HighSchool Art Room: instruction and providing choice to students

Animals in Low Relief

A Cross Curricular Connection in Model Magic & Cardboard!

Second grade students created these low relief animal sculptures as a way to connect their experiences in the art room to academic curriculum.  The students work on animal reports as part of their studies in science and language arts with their classroom teachers.  The sculpture and animal drawings I want to share with you today are used as a companion piece to their written work.  As we all know so well- Art enhances study! 

Students are given a group of animals to choose from for their written reports, which thankfully saved me from needing resources for every animal under the sun!  I provide visual research materials for the students to reference during art class.

Visual Reference Sources

  • Books from the library (several per animal)

  • Zoobooks magazines

  • Pictures printed from internet or clipped from magazines (hello Nat Geo!)

Diagraming the Animal

Students first create small contour line drawings of their chosen animal, around 9x12. Students can approach their form of their animals in a way that breaks it down into very simple shapes. I like to show them how an oval body and circle head can be the start of a large variety of animals.

Students then learn about applying implied texture to their drawings with short lines that show fur or scales, etc.  Color is added realistically and then students label the parts of their animal body as part of their report. This work not only helps round out the student reports, but goes a long way to helping the student understand the form of their animal for our sculptures.

Making the Sculpture

Next Students will create a low relief sculpture of that same animal.  We begin by talking a little bit about what low relief means with examples of Roman and Egyptian artifacts.  

IMG_7545We’ll be using a simple cardboard,  Crayola Model Magic and tempera paint. Students will need to make a quick sketch of their planned composition.  In order to understand the basics of composition for this lesson, I use a simple visual rubric. This shows the students that they’ll need to create large enough to fill the space and include some details.

My students have prior experience with clay and modeling clay, but if you are approaching this without any prior experience, spend a little time modeling and practicing rolling ropes and spheres and pushing down with a flat hand.  Armed with their composition and a quick review of how to make the basic shapes of head and body the students are off and working!


Model magic (or air dry clay or even salt dough)

Cardboard base (I like corrugated cardboard more than chip board cut to the appropriate size)

Tempera paint

Sharpie markers

Generally, I’ve found the model magic sticks right to the cardboard with no aide needed. However, on the second day working, students can use Elmer's glue to secure any pieces they feel are falling off.  Let the dough dry completely before painting it or you’ll get cracking.


Work Big to Small

Instruct students to paint from the large areas down to the small. Its best to paint the background first as it’s then possible to cover any splats and spatters on the animal when it’s painted following the background.  Begin with larger brushes and then create a stopping point for students where they must check their work with you before they get the smaller brushes.

After creating the animal diagrams, which must use realistic color, I like to give students the choice of using unrealistic color on these pieces.  Sometimes the red koala turns out really fun!

I often withhold the color black until this point as well. In fact, if only small details like eyes, claws or for example, whiskers are needed, I’d suggest they just use a sharpie marker as the final step!

Finish it off

The sculptures already look great as it is, but if you have the time and want a slightly more finished look- mod podge them.  I have used a foam brush to quickly brush the sculptures and give them some gloss, but I recently saw a tip to water it down and bit and use a spray bottle to apply the mod podge (or tempera varnish), which I think would also be great!

Students are so proud of this cross curricular effort in the end!  They really love getting to know their animals and creating a vibrant artwork! Classroom teachers are able to use the diagrams in their students’ reports and we work together to display the low relief cardboard plaques in an adjacent area. We have even then used the animal plaques as family gifts (right around Father’s Day) as double duty.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson share.  Model Magic is a great sculptural tool and I have been able to use it for great free standing sculptures as well. Check out these cool Pueblo Storyteller Dolls also made with Model Magic, by clicking right here!

model magic Pueblo Storytellers steps 7-10

Thanks as always for reading.

signature photo, emily mceneely