Art lesson resource: Candy skull lino printing

At this time of year, we tend to roll our timetable forward so that students can begin their GCSE art and design classes before the Summer break. For us, this is Year 8 into 9 (12 to 13 year olds) who may lack maturity and sometimes skills. My new classes are keen as this is their option choice but need to be engaged by skills, topics and presentation. For this purpose I pick something that they find slightly familiar; Day of the Dead candy skulls (calavera).

What you will need

  • Linoleum tiles cut to A6
  • Day of the Dead resource sheets
  • Lino cutting tools (v and u shaped blades)
  • Water-based printing ink
  • Ink rollers
  • String and washing pegs – to provide a drying line for prints


Dia de muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican cultural festival that takes place over three days from October 31st to November 2nd. Although essentially linked to Halloween and gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, there are links to much older traditions such as the Aztec festival for goddess, Mictecacihuatl.

day of the dead skulls
Mexicana: calavera skulls

Day of the Dead family

Decorative skulls (calavera) are a symbol used during the festival applied to decorative or edible skulls made from either sugar or clay which are used in the Mexican celebration or even face paints for party-goers! As an inspiration for print-makers, they provide a cultural reference point from which to explore symmetry, shape, pattern and texture.

© damoward 2017
Artists’ examples


I get students to draw from examples of calavera, concentrating on symmetry and pattern. Once they understand common motifs, they can begin to produce their own designs. A double-page spread in a sketchbook can show research and presentation skills – this forms my home learning tasks and a deeper understanding of looking into other/unfamiliar cultures. I think this idea was magpied from @LeedsArtTeacher on Twitter as she found it an engaging theme for Year 9.

The video at the top of the post help the students understand the Lino printing process from sketch to mono print.

Resources such as this image help the artists achieve a variety of textures and they are asked to explore at least two blades for cutting details.

Finally, reviewing progress against a simple ladder of achievement (below) can help move ideas and details forward.

© damoward 2017

A single colour mono print can be a starting point for further exploration of lino printing, experiments with other media on top of dry prints or gradient effects with wet ink rolling. Final prints can be used as part of the double-page spread presentation or as individual page presentations.


Art lesson resource: Split pin characters

Here is an extended task to go with the animation project we normally do with Year 7. This is actually suitable (with adaptation) for Year 5 or 6. Some of this is fairly straight forward but does require some technical know-how. I will include an example character resource below.

What you will need

  • Cereal boxes or thin white card
  • Scissors
  • Choice of colour technique; paint, felt tips etc.
  • Split pins (essential)
  • Green cloth
  • Camera
  • Computer to create final cartoon


Still image from Ivor the Engine

To accompany the many types and methods of animation, it is worth showing students Oliver Postgate’s work, especially Ivor the Engine.

The story behind the artist and Smallfilms:


There are many templates for split pin characters (here is a split pin model free resource), however, for Year 7 we like to get students to develop their own ideas in a sketchbook. These can be story related or based on characters by Sjors Vervoort like ours. Here you can see development of my example character; a cheeky fox.


Next transfer the character outline to card (use thin card like cardboard cereal boxes as easier to cut with scissors). Use an appropriate method to add colour but remember to separate arms, legs and head or any moveable parts!


Cut out each part carefully. Make a pilot hole using a compass at each split pin position. Attach the split pin carefully. As you can see from the example, I painted the tops of each split pin to match the background colour.


Photograph against your green cloth in a well lit room. Change positions of limbs etc to suggest movement in each frame/photo. Transfer the set of images into the movie editor of your choice or use an app like Doink on iOS.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 09.59.21

I used iMovie and followed this simple green screen tutorial. I have added a bit of music and sound effects just for fun but this is only supposed to be a screen test. The real fun is getting the students to make their own!



Art lesson resource: Alice illustrated

Here is a popular project we do with Year 8 toward the end of our key stage 3 as they opt for GCSE choices (we do GCSE in y9 and 10). It has developed from a drawing and painting project into a mixed-media compositional approach as we felt it best readied students going on to GCSE or brought up motivation and skills for whom it was the end of their art studies. Although we have chosen Alice in Wonderland as the inspiration, it could actually be anything that students are aware of from literature, movies or other popular culture. The examples used here are either current or go back over the last 3 years.

What you will need

  • Card; we save cereal boxes for months prior to recycle but you will also need some more robust cardboard too
  • Scissors or x-acto knives for the brave
  • Newspapers or old books
  • PVA glue and yoghurt pots
  • Black Berol fine-liners/sharpies or similar
  • Either cheap acrylic paint or watercolour sets and ready mix white. If you can afford gouache for ks3 then this would be better.


Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland is as relevant a story today as 1865 due to the wonderful interpretations by artists and film makers based on Caroll’s imaginative prose. Many students have seen the Disney animation or more recent Tim Burton movie (2010). They are less aware of the Jan Švankmajer movie (1988), the Sony PS3 game or too numerous to mention book illustrations. Those ‘class experts’ can still be amazed by at least 10 things they didn’t know about Alice in Wonderland! The point is to look beyond Disney’s characters and even the original Tenniel illustrations.

Alice book illustration by Kay
Gertrude Kay
Alice book illustration by Steadman
Ralph Steadman


We like to start with drawing and water colour studies; focus on symmetry based on secondary source images. Initially, we use bugs, butterflies and creatures then move on to fungi and flowers. Using Austin’s Butterfly as a reminder of critique and resilience, we try to create a tessellation of studies across a double-page spread in the students’ sketchbook.

sketchbook page
Student’s studies

This is a great opportunity to introduce other media; in the above example there is a study using black felt tip and a watercolour/wax resist attempt. Notice how newspapers/old books are used to ‘patch in’ around studies to become aware of negative space?

Next, we begin to plan how the elements of the illustration begin to place together as a scene in Wonderland. We use thin card and a base card of around 20cm x 20cm to try out different compositions. This is done as collaborative tasks and a trial and error approach – nothing is stuck down until the next stage.

We introduce four main Alice characters:

resource sheets
Resource sheets

These are copied back to back on A3 in colour. Some will try directly copying, others will be inspired to create their own version s based on common character motifs and some will use carbon paper or even cut out characters from the sheet depending on motor skills.

We use cardboard platforms to bring some elements forward in 3D (working on many levels so that the illustration has depth), papier-mâché to create 3D relief bugs, cups and top hats prior to painting.

White ready mix paint is relatively cheap and when mixed with watercolours a serviceable gouache effect is created. Students are encouraged to select their own materials including wax and ink. Despite the restricted base, students can cut into the profile edge or expand beyond it, breaking square format dimensions (difficult to show in the photos).

Students are encouraged to explain the part of the story they are illustrating or create their own descriptive writing.

This example shows work in progress, before Alice characters have been made.

Kids’ Feedback

“The best piece of art work I’ve done”

“This project allows me to use art materials in a different way; I can use stuff that I know I’m good at or try new stuff”

“I can compose an idea now”

“I’m rubbish at painting; I didn’t have to paint my Alice picture”.

Class sizes


It is most unusual for me to turn to Twitter for a poll to back me up in an argument at school. After all, we know Twitter is an echo chamber (in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition amongst peers), but I wanted a bit of proof to back up my assertion that most people don’t teach huge classes of art and design at GCSE. In almost 25 years of teaching, I have never had over 30 in a GCSE class and can remember the early 2000s as being a time when it was a Labour government policy to ‘keep class sizes small’. This was GCSE mind (15, 16 year olds) not KS3 (11-14 year olds) and not considered safe or manageable.

In the last few years though we have had the implementation of the e-baccalaureate in English schools; core subjects are arguably considered more important and the arts, sport and design technology. This hierarchy is considered to give more time to English language arts, mathematics, modern foreign languages and the sciences. We (the remaining subjects) fear the impact in the long term, however, short term issues are currently raising their heads. These are: budget cuts, option choices, staffing and class sizes. Obviously I will not divulge details about my own academy, but my experience is currently of a frozen budget, options are no longer called options but ‘guided pathways’, our staffing is not currently under review but there are only two of us for 1400 on role and a prospective class groupings of 29 and 32 next school year. We have not been ‘bashed’ by the ebacc so that students no longer are guided to the visual arts but as a third option subject, students look for a relief from the academic. Undoubtedly some of these 61 students have interest and ability in fine art and photography, but for some on the ‘pathway’ it seems like pure fantasy or convenience. Hence the poll above; is it becoming normal to have over 30? Manageable and even safe?

Apart from raising the issue with colleagues, I also hope to take the results from the poll as evidence to my senior team to try and elicit a cap at the mid-twenties. What is the optimum class size at GCSE? Are you expected to push for the 100% pass rate? Issues for us all to consider in the next few years.



Brings you to tears sometimes

Image: (cc) flickr – Megyarsh

I’d like to think that, as an art teacher, sometimes a sense of catharsis develops in my classroom. We would all definitely encourage deep emotional involvement in the visual arts on a visit to a gallery or the theatre for example. Unusually though in the amount of emotional in-put from the average child in the class. More typically this is a ‘meh’ or ‘can’t be arsed/CBA’ attitude from 15 and 16 year olds. Although I have had a sabbatical from blogging for the past few months, I feel the need to reflect on one recent untypical occasion.

It would be great to report that my positive teaching methods induced a sense of joy (like Ben Connor with his Y5 class here, see I did my research). However, I am not about to journal an incidence of sadistic teaching where I deliberately made a student sob. No, this is a different example altogether and remains a positive in my view. In this instance, a GCSE art student was asking for extra work to complete over the Easter break, following our 10 hour art exam. This student has been particularly lazy over the last 18 months but performed very well under the pressure of the exam. Buoyed-up and confident, she wanted some expert guidance on achieving an A or A*. I gave her one of her sketchbooks that had been thoroughly marked; including an estimated grade and advice for improvement. Target grade: A. Current grade: C. “So how do I get an A then, sir?” Honesty is the best policy isn’t it? “It’s a bit late now” I said, “that was marked back in October, you could have worked on it quite a bit since then. Maybe if you follow the advice you could get it up to a C depending on how much work you can do in two weeks.” If the marking is fit for purpose… “And,” I added “you really should have followed the feedback 6 months ago, as you could have got an A if you had.”

Oops. No flannel. No bullshit. You just hadn’t worked your socks off when you should’ve.

The result was an hour and a half of tears (apparently carried on for the rest of the day too). Now don’t think I’m gloating about this; I chatted with her, made more comments for improvement, pointed out the positives in her work etc. Cold shouldered.

Now for the positive bit: she obviously thought “f*ck you”, snap-chatted (or whatever) her friends to whine about me, then set about getting the best possible grade she could. This unintentional bit of reverse psychology has created an art-monster who is determined to one-up me. Good for her! I really hope it all pays off (we cross-moderate so there will be three marking her work) and she genuinely works her butt off to get a grade she deserves.


Acting-out in the classroom

How you might see yourself
How the kids see you

My thoughts on laboured ‘performance’ teaching, showing off for an official observation.

As lesson observations are either in process or imminent, I am struck by the oft-repeated: “Don’t do anything different, just teach as you normally do”. Yeah, right. I don’t believe anyone who says they don’t spend a few days fretting, hours planning then put on something of a performance. We have an open door policy so anyone can walk in but will they see something different (special?) in an official capacity? In the interests of a reflective action research approach, I am attempting to try and see my own classroom ‘performance’ as other see me. A reversed-mirror approach might actually help with a consistent classroom attitude; maybe it can be used to actually make my teaching better?

The problem is, I am an over-preparer. A control freak. I like to plan an observed lesson down to the nth and actually enjoy the performance aspect. Relax into it as it were. I am not an extrovert so I have to rely on my own ability rather than ego. Things always go wrong of course, and this is normal. Would you take a risk and ‘teach as normal’? On the other hand, do you normally teach as a performance every lesson? That sounds exhausting…

Everyone succeeds: 100% pass rates?

iStock photo

As we art teachers approach our externally assessed unit beginning in January, I am reminded of the competitive nature of exam results across different art and design departments and sometimes within MATs (multi-academy trusts). The pressure, real or imagined, to achieve that golden result of a 100% pass rate has never been more acute. Perhaps this is due to the very fact that performance data is being shared more widely and with it, schemes of work, resources and I’m sure in some cases, staff too. This blog posts encapsulates my thoughts on the ethics and push-pull of the 100% achievement philosophy.

Art teachers in the UK will have spent the last couple of weeks in a highly anxious state attempting to put the final touches to their GCSE art and design coursework. Due to the late Easter in 2017, there will be little time for any further embellishment so time this year was of the essence. Next week, we start our Unit 2 exam: aka ‘the unknown quantity’. Students select from a range of themes and in most cases demonstrate their application of the skills learned during the coursework phase.

The question has arisen (many times over the years): why do some students not get a grade c? If they can get through the coursework, then why do they fall at the last hurdle (i.e. the exam unit)? Perhaps successful coursework estimated grades are due to:

  1. Tried and tested schemes of work
  2. Excellent use and application of materials, methods and techniques
  3. Dare I say it? Good teaching

And yet, the 100% pass rate is as elusive as ever. When the results trend is upwards it is seen by chalk face staff and educational managers of overwhelming evidence that we are improving learner performance. However, we all know that the goal posts change annually and that issues of society (government ministers, E-Bacc measures etc) all influence the levels and outcomes, grade boundaries and achievement rates that exam boards set. Comparing pass rates in different years is in fact not like comparing like with like. GCSEs are simply not designed to compare the performance of the art schooling system across years. They are designed to test whether the individual learner qualifies for a certificate, based on their performance based on particular themes chosen. These grade boundary shifts can really hammer us; one year a student can edge into a pass grade and the next firmly in the middle of a grade d. This will all be ‘manipulated’ again in the next few years as the 1-9 GCSE comes along; a good pass is deemed to be between grade 5 and 6 and the old grade c is approximately at the bottom end of this scale. This means of course that the old grade c+ achievement will be harder to attain (increase in rigour?). A senior colleague tried to tell me that the 1-9 art GCSE  will therefore have more cultural capital, especially amongst universities (my retort being: “My o’level from 1984 is valueless then?”). This isn’t a level playing field and I hope he is wrong.


Now we have the added complication within Academy schools that if “One department can achieve 100%, why can’t you?”. Behind every amazing statistic is a story of course, congratulations to any readers of this who have managed it and I’m sure you will keep it to yourselves! Is it right that we should feel the need to look for a magic bullet? A trick that will deliver? Might we even question if all students deserve the top grades? The ones who occasionally achieve the A* are usually the most hard working, talented and productive. Is this not diminished by 100% achievement? Perhaps we should explore the association between academic engagement and achievement; remove the multitude of themes to explore in the exam to just one (or no specific, let the student choose?). This certainly wouldn’t deliver a 100% success rate across all social groups, all schools and academies.

For everyone of us that succeeds, it’s because there’s somebody there to show you the way out. The light doesn’t always necessarily have to be in your family; for me it was teachers and school. – Oprah Winfrey

There are many social factors encompassing the development of high level competencies, skills and qualifications, which enable their holders to mobilise cultural authority. For example, working class children can come to see the educational success of their middle-class peers as a legitimate result of hard work or even ‘natural’ ability. A key part of this process is the transformation of their economic inheritance (e.g., accent or property) into cultural capital (e.g., university qualifications). This cannot be bottled and distributed; the high-achiever may have more reason to ‘escape’ a cultural or economic environment and may be less distracted by cultural-societal norms of behaviour (the latest fashion, keeping up with technology and social media). On the other hand, their disposition to cultural production may be their cultural capital; their agency and status in the world around them. We cannot take ‘artistic ability’ away from the few and must provide only the conditions and environment for success for all.