each student

* Watercolor brushes and cups of water

* Scissors and glue

* 12" x 18" manila paper for folder

* Variety of paper punches in variety of shapes and sizes

* Variety of Fiskars Paper Edgers or similar type scissors textures. It is what we can use to make our paintings active and exciting.


* Elements and Principles of Design poster of "Rhythm" (available from www.crystalproductions.com)

* Color wheel


* Spectral Squares, by Richard Anuszkiewicz

* Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance, by Ellsworth Kelly

* Flora on the Sand, by Paul Klee

Ellen McNally teaches K-5 art at the Monticello, New York, Central Schools.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Publishers' Development Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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