5 Simple Sub Plans to Make Your Life Easier

I love my job and I love my students, so I try to avoid being gone as much as possible. However, there are times when I just can’t be there. There are times when I need to plan for a sub.

The problem with subs is that they are rarely art teachers. They are nervous to sub in the art room. They don’t handle working on ongoing projects very well. And, if you don’t provide them with an easy-to-follow lesson, you can end up with all sorts of crazy.

While I like to leave easy-to-teach lessons, I don’t want to leave pointless projects.

Here are 5 lessons that will work for almost any grade level.

They require simple supplies and will develop art skills while keeping your sub comfortable. I hope they make your next absence easier to handle!

sub plans

1. Dot to Dot Contest

dot to dot

Art Skills: craftsmanship, shading


  • dot to dot images
  • colored pencils

My kids love this project. In fact, they ask for it if they know that I will be gone. I leave 4-5 different dot to dot images. Students are asked to complete the dot to dot and then finish the image with shading. This project focuses on craftsmanship in how they connect the dots and also in how they finish their coloring. I have the sub remind the students that if their images contain 3- dimensional objects, they will need to add shading to make them look more realistic. I find that making this project a contest makes the students work extra carefully.

In addition to simple projects, games are another great activity to leave for subs. However, it’s important that they’re well-designed and connected to your curriculum. Lindsey Moss shares some amazing ideas in the Utilizing Games in the Art Room PRO Learning Pack! You’ll walk away with tons of ideas and resources to get started right away.

2. Famous Artwork Remake

famous art remake

Art Skills: creative thinking, photo restoration, craftsmanship


  • famous image photographs
  • coloring book images
  • colored pencils

This project is a fun one that asks the sub to teach your students about art restoration. I have the sub read this paragraph to the students: Congratulations students! NMS Painting Restoration has contacted me, as you have been selected to refurbish several different famous paintings. Their owners still love the pieces but find them a bit outdated. They know that you are highly creative and that you possess a lot of skills when it comes to restoring old paintings. They would like for you to update their paintings. You can add to the images or you can leave out information. However, you will need to draw the image and color it. Next week the owner, Mrs. Carlisle, will judge your work. The most creative artist who ALSO demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship will win the commission.


I leave the original pieces printed out on the board and some black and white images printed from this coloring book. (You can adjust the contrast on your copy machine so that only a faint image shows up.) Students work throughout the class period and usually take them home to finish them. I love the creative ways students change their images. I love that they see and learn about different famous portraits. As a bonus, they learn about a real job they could have as an art career.

3. Artist Challenge

artist inspiration

Art Skills: creative thinking, illustration


  • printed copies of artists’ images
  • markers or pens
  • photocopies of starting points

This project is a fun one that could focus on the work of lots of different current artists. I have had students looks at the work of Javier Perez, who adds cartoon illustrations to everyday objects. I have had them look at the “daily monster” drawings of Stefan Bucher. I have a lesson planned that looks at Michael Robertson’s crazy monster faces.

Regardless of who the artist is, have the students create a simple drawing reflecting the work of the artist. Make sure that you require them to do more than just copy the work of the artist. Make them think of new and cool ways to do similar things. I like giving everyone the same image as a starting point.

4. 9 Square

9 square

Art Skills: typography, pen and ink


  • 9 square drawing paper
  • ink pens

This lesson was designed after I saw the Black and White Letter Designs posted to Zionsville Middle School’s Artsonia page. I was perusing Pinterest for ideas and when I saw the image, I knew that it would make a great sub plan. I draw out a bunch of different letters on the board and then leave the rest up to the students. They are told to draw the same letter or number in each box but make each one look different. This challenges their creative thinking skills and asks them to stretch beyond the two or three ideas generally required for brainstorming.

5. Color Challenge

color schemes

Art Skills: craftsmanship, color families


  • photocopies
  • colored pencils

This simple lesson is a great introduction or review of color theory. I make photocopies of coloring book pages, but then I challenge the students to finish them with only one color family. You could also tie this lesson to value scales by encouraging students to vary their pressure when coloring to create different values.

While these lessons don’t guarantee that you won’t ever get that rogue sub who whips out the paint or clay and lets the students “get creative,” I hope they help you feel a little more confident when you have to be gone. Your students will be actively engaged and learning a little bit more about art. I know that my subs report enjoying teaching these lessons and that my students enjoy working on them.

If you’re looking for even more sub info, check out the following articles.

What is your favorite sub plan?

What is one thing you always do when you have a sub?

Jennifer Carlisle


Jen is a middle school art teacher from Norfolk, NE who loves exploring and teaching art through traditional and digital art mediums.


  • Sepa49

    My students positively respond to art roll and draw games. I have collected a number of worksheets via pinterest along with dice to roll. Everyone becomes engaged and creative with this activity.

  • Naomi Bailey

    “All…sorts…of…crazy”. You got that right. Beware, venting story below.

    I HAVE to share my substitute story from last week.

    I absolutely must. As most all other teachers in my school have not been able to sympathize, because in their eyes- this, gulp, “substitute experience” would have been ideal. I just got to, got to get some sympathy “oooo’s”…. and “yea, that sucks…” from some fellow art teachers. I am sure if I were a general education teacher, then, yes, arriving back to school with a freshly “organized and cleaned” room would have been a breath of fresh air!

    I took a personal day as I have an infant at home and just need time to sit in silence in a dark room. Might I add this is my first day off this academic year (not due to snow or school holiday). I rarely take off. And sadly, after this experience, I will think twice before doing so, again. I left a neat, organized, explanatory plan on my desk and reviewed with my children the day before what the activity would be. (A Google doodle project. They were to create their own Google logo to recognize a special anniversary, holiday, etc. using drawn images.) I teach in a middle school, so the lesson was absolutely appropriate. The kids were super excited about it and already were sharing great ideas.

    During the personal day, I got a text from a fellow teacher asking about the plans that I left. She said she had walked by my room and that the kids were on their HANDS and KNEES scrubbing my floors, walls, and tables. Knowing, that isn’t typically a substitute activity, she expressed concern. Might I add, we are in the process of making a mural and I have not decided to do a final clean up of the floors, walls, and tables, just yet, as this is in PROCESS. Also, my kids are extremely well behaved, so this wasn’t a punishment.

    The substitute teacher took it upon herself to “crack the whip” and have my students absolutely GUT my cabinets, shelves, storage drawers, etc and to REORGANIZE (“reorganize”) it ALL. She also felt it necessary to paint a LARGE black line around my desk area to separate the space in the floor so that children wouldn’t be allowed to cross it.

    Gulp. Not to mention NONE of the plans I left for the activity were completed. The kids, being polite, did not question her instructions. but because “we tight”… they told me that she was talking smack about me and how unorganized and nasty my habits were. Excuse me. EXCUSE ME!?

    So, when I returned to school pleasure understand I got NO sympathy from fellow teachers. “What a dream that must have been to come into that clean room!” ha!

    Not only were all of my things out of place, but she threw away my rosters and emergency procedure documents, and 504, IEP forms…. which were all neatly placed in appropriate binders. And of course, after I shared that information, I got a tad bit of concerning, “oh no!”s.

    And drum roll please… I presented all of this information to our principal and the sub is BACK TODAY! For another teacher!

    God bless. Thanks for reading. Maybe this will be the sort of thing that I laugh about later…..

    • Art Teacher For Life

      That is awful. I would have cried. I have had a sub gut my room before when I had emergency surgery. I got back and all my examples that I had left on a shelf in my room where thrown away.
      I have also had a sub ignore my sub plans when telling her to use the copy paper for their project and instead use my 12 x 18 white drawing paper. She didn’t even use the lesson plan I had assigned the students and then sent them home with the students that day. I didn’t even get to see it or help make it better. I also save all their artwork for the end of the year because we do an Art Show. Most subs do not understand why things are messy in the art room and why we leave certain projects for them to do. Just last week I left an art quiz for my 3-5 grade which was their pre test. The sub decided it was too hard and required a lot of writing and had them trace coins instead. Then when she didn’t get all of her coins back after handing them out for them to trace got mad at them. There are plenty more stories where this comes from and I feel your pain. I am sorry you didn’t get any responses to you comment. I hope even though this is a year old it will help typing this to you. I hope you are still teaching art and loving it.

  • Donald B Hoffman

    I received a call today for my very first substitute teacher assignment tomorrow…as an Art Teacher! I has been prepping to teach English, Math, History, Social Studies; but had never even thought about Art. I did some research and found your site, which put many of my fears to rest and was extremely helpful. I figured that it would be helpful to know what an Art Teacher expected from her substitute, so I would not blunder and mess up. Thank you for the links and the great ideas, hopefully there will be a lesson plan, but if not I will now have some ammunition. Hopefully, I will nevere be the subject of a “venting” post from another teacher.

    • Stacy

      Mr. Hoffman, I want to thank you for going above and beyond! I wanted to congratulate you on being awesome! :) What a blessing you are to your district!