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Templates, numbers & watercolors.

Every student in my second grade class was thrilled to hear that they were going to use large templates to draw five-digit numbers which they would then paint with watercolor. Not only would this project add new dimensions to their artistic knowledge and vocabulary, but it would also reinforce the concept of place value, which we had been working on in mathematics.

Early in the week, I introduced the students to examples of how templates are used by draftspeople, designers and artists to create drawings. They listened intently and I could see that they sensed their number drawings were going to be great fun to make. I suggested that this assignment would allow them to concentrate more on their painting and choice of colors because by using templates they would not need to worry so much about whether or not their drawing "looked right."

I began the lesson by showing the students reproductions of both paintings and prints that use numbers as their subjects. I displayed Charles Demuth's I Saw the Number 5 in Gold, 1928, and prompted students to comment on the range of colors the artist used, the different sizes of numbers in the painting and the long, interesting title.

We then looked at several reproductions of works and paintings by American artist, Jasper Johns. As I showed students reproductions of a series of ten lithographs entitled Color Numerals: Figures 0 to 9 (1968-69), I told them that this artist frequently used stencils, similar to the templates they were to use, to draw his numbers. We noted further how he had embellished these numbers using a wide range of colors. In his painting White Numbers (1959), my students observed that Johns had created a grid and repeated the numbers 0 through 9 many times, up and down, throughout his grid. In 0-9, a 1963 lithograph, students enjoyed the fact that Johns had used his stencils to pile each number from 0 to 9 on top of one another, thereby making the final image a tangle of overlapping lines with just a suggestion of each individual number showing through.

After this discussion, I showed my class the selection of templates I had bought at an architectural drafting store. These templates had numbers that were 1/2" (1 cm), 1" (2 cm), 1 1/2" (4 cm) and 4" (10 cm) high; we would use the 4" (10 cm) high numbers for our final artwork. But first, as a warm-up activity, students used the smallest templates to draw a five-digit number on 8 1/2" x 11" (22 cm x 28 cm) paper. They colored it with crayons and, at my suggestion, made their number stand out by either crayoning the background in dark tones and the numerals in light tones, or vice versa. This prepared them for painting the foreground/background in their final watercolor painting. The class saw immediately how the drawings with the greater contrast between foreground and background made the numbers easier to read from across the room. This readability became one of our main goals.

Then we turned our attention to the watercolor painting process. I pulled out watercolor paintings my students had done earlier in the year, and we reviewed the use of various watercolor techniques, such as translucent washes, dry brush and wet on wet. I displayed the two different sizes of brushes at our disposal, and we talked about where and when it would be appropriate to use them. Some students suggested the large brushes could be used to put washes across the whole paper and cover both the pencilled numbers and the background; other students suggested that small patterns could then be made with the smaller brushes to add decoration to the numbers, or to the background after, or while, the washes dried.

They were now ready to use the large 4" (10 cm) templates to make their five-digit numbers on sheets of 12" x 18" (30 cm x 46 cm) watercolor paper. We decided that placing the paper horizontally made the most sense for drawing a number so large and so long. Two students at a time visited a table set up for this process and drew their numbers with pencil. By this time, students were eager to apply paint.

The paintings were successful one hundred percent! They were fresh and exciting, and in many cases the watercolor washes allowed the pencil drawings to peep through. We displayed them all, writing out the five-digit numbers for titles. We put them up in our classroom and in the library, and this display resulted in much talk throughout the whole school about our combination art/ mathematics lesson. Both my students and I were thrilled with the results. They felt successful both as draftspeople and watercolorists. Furthermore, they had expanded their artistic vocabulary, and reinforced the mathematical ideas of place value. This project was such fun, and such a great success, that the whole class urged me to let them use templates again to do more art/mathematic projects.

David J. Clemesha taught at Marquez Elementary School, Los Angeles, California School District when he presented this project.
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Author:Clemesha, David J.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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