Weird and Wonderful Watercolors

I believe I mentioned how overwhelmingly inspiring and simultaneously despair-inducing visiting the Sargent watercolors show was at the MFA earlier this year.  (I look at his work and kind of want to bang my head against a wall, but in a good way?)  I had a similar reaction checking out the Turner & the Sea show at PEM earlier this week, where Turner can make oil paintings look like watercolors and watercolors look like oils.

"PanPan" by Blule, click for link

“PanPan” by Blule, click for link

The good news is, you don’t have to be a Sargent, a Turner, or even a Blule to have fun with watercolors — and if the artistry just gets too much, tackle them with science!

This cyanometer from the 18th century is a watercolor gauge that helped scientists determine that water vapor in the atmosphere helps determine the blueness of the sky.  Click for link.

This cyanometer from the 18th century is a watercolor gauge that helped scientists determine that water vapor in the atmosphere helps determine the blueness of the sky. Click for link.

Artful Experiments (emphasis on the ‘art is fun’)


Color mixing via water gun, by Dreamscaping with June Rollins

Color mixing via water gun, by Dreamscaping with June Rollins

Water Pistol Color Mixing – Watercolors are fantastic for exploring color interactions, and misting a canvas prepped with pre-sprinkled paint with a water pistol sounds like a really good summer camp project.  I wonder if you could actually shoot liquid watercolor onto a paper?  What might happen then?


For a softer look, using liquid watercolors in a spray bottle works great.  Seems like a 'let's do this outside!' activity if you don't want to have to do a lot of clean up, though! Click for source.

Watercolor prints by Artful Kids

Watercolor Spray Negatives – I’ve linked these before in a prints post, but the fact remains that this is a beautiful technique and one I still want to try!

Artful Experiments (emphasis on the ‘scientists can have fun too’)

Painted salt sculpture from Fun at Home with Kids

Painted salt sculpture from Fun at Home with Kids

Painted Salt Sculptures – a fun color mixing and absorption activity, with bonus crystal study!  I wonder what would happen if you used sugar or some other substance instead of salt?


Flower watercolors from Learn Play Imagine

Flower watercolors from Learn Play Imagine

Make Your own Watercolors 1 – From Flowers  or 2 – From Fruits, Vegetables, and Spices – I especially like the first link, but the second has some suggestions for source materials I hadn’t seen elsewhere.  This would be a fun activity to do in concert with/relation to a study of pigments in leaves, as well.

Oil and Watercolor interactions from Easy Art Activities with Kids

Oil and Watercolor interactions from Babble Dabble Do

Oil and Watercolors, Theme and Variations – Eyedroppers, oil, water, and watercolors make for a great experiment in density and paper marbling!

Erupting watercolors from Learn - Play - Imagine

Erupting watercolors from Learn – Play – Imagine

Erupting Watercolors – This is a combination of multiple science explorations: water absorption, color mixing, chemical reactions – I can’t wait to try this out with a group at the museum.  I just need a good story or art object to tie it to!  (We’ve got to have a volcano related artwork somewhere in the collection…)

Happy Trails: A Year of Stories and Art

Once a month, I lead Story Trails, a program for families on Sunday afternoons that’s targeted for kids ages 5-8 with their accompanying adults.  We look closely at an artwork in one of the exhibits, read an associated story, and then head for a studio space (or other safe art-making zone) and create something inspired by the artwork, the story’s theme, the illustration style, or the associated science/history/literature component.  (Remember how my middle name is ‘interdisciplinary?’) Along with whatever their creation is, participants (including adults, because grown ups get to play too) take home a set of other recommended books, interesting web links, and an activity to try at home.  Sometimes we also have special guest speakers, generally local authors and illustrators, with the occasional bee-keeper or lobster fisherman.

It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work, and it’s one of my favorite programs, so I thought I would share the books and art activities that I loved most from this year.

January: The Spiral Connection
Book: Blockhead, the Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese
Exhibition Connection: Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O
Art Making: Wall hangings with Fibonacci prints – we used flowers (both silk and cut flowers will do, flatter ones like sunflowers and daisies are better), pinecones, and seashells with fabric paint on plain white bandanas (available at most craft stores), to make printed patterns that feature examples of the Fibonacci sequence in nature, and then added extra decorations with fabric markers, and hung the bandanas on dowels to create easy-to-hang fabric art for your wall.
January Story Trails handout-small

I love the 'turning page' look that our creative services team designed to differentiate Story Trails programming from other museum events.

I love the ‘turning page’ look that our creative services team designed to differentiate Story Trails programming from other museum events.

February: Read the Stars
Book: How the Stars Fell into the Sky by Jerrie Oughton (retelling of a Navajo Coyote story, which is traditionally only told in the winter months)
Exhibition Connection: Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art
Art Making: Constellation Light Boxes – We talked about creation stories and specifically constellation stories, and then used awls and sharpened dowels to punch holes in shoe boxes to create our own (or recreate known) constellation patterns.  We then added a hole in whatever side of the box was opposite the constellation pattern to either a) hold up to our eye and then up to the light to see the stars ‘shine’ or b) put a bright flashlight into and project the star pattern into a darkened room.
February Story Trails handout

March: Cloud Factory and Guest Appearance by Illustrator Katy Bratun
BookSector 7 by David Weisner
Exhibition Connection: the concept of storyboarding in art, as exemplified by a series of paintings of a battle in the Maritime Art collection
Art Making: Katy Bratun led a story-boarding workshop in which kids drew a series of 4-8 panels of a story on the theme of taking a journey, and bound them into a simple book using card stock and yarn.  This was a great literacy-skills support program and kids were very, very excited to share their stories with a real author/illustrator.
March Story Trails handout

April: Weslandia
Book: Weslandia by Paul Fleischman
Exhibition Connection: Earth Day, and an incredibly cool bit of textile art on view in Perfect Imbalance: Exploring Chinese Aesthetics that featured pumpkins, ears of corn, and tomatoes as exotic fruits
Art Making: Butterfly Seed Mats — We used burlap, white glue, and butterfly seed mix to create biodegradable bits of art that you could plant in a corner of your garden and grow wildflowers to attract butterflies.  Simple but incredibly effective.  This book happened to be requested in the previous year’s visitor survey, and happily was already on my list for potential programming.
April Story Trails handout copy

May: Sing a Song for Mothers and Family!
Book: Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke
Exhibition Connection: Mother’s Day, and inspired by both the African Art collection and PEM’s ceramics collection
Art Making: Good Cheer Jars – We mod-podged tissue paper and other bits of recycled paper onto glass jars to create good cheer jars.  A good cheer jar can work any of several ways: a) a semi-voluntary fine paid when one is in a bad mood, the proceeds from which are then used to do something cheery for the family like a trip out for ice cream, b) a collection of slips of paper on which you write things that make you happy and pull one out to read when you need cheering up, c) a mandatory fine for using the household’s forbidden words like ‘I’m bored.’
May Story Trails handout copy

sand serpent

My Sea-Monster sand painting, which is still on display over my desk.

June: Beneath the Deep Blue Sea
Book: The Serpent Came to Gloucester by M.T. Anderson
Exhibition Connection: Local history and the Maritime Art collection
Art Making: Sea-Monster Sand Paintings — Using pre-cut mattes, construction paper, white liquid glue, sand, pebbles, and small sea shells and bits of sea glass, we created maritime-inspired natural collages.  Some of them got very, very intricate, particularly those who decided to make mosaics of sea glass.  This was one of my personal favorite art activities, and many of the adults who were at the program participated with gusto.
June Story Trails handout

Illustration from The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

Illustration from The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

July: What a Bright Idea!
Book: The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton
Exhibition Connection: Contemporary art in the Japanese Art collection
Art Making: Day-Glo (and Glow-in-the-Dark) Paintings — Using black construction paper, day-glo poster paint, and some very cool glow-in-the-dark paint, we created scenes that looked awesome in general and even better under the light of our interactive black light box.  We also had samples of varying materials that kids could test to see whether or not they would react with the black light and start to glow, including beads, assorted fabrics, gelatinous substances (in safe containers), and assorted paper products.  This was one of the year’s most popular programs.
July Story Trails handout copy

August: What Does the Clay Say?
Book: Dave the Potter, Artist, Poet, Slave by Bryan Collier and Laban Carrick Hill
Exhibition Connection: Ceramics in the American Art collection
Art Making: Experimenting with Clay – Though the idea was to start with pinch pots and some coil-building, clay programs always take on a life of their own.  Some people made pots, others branched out into sculpture and beyond.  Everyone had a fabulous time, including some adults who had missed the story and had no kids, but wanted to come work with clay anyway.
August Story Trails handout copy

September: Hats Off To You!
Book: Miss Hunnicutt’s Hat by Jeff Brumbeau
Exhibition Connection: Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones
Art Making: Decorate a hatbox – We used 12″ cake boxes from ULine, which fold into very decent sized hatboxes and are easy to decorate with colored pencil, stickers, collaged recycled material, and crayon.
Sept Story Trails handout copy

October: Canine Crusader
Book: Dex – The Heart of a Hero by Caralyn Buehner (alternate title Superdog)
Exhibition Connection: Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones and the Caps, Capes, and Characters weekend festival (organized by me)
Art Making: Superhero capes with interchangeable emblems – We used SmartFab and craft foam with adhesive velcro dots to create capes (I cut each cape to length to suit children individually), and discussed designing emblems that suited their personalities for their superhero alter egos.  The velcro made it possible to rearrange or replace emblems later.
Oct Story Trails handout copy

Detail from the Pastrana tapestries

Detail from the Pastrana tapestries

November: Oh What a Knight!
Book: The Knight and the Dragon by Tomie dePaola and The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke
Exhibition Connection: The Invention of Glory: Alfonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries and the Weaving Tales of Glory weekend festival (also organized by me)
Art Making: Tournament pennants — More SmartFab and back to fabric paint — we created jousting pennants inspired by the fabulous examples in the Pastrana Tapestries and the illustrations in both books.
Nov Story Trails handout copy

December: A Patient Brush
Book: Twenty Heartbeats by Dennis Haseley
Exhibition Connection: Perfect Imbalance: Exploring Chinese Aesthetics
Art Making: Chinese brush painting – We used rice paper (available at ACMoore or less expensively from Dick Blick), Chinese calligraphy brushes, and red and black watercolor paint, with examples from ‘how to’ books on traditional brush painting style.
Dec Story Trails handout copy

Holograms, Impossible Objects, and Floating Furniture

An impossible shape, the Penrose triangle, in Gotschuchen, Austria, erected in 2008 by the "physics meeting" association as part of the project "Physics on Spielplatz" Used with a creative commons license. Click for source.

Impossible Objects

In one of my recent posts I mentioned that studies have shown that we start recognizing impossible objects when very young.  Fortunately, they continue to be fascinating, and have led to amazing art, interior design, and stories like DB Johnson’s Escher-inspired Palazzo Inverso.  (I’m still holding out for a closet that’s either Narnia or a TARDIS, but while they are working on making tractor beams a reality, pocket dimensions to increase the size of my apartment are not on next year’s Christmas list.)

…Though I might want to talk to this guy: Jerry Andrus’s Illusions.  The warping clouds are enough to give you a headache, but the bolt-through-the-impossible-nuts is pretty impressive.  Even after seeing it repeatedly my brain still gets tricked.

Check out other life-sized impossible sculptures like the one above from Austria here.  Almost all of them are the sort that require you to look at them from one particular perfect vantage point: if you’re feeling inspired, there are directions on creating your own impossible triangle sculpture at Cool Optical Illusions: Penrose Triangle.


If they’re working on tractor beams, surely holodecks aren’t far behind.  Eye Spy featured artist Betsy Connors is a holographer here in Boston, and likes to work with whole-room holographic installations, though her works currently showing at the Peabody Essex Museum are discrete elements instead of a single larger piece.  Her route to holographic creations includes lasers, a giant sand table, mirrors, film, and a multi-step developing process (see the PEM interview with her here).

If you’d like to try a similar effect without the heavy-duty equipment, William Beatty’s got detailed instructions and a lot of related links on creating what he calls a “Scratch” or “Abrasion” hologram.

Through the Looking Glass

Optical illusions are a great inspiration for unusual decoration.  These designers have gone beyond painting the roses red, however, to create chairs and couches that seem to (or maybe even will) float, exploding bureaus, room-lengthening curtains (aha!  there’s my pocket dimension after all!) and invisible tables.

Still here? After all those cool ideas?  Fine, have a book trailer for the aforementioned Palazzo Inverso, a very entertaining story you read front to back, and then upside down back to front.  And when you’re done with that, go read Mirror Mirror, which is a set of fairy tale poetry from two points of view, read down the page and then up it again.

Light, Shadow, and Trees

It’s been blinking hot, which means that everyone I know has been in search of and grateful for even a tiny scrap of shade when forced to be outside the last few days.

One of the things I love about shade on a sunny day is looking up through the leaves to see the patterns and variations of green that you get from the overlapping leaves.

Photo credit to chamberlain_tim

One of the artists featured in Eye Spy clearly feels the same way.  Mary Temple is an artist who works primarily with concepts of light and shadow — tree shadows falling on buildings, through windows, across floors, etc. Many of her works are either photocollage or painted to the sharpness of a black-and-white photograph, but one of my absolute favorites of hers is neither.

Corner Light (Grape Arbor), 2006 by Mary Temple

In Corner Light (Grape Arbor), the image you see is actually part of the paper–sections of it have been washed or scratched away to create a translucent window within the paper which the light then shines through.  Though this piece is a lot less in-your-face whiz-bang-wow than a lot of the works in Eye Spy, in the early mornings when the Art & Nature Center is quiet it’s one of my favorite pieces to just savor for a little while.

If you’d like to make your own light garden piece, try out my Layered Light Quilts activity.  It’s creation by addition instead of subtraction to make it easier for kids and also easier to find the supplies–but if you hang one in your window you’ll get some of that same dappled-leaf glow.

Download the pdf directions here:  Layered Light Quilts directions

Raise (detail) from the series "Light Installations, 2002-present", 2008 by Mary Temple at Western Bridge, Seattle WA

Hunting Reflective Surfaces: Eye Spy Opening Day Preparations

As some of you may have realized, my longer-than-usual break between posts has been occasioned by the looming approach of Saturday’s opening day for the Art & Nature Center’s new exhibition, Eye Spy, Playing with Perception.  This show features a variety of artists, techniques, and ways of thinking about how and why we see and perceive the world the way we do.  As this is a year-long show, I’m going to limit myself today to talking about some of the very cool pieces that use mirrors, and one of the activities I have planned for opening day.

One artist featured in Eye Spy whom I’ve mentioned before is Devorah Sperber, who does remarkable things with thread.  We have three of her works in Eye Spy, one of which is not only pixellated into thread spools and hung upside down, but is also an anamorphic distortion, meaning that it is warped to a very particular angle so that it can only be deciphered through looking at a half-spherical mirror.

Sperber's anamorphic Spock

Sperber's Spock 2 (anamorphic), 2007, *1,702 spools of thread. Not the anamorphic work we have in the show, but awesome in its own right. Click to see more of Sperber's "Mirror Universe" works.

Another artist who does remarkable things with mirrors is Daniel Rozin, whose pieces Self-Centered Mirror and Mirror Number 5 are featured in Eye Spy.  (You can see a shot of Self-Centered Mirror on the PEM Eye Spy exhibition page linked above.)

Therefore, one of the activities we’ve planned for Saturday involves sketching your own anamorphic portrait.  Not only will we have two funhouse mirrors to play with your reflection, but we also wanted smaller, cool ‘shiny’ stuff that you could hold and examine your reflection while sketching your warped self.  (No judgment in that adjective, merely a comment on the convex and concave!)

Photo credit to "Brendan Alexander's Perplexing Times." Click for link.

Here’s the question…where do you find shiny stuff that will give you those cool reflections, clearly enough that you have a prayer of sketching the result?  The secondary question is…how do you do that without spending oodles of money?

Having discovered to my dismay that not all spoons are anywhere near reflective enough, I embarked on a shiny-surface hunt, accompanied by one of the most creative people I know, who prefers to remain anonymous.  Our first stop was the local dollar store, which was not as helpful as I hoped–however, we did locate some reasonably shiny spoons, 4 for a dollar, a kid’s pair of mirrored sunglasses, and two cosmetic mirrors that had a normal side and a magnifying side.  Total output, about 8 bucks.  Not bad, but not anywhere near enough.

Next stop, thanks to my creative consultant, was the local hardware store.  Two women walking into a hardware store is a perfect opening for any number of well-meaning and only occasionally condescending offers of assistance from the folks who work there, and this trip was no exception.   Imagine, if you please, my utter delight in telling the clerk who offered his assistance that I was looking for ‘shiny stuff.’  He looked at me like I had three heads–and when I went on to explain what I needed it for, he continued to look at me like I had three heads, and had also hit him over the head with a 2×4.  (I love getting reactions like that.)  Meanwhile, while he was telling me that they were really more ‘focused on practical stuff’ and that he doubted I’d find anything, my creative consultant was peering around into the next aisle and beginning to call out all kinds of cool stuff she was finding.

Score one for the educators.

Final haul from the hardware store (after regretfully passing over some very cool and very expensive chromed faucets and other fascinating bits and pieces) included concave drawer handles, stovetop reflectors of a few different sizes, and a few lengths of chromed pipe, including one that is shaped like a U.  (I’m looking forward to handing that to some kid and saying ‘look, you’re on U-tube!’ tomorrow.)  So now I have a basket of stuff–come and sketch tomorrow!

…And if you’re not feeling up to that, check out our custom-made anamorphic puzzles, in which you can’t assemble the warped puzzle pieces and make sense of the image that results without using a cylindrical mirror.

One of the historical anamorphic sketches that was the inspiration for our Anamorphic Puzzlers!

Popping with Poetry

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

~Emily Dickinson

Ms. Dickinson was clearly a Brain Popcorn-style poet.  (She also reputedly said “The brain is wider than the sky,” a sentiment I quite enjoy.)  And so I am happy to say…

It’s National Poetry Month!  (As good a reason as any to love the fact that it’s April, just as Archaeology Month is  a grand thing to celebrate in October.)

There are a lot of very cool things going on in the world for National Poetry Month, and here are a smattering of particularly interesting and/or interdisciplinary approaches:

One Day Poem Pavilion — a very neat project, brought to deserving attention by Paul Orselli over on Exhibitricks.  This particular intersection of art and science writes a poem with sunlight and cardboard which changes as the day progresses.  Be sure to check out the time lapse video.

You Too Can Haiku — ARTSEDGE does it again!  A nice satisfying lesson plan incorporating writing, visual art, and multicultural discussion.

Michelangelo Complains in Rhyme about the Sistine Chapel — Highly amusing, even if one probably loses something in the translation.  (And it holds particular shine for me, as I’m going to Italy at the end of next week!)  This would be a really fun poem to tie in to a discussion/activity on ekphrasis.  If you’re looking for further ideas, I recommend this lesson plan over at ReadWriteThink.

MYO Magnetic Poetry Activity Plan (downloadable pdf) This is the list of materials and directions for a Make Your Own Magnetic Poetry activity that I’ve done several times at The Discovery Museums, and which will also be one of the April drop-ins at the Art & Nature Center here at PEM.  It’s entertaining, and though pre-cutting words can be time consuming, it’s very rewarding to watch people sift through the words and exclaim over the ones they find.  Small kids through teenagers and adults have fun with this one!

Finally, I would like to applaud this particular random act of poetry in a grocery store.  That kind of news just makes my day.

Brighten Your Day

It’s been raining in New England, have you heard?  I blame Chac, the Maya god of rain, who is currently taking up residence in the Peabody Essex Museum… (Amusingly, so does The Salem News.)

So if you’ve got a case of the grays, here’s a collection of fun things to lighten up your day!

“Bright Ideas: Light Bulbs Stimulate Insights” — “New research finds exposure to a bare, illuminated light bulb — a universal symbol of bright ideas — is a catalyst to reaching insights. ” (Ah, but does it work with CFLs?)

Re-using Lightbulbs as Mini-Terrariums Surprisingly pretty! And a neat statement about going green.  (Definitely does not work with CFLs! Can you imagine a teeny tiny twisted terrarium?  You can?  Good.  Now say that back to me five times fast.)

24,000 LED's, but no glass slippers

Designer Duo Create Dress with 24,000 LED’s — “We used the smallest full-color LEDs, flat like paper, and measuring only 2 by 2 mm,” say designers Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz… “The circuits are extra-thin, flexible and hand-embroidered on a layer of silk in a way that gives it stretch so the LED fabric can move like normal fabric with lightness and fluidity.”

How-to’s and Lesson Plans on Light and Waves from the New Zealand Physics Teachers’ Resource Bank.  Lots of very cool stuff here, including a very small-scale demonstration of eye resolution and color mixing, which would be an interesting tie in to a discussion of Impressionism and pointillism, I think, as well as an explanation of how TV’s and monitors work.

lilac chaser illusion

Look steadily at the black center of the circle. What happens to the circle of dots? Blink a few times. What happens? Click the picture for an explanation.

20 Amazing Optical Illusions — The Lilac Chaser above is #13 on the list.

Ideabox: CD’s and CD cases

photo credit to ChristopherA

Due to the upswing of digitally-downloaded music, mp3 players, et al. there are a lot fewer junk CD’s and spare CD cases lying around these days.  This is certainly good for the planet, but not so great for those of us who like making cool projects out of them.  Fortunately, computer programs still end up replaced, CD-R’s burn with skips in them and have to be redone, and random CD cases still turn up in the bottom of your desk drawer when you least expect them.

So…what are some fun and funky things to do with these fabulous plastic leftovers?

ideabox cds

CD’s themselves

It is, of course, completely possible to just Google ‘CD crafts’ and find some cute projects, especially for kids–there are a reasonable number of idea-starters at Kaboose, for instance.  However, all that sifting takes time, so here are a few others of my favorites so far.

For the seasonally appropriate: Making CD Christmas Ornaments

For the jewelry fan: Example of CDs turned into earrings

For people who like to play with fire: (no seriously, apparently they want you to use a candle to heat the CD in order to bend it!) How to Make a CD into a Cellphone Holster

For the purely silly: CD Air Hockey Rink

For the science-minded: CD’s are obviously cool for the way they split light into its component rainbow colors–this is called a diffraction grating.  For an explanation of diffraction grating, how it works, and CD’s in particular, click here.  For a really cool build-your-own-spectroscope project, click here.

CD Jewel Cases

For the nature fan: CD Jewel Case birdhouse/greenhouse

For the recyclables architect: Cubic Display Case on Instructables (there are a lot of other cool CD case projects on the same site, check the sidebar for a few examples!)

Still looking for more ideas? There’s another fun collection on HubPages, here.  My favorite idea there is definitely the suncatcher, but see what inspires you!

Stay tuned for the next Ideabox post: cool stuff to do with those CD-R and DVD-R spindles, thread spools, and more!