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Celebrating the commonplace.

What child can resist painting a still life if the subject is cherry pie and pineapple upside down cake? Who wouldn't enjoy learning to paint in impasto, the whipped cream oozing from a chocolate eclair? Drawing a plate in perspective can be fun when it contains chocolate chip cookies. Learning to draw a cube is painless when it is a chunk of devil's food cake. Transforming brushstrokes into coconut or chocolate sprinkles creates a special magic. So why not create a painting of the sweets we eat, the delectable desserts, the consumer's confections?

We turned to the work of the master of pies and cakes, Wayne Thiebaud, to inspire this third grade painting unit. Students viewed slides of his works, especially Pies, Pies, Pies (1961) and Confections (1962). We shared some of his other work -- ordinary objects, but unusual topics for paintings -- billiard balls, hats, shoes, lipsticks, gumball machines and delicatessen counters.

This painting lesson took several art periods. Each day the students painted a different dessert or two from the display table which contained freshly-baked pastries such as pink cake with roses on the icing, fruit tarts, twists and cream puffs. The students first sketched the shapes in pencil. Varying developmental levels at this age did not allow all third graders to grasp the concept of three-dimensional spatial perspective completely. A simple preliminary demonstration of drawing cubes of cake, wedges of pie or donut forms was very helpful and created a novel and useful introduction to perspective at an early age.

Various painting techniques were involved. I encouraged students to paint in impasto, as thick as the frosting or whipped cream piled on the cakes. I demonstrated the trick of making the cherries look reflective and shiny. Tiny brush marks were used for coconut and chocolate sprinkles. Everyone worked at different rates: some industriously painted a page full of desserts, while others lingered over three or four.

Generally, working on a whole painting at once is the preferred method. However, this piecemeal way of working -- painting one dessert at a time -- seemed to work for younger students. Each day they needed only to focus on a small portion. The students literally did not "bite off more than they could chew." This approach, which breaks work into manageable tasks, eases the anxiety of contemplating the entire blank page. On the last day the background tablecloth was painted.

Fifth Grade Genre

The lesson on Thiebaud was also used with a fifth grade painting class, but this time a still life of teddy bears captured the students' interest. We used Thiebaud's painting Toy Counter (1962) for inspiration. Once again, students sketched in major shapes first. Because the still life was set up in the middle of the group, each student perceived a different angle, which created varied viewpoints. I demonstrated dry brush painting for the textured fur.

The lasting value of both of these lessons is that students began to see the possibilities in everyday objects as subjects for exploration in art. We later brainstormed for other ideas. The students came up with their own contemporary genre ideas, such as Swatch watches, hair bows and button badges. Some wanted to bring their collections to school for further work. Because they displayed such an interest in continuing to work along this theme, I encouraged them to draw at home, finding their own subjects for still lifes.

Through a study of the very contemporary images of Wayne Thiebaud, children can begin to see endless possibilities for still-life subject matter, which certainly doesn't have to be bottles and flowers! Familiar and appealing subjects motivate the children more readily. Some mini-lessons in technique are:

1. Representing forms three-dimensionally.

2. Painting frosting and whipped cream in impasto.

3. Dry brush effects for fur and decorations.

4. Depicting round reflective surfaces such as cherries on cakes or eyes in teddy bears.

With so much mileage from one lesson, this idea is worth a try when a different twist on a still-life lesson is needed!

Joyce Vroon teaches art at Trinity School, Atlanta, Georgia.
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Title Annotation:painting desserts and Teddy bears; includes related article on Wayne Thiebaud
Author:Vroon, Joyce
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Words:675
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