Once Upon a Time in the West: the art lesson

In California it is rare to have large cloud formations.  Huge cumulonimbus formations are unnecessary in a desert climate, perhaps.  That said, from time to time there were clouds, and they were lovely.

One of my favorite things to do as a child was to lay on my back and search the cloud’s various shapes.  I found that watching them morph into something recognizable was fascinating.

Fast forward to the 90s

We had a bit of rain and the inclement weather had kept us inside for most of the day.  The children were boisterous, loud and needing to get outside to run off some energy!  Thankfully, the sun came out and there were some cloud left overs up over head.

As we walked to the playground I asked my students:  “How many of you like to watch the clouds?”

Several responded with:  “What do you mean?” and “No.”  The rest just giggled.

I said:  “Your parents never told you the magic of finding things in the clouds?”

This comment produced more laughter from the group, so I told them to go and play, and when they got back I would have a fun activity for them to do!

While they were out I gathered my tools and supplies:

  • large tarps
  • white construction paper
  • pencils
  • lined paper
  • a book:  It Looked Like Spilled Milk
  • blue chalk

I then sent up a quick prayer that the principal would not catch us in yet another of what I termed a “*Teachable Moment” because he simply did not approve of them!  (He didn’t catch us by the way.)  😉

I met the kids on the playground with my tarps and told them to be very quiet so we wouldn’t be caught out here having fun.  We then went to the quietest spot, and laid out our tarps.  Cautioning them to remain quiet, I then told them to lay down and watch the clouds…

“Look at the clouds up there.  Do you see the shapes they are making?  Do any of them look like something you’ve seen before?”

It took a moment but then someone saw a puppy.  Then another saw Pikachu, and the fun was on!  So many shapes, so many things to see, and all changing before their very eyes.

It was magic!

Whispering, I told them to get up, and gathering the tarps we went inside.  Continuing in my whispered voice, I asked them to go to the carpet and sit so we could talk.  I read the book and then the lesson began.

Today we are going to draw clouds.  I want you to think of your favorite shape that you saw and then I want you to draw it on your paper.  I picked up a large sheet of white construction paper and clipped it to the stand.  This elicited several incredulous responses from the crowd, and in unison they said:

“Teacher, the paper is all white!  Clouds are white!  You can’t make clouds on white paper!”

I could see in their eyes they thought I had lost it.  Shhhhh… I said softly, let me explain!

“To draw your cloud you will have to make your pencil whisper on the paper.  Watch!”

I began to draw an outline on the paper of a simple cloud, and explained about how soft the lines needed to be so that they wouldn’t show up when we were done.  Then I took my pencil and ever so lightly pulled it across their arms so they could feel how softly I was drawing.

“Do you understand so far?”  Nods of acknowledgement.  “Good, now watch, this is the magic!”

Taking my blue chalk I carefully outlined the pencil marks.  Then, taking my finger I softened them into the inside of the cloud.  Next, I laid my chalk on its side and began to fill in the background.  Instantly, there were sounds of Oooh, and Ahhhh…

The children went back to their desks and began their work.  It was one of the most focused portions of our rainy day, and when they were done, there wasn’t a single complaint from the group about the next part of the lesson.

“Tell your table partner about your cloud.  Describe it to them and explain what you saw and drew.”

While they talked I passed out the lined paper…

  “Now, please write about your cloud.  I want details about what you saw, and also about how you drew it.”

It was amazing to watch them write.  Some were only able to write a paragraph, but all were engaged in the task, and all gave me their best work.  Even the non writers in the group!

Later we would have to do the requisite re-writes from our rough draft, but they were proud of their work and excited about the prospect of sharing it on the Parent Teacher Night.

I feel it was a wonderful experience for all of us.  They learned about cloud watching, negative space in art, and had a lesson on drafting and re-writing to boot!  However, for me, the experience was an affirmation of the use of  Art, and a Teachable Moment.  A special gift brought to us on a cloud.



From the movie ~ Mr. Holland’s Opus:

“Well, I guess you can cut the arts [and teachable moments] as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”
Jessica Di Santo ~ at the Blog by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

“Beethoven *needed* to compose.  As Mr. Holland states, we *need* the arts.  Students *need* exposure to creativity. Children *need* to let their imaginations run wild.”  (You can read her whole article HERE)


NOTE:  Some of you may have previously read this topic here, but I wanted to share it again because my friend “Z” (aka: Lisa) at Zeebra Designs & Destinations is guiding us in a quest to draw, to express ourselves, to stretch our ability and in my case, to break out of my need for perfectionism.   The thought of what you are about to look at just curdles my stomach, but here it is with all its warts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt isn’t even the current assignment, but I had to just DO IT, if you can understand.  So, for the record I thought my photograph of the original cloud looked like a Gnome laying there on the mountain. 

OK, I’m hyperventilating now…

Well, even Monet had to start somewhere.

Didn’t he? 😉

31 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in the West: the art lesson

  1. duck duck goose says:

    Being a perfectionist myself, I completely understand your lack of interest in putting artwork out there for the Universe to see. But being a pragmatist I will tell you, once again, that artwork lies in the so called “mistake areas”.

    If you want perfect images, you take a photograph. If you want artwort, you take “paint to paper”. I love your clouds. WAY better than a photograph of them.


    *my mom who was an artist (yes that is where I learned to be pragmatic) would make a line on a piecce of paper and hand it off to me to finish. Maybe it was wav, a squiggle, it was a line on a piece of paper. “Make it into something” were the only directions.

  2. Playamart - Zeebra Designs says:

    there’s no need to have cold sweats! the drawing is lovely, and you captured those rolling hills!! there’s a lot of movement as well! great job, great story and great beginning! thank you so much for doing this and sharing with all of us!
    i’ve been outside painting and am so glad i took a short break. i’ve an hour left of sunlight, so i’d best get back outside!

    • Lynda says:

      Hello, Rosemary’s granddaughter! You know you are the second person who saw something differently from me… and when I went back to look again, I actually could see the cloud through your eyes. Stranger yet, I went back and reread what I thought it was back then, and I had seen a dragon at that time! I keep hearing Joni Mitchell’s rendition of Both Sides Now.

  3. chatou11 says:

    I just see a nice rhinoceros swimming in the sky over this lovely landscape.
    Painting, drawing are good excercises to inspire confidence. I think you did very well Lynda
    Lovely day to you

    • Lynda says:

      You are kind, Chantal. Most of my family on both sides were talented at drawing and painting. I don’t know why the gene skipped me. But it is fun and I will keep working at it. I think starting with clouds was too complicated for a first try. 😉

  4. petspeopleandlife says:

    I really, realy liked this post. You were a wonderful teacher and I only wish that back in my days of school that I’d had a teacher such as you. Those little ones had a great teacher and I sure hope that they have thought back to you with fondness and appreciation. For the record, I can not draw squat!

    • Lynda says:

      Yvonne, thank you for your vote of confidence, and for the record, neither can I! I was born into a family with a mother, a brother, a cousin (Dad’s side), an aunt (DS), a grandmother (DS) and a grandfather (Mom’s side) who were incredibly talented. Their work made me feel deficient and incompetent as a child. This “Clouds” piece I did this weekend is exactly where I left off in sixth grade. I have a lot of catching up to do! 😉

  5. bluestempond says:

    I wish I’d had a teacher like you when I was a child. Especially in this fast-paced day and age, it is a gift to point them to the beauty of the clouds, their imaginations, and ways to express it.

    • Lynda says:

      I must confess Yvonne, I really was stunned that they had never been introduced to cloud watching. To me, it was one of the more joyous pastimes of childhood, and still is if I am honest. I was impelled to right what I perceived as a deficit to their process of imagination. As time went by I added many other activities in science and literature, and even music to what became a favorite thematic lesson plan for my students each year.

  6. shoreacres says:

    I love the story of you and your kids – that was just wonderful, yet another proof that learning and fun can go together. As for your clouds – I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t find the rhinoceros. What I do see is the top of a blackberry cobbler.

    Oh – now I do see the rhinoceros. He’d better not eat my cobbler!

    • Lynda says:

      Thank you, Linda! I had three teachers who really made learning fun when I was in grade school: Miss Rosemary in kindergarten who could sing and play piano with a hand puppet (he had lead weights in his feet); Mrs. Oliver with the ever-present, terrific smile, and who wasn’t afraid to get us outside to enjoy the day with our learning, and Mrs. Willard who loved to read to us. I had good role models, yes?

      Your cobbler is making me hungry!

  7. LB says:

    Lynda, your post and art work are lovely. The principal not approving of the “teachable moment” is … well, I won’t spoil the mood by going on about that! I just love that the children were so engaged and so responsive. They are lucky to have you guiding them!

    • Lynda says:

      LB, that was then and this is now. I am no longer in the classroom. I didn’t realize/understand it at the time, but when I came here to Alabama I was very broken in spirit. A lot has changed since then, and I am light years better! For a better understanding of what I am talking about you can read here: https://pixilatedtoo.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/ephemera/

      Thank your for your affirmation of my abilities. 😀

  8. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    1) Your students were VERY lucky.
    2) LOVE your piece.
    3) It’s just a myth… (There is no such thing as perfection; )

  9. Steve Schwartzman says:

    For the first part of 1968 I lived in the little town of La Esperanza (i.e. Hope) in Honduras. I remember listening to the radio there one day—probably the short wave band—and hearing Brahms’s Symphony #1, which somehow merged with the clouds I was watching overhead and seemed to describe them.

    • Lynda says:

      I have never been to Honduras, but I could see clouds forming and moving when I listened to this piece. In Costa Rica, one of the most amazing sights (for me at any rate) was to watch the clouds come in, rain like crazy, blow out, and then magically come up from the valley as steam to become clouds once more.

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