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…)

It’s the Most Wordiful Time of the Year

Happy National Poetry Month, Everyone!

As you know from previous posts (2010, 2011), I love this month.  I like seeing poems pop up on my RSS and Twitter and assorted other feeds; I like having excuses to talk about poetry (even more than I usually do), and I like giving myself time to read poetry in a more concentrated way.  This year,  I also liked developing a raft of new family-friendly art&poetry events for the museum.

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival is happening in Salem again this year, at the end of this week (Friday-Sunday).  PEM is a host for a number of reading and concert events from the larger festival (I’m particularly looking forward to the Typewriter Orchestra), but I’m also spearheading a collection of activities tying the visual to the verbal arts for kids and families, including a collaborative paper mural “Grow a Poet-tree,” make your own magnetic poetry, illuminated capitals word-art, a docent-led poetry tour, and a self-guided Poet Quest.

"River of Words: Stream of Conscience" as installed in Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O at the Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by me.

We also have the talented and charming artist Christine Destrempes back to talk about her “River of Words” project (featured in Ripple Effect), and invite visitor participation in the next installment of same, and the highly entertaining David Zucker who will be reciting and performing “Poetry in Motion.”

Detail from the "River of Words: Stream of Conscience" project by Christine Destrempes. Photo by me.

For more info, check out the MA Poetry Fest’s spotlight on PEM’s involvement with the MA Poetry Festival this year, and another article featuring my family-focused events.

Sketchbook belonging to Ripple Effect featured artist Janet Fredericks, who writes poetry in connection to her "Tracings" river drawings, also featured in the exhibition. Photo by me.

Spot poetic influences throughout the Art & Nature Center! In our clouds and vapor room, for instance...
"Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky." ~Diane Ackerman, poet/naturalist
Photo by me.

Methinks that cirrus cloud is ruffled like your shirt collar, Master Shakespeare. Photo by me.

We’re also highlighting poetry in the Art & Nature Center’s popular “Books and Boxes Zone”–come by to check out some of our fantastic books!

Plenty of fun things to read, by many of the ANC's favorite writers! Pull up a couch, grab a puppet or a friend, and enjoy. Photo by me.

Happy International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day, according to the calendar hanging in my office, was technically September 8th, but as I have been having inexplicable glitches attempting to access WordPress, I’m a little behind.  (But the Salem LitFest isn’t for another week, so I’m still in the running!)

Therefore, in the name of celebrating cool stuff, which today is reading (who am I kidding?  We celebrate reading all the time in my world), I bring you neat thoughts about literacy, and a handful of reading-related activities.

First of all, good news for those of us who have more books than shelves to put them on: Book owners have smarter kids from

And next, hear about how educators at the Eric Carle Museum focus on ‘reading the pictures’ in their storytimes as much as reading the words, improving comprehension and engaging kids and adults in the art of illustration: Noggin video

Looking for good books to read?  Ask your local librarian or check out some useful lists on Reading Rockets, helpfully organized by theme.

Also, don’t forget to check out the awesome interdisciplinary lesson plans available at the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge–many of them have literacy themes.  One of my favorites is the Adjective Monster, a ‘paper sculpture’ art and geometry project built around Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley.

Illustration from Wiesner's Flotsam

Inspired by the ‘reading pictures’ video?  Everyone loves a good wordless book, and David Wiesner has created several.  Try out this very cool classroom photography project featured in School Library Journal and inspired by Flotsam, with neat tie-ins to science and history.  Kudos to my Anonymous Tip-Master for pointing this one out! I love how crazy and beautiful his illustrations are, and part of a long tradition of fish-exaggerations.  In 1719, the first full-color illustrated book of fish was published, including several fish that were figments of the illustrator’s imagination!  (See The Fantasy Fish of Samuel Fallours for the scoop.)

For more science tie-ins, read Flotsam paired with Tracking Trash, a very cool book about ocean currents and the problem of the ocean as ‘plastic soup’ [National Geographic].  Sector 7 is also a personal favorite, and great for teaching story-boarding or introducing a unit on clouds.

And lest we think all literacy only has to do with kids old enough for words, a neat article about visual literacy that begins developing in infancy: Escher-Themed Nurseries?  Even 4 month olds can recognize impossible objects from Cognitive Daily.  (You thought I’d manage not to include a reference to Eye Spy in this post, didn’t you?  Tune in next time for more cool stuff to do with impossible objects and how to create your own scratch holograms!)

Fair-Weather Forts and other Sunshine Notions

It’s warming up, it’s almost school vacation week here in Massachusetts, and as the leaves are starting to unfurl I thought I’d offer up some paper-craft options for fresh-air fun.

In 1930s London, parents made up for a lack of garden space by suspending infants high outside tenements in wire cages.

That’s an idea whose time has fortunately gone by, but if you’ve got that spring-air fever, may I recommend a fair-weather fort made of newspaper?

Indulge your architectural side and build a geodesic dome out of rolled newspaper struts.  (Alternate directions also available here.)  This is a great activity in small scale or large — I’ve done it with visitors both ways, and it’s always a big hit.  Just typing this makes me want to build one in my backyard.  There’s some fun inspirational architecture-via-recyclables here: Amazing Recycled Architecture.

And while you’re into the newspaper-folding mode, and out in the backyard, try out a six-sided kite or these neat biodegradable newspaper seed-starter  pots. Or make yourself a useful newspaper basket, perfect for a picnic in your geodesic fort.

Hammocks are good. Human sized bird nests may take the cake, though. Click for further pictures!

Looking for other great recycled-material activities and a way to get out of the house next week?  Check out this list of upcoming events for Trash Springs to Life at the Peabody Essex Museum!

Happy Winter Solstice 2009!

Let it Snow

You would think I’d be done with cool snow-themed links by now, right?  Nope.

Guide to Snowflakes from CalTech.  Great chart of the immense variety of snow crystal shapes, with neat pictures by Ken Libbrecht and descriptions of some of the conditions needed to form specific kinds of snowflakes.  This is just one page out of a pretty impressive site all about snow and frost.  Well worth exploring.  (One of my favorite accidental discoveries on this site was the page on how to make snowflake fossils.)

Solstice: the day the sun stands still (from the Latin)

Newgrange at Solstice

Newgrange at Solstice, from (Click for original page)

Find all kinds of cool facts about the solstice today from National Geographic (you’ve all noticed I love these guys by now, I should hope?) I particularly enjoyed the mention of Newgrange, an incredibly cool Stone Age monument/tomb in Ireland which is 1000 years older than Stonehenge.  When it was built, it was designed to exactly align with the winter solstice dawn.  I visited it in summer, and it was still impressive then.

Here we come a wassailing

What’s the solstice without a touch of celebration? Despite my general fondness towards things historical, I haven’t tried either of these recipes yet.  However, they look delicious and have very positive reviews, so taste at your own discretion.

Kid-Safe Recipe

High Octane Recipe

Happy Holidays to all! This blog will be going on vacation until Jan. 2nd, 2010.  May you and yours be safe, warm, merry, and curious this holiday season.

Icy Cool Science

I was going to post this tomorrow, but in honor of the enormous blanket of white stuff covering the East Coast from DC northwards, I’m posting early.

Boiling Water to Ice Crystals in a Flash

Boiling Water Flash Frozen

Boiling Water Flash Frozen

On a day when temperatures are below freezing (the colder the better!), get a mug or pot of boiling water and bring it outside.  Toss the water in the air (away from yourself and any innocent bystanders!)  and watch the water flash freeze into a cloud of ice crystals.  NB: If you do this at your school or museum, do not direct the water where ice will fall on walkways, parking lots, or visitors.

Why does this happen?

All things being equal, cold water freezes faster. It takes time for the energy contained in a hot object to be transferred to a cold object. However, the rate of heat transfer is proportional to the temperature difference between the two objects, so hot water will lose heat faster than cold water. In other words, if you have water at 90 degrees C and water at 10 degrees C and the freezer is at -10 degrees C, the hot water will lose heat five times faster than the cold water; however, the cold water will still win the race. As the hot water cools it’s rate of heat transfer will decrease, so it will never catch up to the cold water.

Some people claim that hot water freezes faster because a pot of boiling water can be thrown into the air on a cold winter day, and it freezes in mid air creating a shower of ice crystals. Whereas a pot of cold water thrown into the air comes down as large blobs of water. This happens because the hot water is so close to being steam, that the act of throwing it into the air causes it to break up into tiny droplets. (hot water is less viscous than cold water, listen to the sound it makes when you pour it in the sink) The small water droplets have a large surface area which allows for a great deal of evaporation, this removes heat quickly. And finally, the cooled droplets are so small, that they can be easily frozen by the winter air. All of this happens before the water hits the ground. Cold water is thicker and stickier, it doesn’t break up into such small pieces when thrown into the air, so it comes down in large blobs.

Joe Larsen, Ph.D. Chemistry, Rockwell Science Center, Los Angeles, CA

For video and further information, see

Plus an extra-cool kaleidescope snowflake generator, with thanks to Paul Orselli of Exhibitricks for the link!  I love the option to spin your crystals round not only in two, but in three dimensions.

Fun with Snow: Shovels Optional

Here are a bunch of snow activities to try, to celebrate last week’s first intense snow of the year.

Make a Snowflake:

Fold a piece of paper or a coffee filter in half.  Then fold it in thirds from the middle point.  (As if you were making ‘pizza slice’ shapes, so that you have 6 triangles.)  Trim the edges so that you have roughly a circle, if you are using a regular piece of paper.  Cut along the edges and folds, then unfold for a proper 6 pointed snowflake!

If you want to avoid the blizzard of cut paper pieces, try an online snowflake-maker, here:

Outdoor Snow Fun:

1. Jump snow hurdles: Lightly pack a bunch of basketball-size snowballs. Use them to build a course of hurdles to jump over in a round of follow the leader.

2. Get on a roll: Pair up for a contest in which the object is to finish with the biggest snowball. The contest ends when the teams can no longer roll their entries or when you run out of snow.

3. Catch a snowflake: Find out what’s different ? and the same ? about a bunch of snowflakes. Catch some on a piece of black construction paper or a dark mitten or sweater.  At The Discovery Museums, we have a bunch of blue-velvet covered cardboard squares available for snow-catching.  We tend to store them in the freezer so they’re snow-ready!

4. Make an iceberg float: Invite kids to make two miniature icebergs (snowballs), one packed very hard and the other fairly soft. Indoors, fill a bucket or basin with cold water, put the snowballs in it, and watch what happens. (Because the hard snowball has air bubbles trapped inside, it will float higher in the water than the softer one.)

Stay tuned next week for icy cool science!