Media & Techniques

Ideas for Making Art Outdoors (Ep. 233)

With teachers receiving a lot of directives to take students outside when possible, Tim wanted to share ideas today for making art outdoors. Whether the artmaking is nature-related or not, it can be worthwhile for you and your students to get outdoors. Listen as Tim covers ideas for student engagement, artists to share, and the best media for outdoor artmaking. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University. And I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

A lot of research is showing that COVID doesn’t spread quite as easily when we’re outdoors. And I’ve seen a lot of discussion, gotten a lot of questions about outdoor classrooms, about activities that you can do outside with your classes, about art lessons, dealing with nature. And all of those things are things that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed getting my students outside. Sometimes just to change things up, to keep things fresh, just avoid staying in the same classroom, doing the same things day after day. And we may be required at this point. You may be stuck inside no matter what you wanted to do. But if you can get outside and I would encourage you to do that. And that’s some of the stuff that I want to talk about today. Even just taking sketchbooks outside and working on sketchbook assignments outside is worthwhile. It doesn’t even have to do with the outdoors, but just getting outside can be good for you and for your students. So if you have the opportunity to do so far, I would definitely encourage that.

And like I said, it doesn’t have to be an outdoor assignment. It doesn’t have to be nature-related. It’s cool if you want to do it that way. And a lot of the ideas that I’m going to share today will be about outdoor activities about nature-related art. But you may just want to do some things that are there for the experience. Some experiential work, some ideas may get you a really appealing, finished products. Some ideas, will not, but all of those experiences, all of that art making can be worthwhile. So let’s chat about some ideas for getting outside, getting your kids making art outdoors.

The first thing that I love to do is just some outdoor drawing. No matter what you’re doing for drawing, it can be an amazing experience for your kids. It’s a great first day activity. It’s a great way to start a new unit or a new lesson and just getting outside to draw. It’s great for kids to be outside to work on observational drawing, those observational skills are always important and there’s just a plethora of subject matter outside. Whether you’re looking big, looking small, doing things far away from you, doing things near you, there’s so many different ways to go about it. And depending on the scene that you have when you’re outside, you can talk about the elements of a landscape or what goes into a cityscape. You can have your kids draw those things. That’s what I’m talking about when we say big picture stuff.

And when we’re looking at smaller things for observation, find a single object and draw it. Pick up a leaf off the ground or a pine cone and try and draw that and try and capture the texture of the bark on a tree or just look at the park bench or where the sidewalk is going or a car that you see in the street. Any of those things can work for observational drawing as well. There’s no shortage of subject matter when you’re going outside. And you can do a lot to keep it interesting too. You can have your kids do timed drawings where you say, “We’re going to spend five minutes on this five minutes on this, and then five minutes on this.” Or you can have them draw the same thing three times, but give them a different amount of time each time. So what does a 10 minute drawing look like versus a two minute drawing versus a 30 second drawing? And just talk about market-making and how you can approach that. All the different ways to capture what they’re seeing.

You can do multiple drawings on the same page. That layered look is always good. I love seeing kids putting things on top of each other, figuring out composition, figuring out how to approach, how they’re going to fill that page. You can draw the same object with multiple materials. What does this look like with pencil versus pen versus colored pencil versus oil pastel? And try and figure out how we can explore media and look at things in different ways with the different media that we’re using. There are so many possibilities out there. So I would just encourage you to get creative, think about what you can do and allow your kids to get creative and think about what they can do when you’re outside, when you’re just doing some drawing.

Now, next thing that I see a lot of teachers doing is lessons inspired or are making inspired by Andy Goldsworthy. And it might feel a little bit cliche as you’re planning or as you’re doing because so many teachers do it, but I guarantee you, your kids are going to love it. And they love collecting materials. They love arranging materials. They love putting all of that stuff together and it can teach them so much about the elements and principles. You can have kids focus on color in their work or value or balance or harmony or texture. Possibilities seem like they’re endless. Just let your kids choose one element and one principle to focus on and show them different ways that things can be done with all of the natural materials that are around you.

And when I’ve taught Andy Goldsworthy before, I love showing a video or show images of Andy Goldsworthy stuff and just kind of discuss how he makes that, what is appealing about it? What they notice, is it the repetition? Is it the use of color? What captures their attention and then think about how they can recreate that. And then when you go outside, you can encourage your kids to collect all different materials and then just kind of divide them up like the thicker sticks go here. The thinner sticks go here. Rocks are here. Yellow leaves are here. Red leaves are here. Green leaves here. Just sort all of those different things out. And then they can figure out how to arrange those groups, how to put all of that together into one sort of eye catching piece that’s focusing on whichever element or whichever principle or both that you’re wanting them to check out.

And one thing that I think is always fun and can always be worthwhile is creating somewhere on your school grounds where things aren’t going to be disturbed. If your kids can create a sculpture, create an installation that can kind of remain there and then deteriorate naturally, it’s really fascinating for kids to be able to keep that connection to their work and kind of see how it progresses over time. How the wind affects it, how maybe getting snow on it affects it, how things start to decompose, they start to change. What does this look like now versus a week from now versus a month from now versus three months from now? And you can even have them document it if you want, but just being able to keep that connection and watch how things change over time is something that’s really fascinating for your kids. So like I said, using inspiration from Andy Goldsworthy may seem a little bit cliche because you see so many teachers doing it, but your students have not seen all of these teachers do it and the chance for them to create a work like that on their own is something that they will definitely enjoy and definitely appreciate.

Now, before we move on to more ideas, I want to take a quick break to talk about the Art of Education University and just everything that we are offering right now. Whether you’re teaching in person, you’re doing some type of hybrid model or you’re all remote, hey, we have the resources that you need to be successful. If you’re a PRO or a FLEX member, there’re just libraries full of resources that work for any situation, new ideas coming out every month that are responsive to what’s happening right now. The packs that came out in August in PRO are about understanding the logistics of teaching online and managing working from home during our extended school closure. Perfect for what teachers are facing right now, what they’re dealing with right now.

If you don’t have PRO or you don’t have FLEX, don’t worry. There are still thousands, literally thousands of resources on the AOU website that are there and that are free. We have a lot of things organized in what’s called the return to learn page on the site. So if you just go visit, a lot of things are organized there for you and we have resources for everybody, no matter what your teaching situation. So take some time to check that out. If you’re looking for some help, some inspiration, some ideas, or just some resources that you can use, it’s all on

All right, now circling back around to a few more ideas for working outdoors for bringing nature into your art making I want to share one that I first saw from Abby Schukei and that is to paint with mud. It’s super fun to do. Your kids love making a mess. And it’s so simple. To make a mud paint, like literally all you need to do is mix dirt and water. And just like watercolor the more water that’s added to the dirt, the lighter the mud will be and the lighter value that you’re painting with. And the more mud you have, the darker it’s going to be.

And I think one of the cool things that you can do is kids will realize that different types of dirt and different types of soil will create different hues. And I think that’s, if you can let your kids explore, that’s going to be something that’s worthwhile. And if you really want to get into it, you can have research the different types of soil that are around your area and try and figure out if they can find different types of soil around your school grounds. Like does the soil next to the building look different than the soil that’s 50 or a hundred yards away? And just kind of experiment and discover what’s out there. When you mix it with water what kind of hue does that make, and then figuring out how you can paint with that as well.

And just going back to the idea of how it’s similar to watercolor, the layers of mud can be built on top of each other as they dry, and you can do to create a more saturated painting. And you can, if you want add a little more color, a little more pop, mud is not that exciting when you’re painting with it, but if you have some drawing materials, whether that’s crayons or markers or colored pencils, you can add a little bit of color to your mud painting and it can be a lot of fun for your students.

And then another extension of that idea also from Abby, where I first saw it is you can actually make your own brushes. You can use sticks or grass or weeds or whatever brush-like material you can find. And then just figuring out how you’re going to tie them together. How are you going to put that together in the form of a brush, how you’re going to actually use that brush. And it takes a little bit of experimenting, but you can create some things that are really cool and really fun for kids to work with.

And if you remember back at the beginning of the episode here, I said that sometimes you’ll have finished products. Sometimes it’s more about the experience, but painting with mud or painting with your own brushes is definitely going to be more about the experience. Your kids are not going to be able to control what they want with nature made brushes, but it is something fun that they can play with, they can experiment with. I would just recommend that you talk to them about what their expectations are with these brushes, how well they’re going to be able to control whatever paint they’re using, et cetera, et cetera, but allowing them to be creative in creating their brushes, putting them together as well as using them and what they paint can be a lot of fun. So I think that’s something that is definitely worthwhile as well.

Another idea, sidewalk chalk is always a winner even with high schoolers, they love to get chalk out and draw on the sidewalk on the street, whatever you may have. You can do really fancy drawings. You can do just really simple designs, focusing on elements and principles and try and fill a lot of space. You can do things related to art history. You can do tessellations if you want to work some math in there, or talk about MC Escher a little bit. And even things just like positive messages are always a winner. Again, going back to Abby and some of her ideas, she has done positive messages around her school, around her neighborhood, and they never fail to impress. People love seeing them. And you always get a great reaction. So even if you have kids just writing positive messages with sidewalk chalk as they’re outside, that’s something that’s going to be worthwhile for your kids and for your school environment.

Next idea is creating stencils and using baby powder with those stencils. And I originally saw this idea from Ian Sands in a really old article from the art of ed and just using stencils, cutting them out of tag, poster board, whatever the case may be, whatever you have. It’s a great opportunity for kids to explore positive and negative space. They can design images and just black and white draw them out first, transfer those to, like I said, tag board and cardboard, whatever you may have, whatever you can use, just transfer the images and then cut out the positive space. And then you can put your stencil on the black top or wherever else, wherever you have a dark surface and then use the baby powder instead of spray paint and sprinkle it over there. And it’ll fall through wherever the kids have cut out their designs and not only does it smell great, it looks pretty cool too. That’s a great idea from Ian that it can be really fun for your kids to do. Especially if you have some advanced students who are interested in street art, interested in graffiti. That’s a good way for them to kind of explore some of those ideas.

And then another idea sort of speaking about street art is to create tape murals. And I think I originally saw some street artists making tape murals before I started it in my classroom and a ton of teachers do this now, but it’s a really, really cool idea that can be done just about anywhere. They’re fun, they’re easy to complete. All you need is a surface and a few rolls of tape. If you have a dark surface, masking tape works great. If you have a lighter surface, that blue painter’s tape will work really, really well. And like I said, they’re fun. They’re easy. All you need to do is have students develop their design first, draw it out, make sure they have a plan and then they can just go to work. And kids are usually so involved, so engaged with this, that it makes it really easy on you.

And you can work whatever types of concepts you want into there. It can be about messaging. It can be about art-related things like variations online or how you use crosshatching or patterns or even perspective. I remember once my colleague decided to do a tape mural for her perspective lesson and just saw all of these great perspective tape murals all over the school. And so that was a really, really cool way to do that. So it’s fun. It’s simple. And you can teach so many different things with it. As long as you have a little bit of a budget for tape, then it’s a great way to go about that.

And then I think finally, I mean, I know there’s a million other ideas, but the last one I want to talk about is just plain air painting. Going back to that idea I mentioned at the very beginning of the podcast about describing sketchbooks and going outside, grabbing some watercolor and going outside can be great as well. And anything that you can do with drawing, you can probably do with painting as well. Whether it’s landscapes or cityscapes or just observational painting of what your students are seeing. Any of those ideas are worthwhile. Any of those are worth exploring. And if nothing else, you can just let your kids experiment and play with watercolor and see what they’re able to create. You know your students, you know what works best for them. Just got to figure out what the best approach is with your particular group. And you can teach them so much with watercolor or you can just let them go and see what they create depending on who you have and what they’re interested in, but grab some watercolors and go outside.

But anyway, that’s a lot of ideas there and I think that’ll do it for us, but I hope one, at least one or two of these ideas can be helpful for you. And I hope that if you are actually in person with your kids right now that you’re able to get them outside for some art making. I understand that circumstances may dictate otherwise, but if you have the chance, get outdoors. It’ll be good for you. It’ll be good for your students. And it’ll be good for their art.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening. We’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.