Still Slaying the Still Life!

Once again we created single object still life paintings. I swear they get more and more dynamic every year! This project comes as the final piece in our study of color theory. We do this through studying the color wheel, color terms, and finally color relationships. Right before this project each student had the opportunity to design a small logo on Adobe inDesign that showed their understanding of the relationship between two colors and also a presumed emotional reaction to those colors. Finally, we choose an object that speaks to us. Each student is challenged to choose a background color that works with their object to create a color scheme. Then we go over painting techniques and begin! As you can see below, the results are impressive and inspiring.20160920_130121
























Facing Faces

This March we spent the entire month exploring the art of a self portrait and the value technique called grisaille. The Oxford Dictionary defines as, “Grisaille (/ɡrˈz/ or /ɡrˈzl/; French: gris [ɡʁizaj] ‘grey’) is a term for a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral greyish colour.” I think we all know what a self portrait is. 

Anyways my idea was that in order to teach about painting with more emphasis on value and less on color matching we would begin with a grisaille painting and finish it in color.




I also took photographs of each girl in a pose she was comfortable with, with raking light moving across her face. This gave them more depth in the values they were working with. You can see them holding the photos as they work for reference. Unfortunately there is a lot of natural light in my room. Unfortunately? Well anyways it is near impossible to recreate lighting arrangements because the skylights fill the room with light i a myriad number of ways on any given day, and due to the nature of our rotating block schedule we meet at a different time each day of the week. So I made the executive decision that instead of working from mirrors (like we had with our sketches and drawings in previous lessons) we would work from photographs.








Only once they had finished their gray could they move on to color. This was an prodigious success, because it prevented them from flattening their faces and making them one solid shade of beige or brown, like I had seen in previous models of this lesson. I would highly recommend this technique for teaching value to an advanced high school art class.

















Finished Recycled Projects

We finally finished our wonderful recycled art projects. This is my second year teaching this unit and it was so wonderful to see what a variety of results we got just this year alone.

To learn more about this project you can take a look back at what some of my artists did last year here:































Figuring out the Figure

It has been an amazing journey so far this year watching my superb Studio II students develop and grow in their drawing skills, and more importantly in their drawing confidence!

Here you can see some of my example drawings. This was a day of drawing the stars! Below are Adele, Kylie Jenner, and Taylor swift. Can you tell who’s who?


Here is some of my students work. They are drawing one of the biggest stars… me! You can see in these students were encouraged to use a mix of both ink and charcoal.















Many Perspectives

This Year Interior design projects have become a somewhat permanent addition to my curriculum. While I am always tweaking and changing my lesson plans each year, this one feels fully developed and I think it’s here to stay. What I might change next year would be small things like what artists I introduced during this unit, and what examples of their work we looked at. I am also open to suggestions as to how this unit in particular might relate to physics. While other units have a direct connection, this one feels like it’s missing a potential cross-curricular element. Maybe it isn’t Physics, maybe I need to look at the math or English curriculum?

Last year I debuted our new and improved interior design project. I decided that a simple one point perspective study of a bedroom was not a dynamic enough assignment for my brilliant young women. So I created a two piece project. The first piece was a focus on one point perspective as a drawing technique. (This can be a tedious and painfully slow drawing technique for some young high schoolers.) The second piece was a focus on interior design. This involved choosing a theme, fabric samples, a color scheme (color theory!!), and creating a Pinterest board. In the end the final product was a mood board with a rendering of the proposed room. Something like what a real interior designer might bring to a pitch in order to show the client.

Like So:

20151122_140239 20151122_140232

Either way the results this year were fantastic!







My thought process here was that if I could alternate between beginning or ending each class with a formulaic drawing technique, and begin or end with open ended design, it would keep students more engaged. This proved successful when I received far fewer groans and moans about one point perspective drawing than I have in years past. Everyone was so excited about creating an imaginary room, with a limitless budget, that I think they hardly noticed they were learning. I was even more impressed with how confidently my young women asserted their individual tastes and styles, without any apparent hesitation of being judged by their peers. However, it shouldn’t surprise me that much since self confidence and industriousness are definitive traits of Stone Ridge girls.

You can read more about the assignment from last years post here: 




























Happy Holidays Update!

On December 2nd my amazing young volunteers returned to Mary House to update their fall tree. It was repurposed a la Charlie Brown, and the rest of the room was decorated to match. It warmed my heart and was a beautiful way to begin the advent season. I hope you all have an amazing holiday season!20151202_124317







Bookmaking with Studio II

“For our last unit, Ms. Cowan introduced our Studio Art II class to the craft of bookmaking. Not only were we creating books to physically use, but our creations were something I had never associated with books before: sculptural works of art. Well-crafted books serve their practical purposes well, but in this unit, we stressed the importance of craftsmanship. We were taught two different kinds of bookmaking through accordion books and binding books with thread.
The theme we focused on when creating was “duality”, which is also the theme of Callithump (our school’s literary/art magazine) this year. Some of my classmates used their newfound knowledge of bookmaking to express duality through the physical books themselves. Others, like me, confined the theme to the pages of the books we created.
In all, it was quite a unique experience! I don’t think anyone who signed up for this course thought that it would include bookmaking. At least, I didn’t, but I’m so very glad we were able to do this unit. Not only was it creative, but also educational in how books are typically traditionally made. I’ve got to say, I have a newfound appreciation for the work that went into any hand-bound book.”

Getting STEAMy

So, STEAM. It’s my cross-curricular curriculum of choice. I’m doing it now, as we speak, I even presented with my colleague down in Richmond this summer at the NCGS convention, but I haven’t mentioned much about it this past year. It was my, or I should say our, first year last year. So, STEAM, who, what, when, where, why?

engineering process

I need to begin with a little background information about what truly started my foray into cross-curricular work. It was a discussion over beers, after work, with my colleague LaShonda Torbert the Physics teacher at our school. She was explaining to me how one of her students had opted to make a video instead of giving an oral presentation on her group’s energy audit project. This was a physics assignment that entailed auditing energy usage in different parts of the school. What struck me was that the student was using her video making skills, from my class, in the physics classroom. Besides being like, “Oh gosh! I’m so proud…” I also thought, “Hey! How do we make this happen again, and better, and more often, and more intentionally?” A Physics to Art connection!

So LaShonda researched artsy science projects and I did research on cross-curricular education. I mean, I think we all know it is best practice for educators to help students make connections with other subject matters, but before we went and presented this to the administration we figured we would probably need to be able to articulate why.

So there is some great research out there, and whether it’s called cross-disciplinary, cross-curricular, or interdisciplinary it’s all good! There is a wonderful quote by the British philosopher Lionel Elvin that states, “When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.” Another more modern scholar, Mary L. Radnofsky reminds us that, “One of the ways in which we can help to enlighten our students is by giving them the opportunities to see and hear things in different ways from those which they are accustomed. This could mean studying science from an artistic perspective – something Leonardo [DaVinci] did frequently in his life, as he saw vision, light, stars, and the production or reflection of light from the aesthetic perspective – or studying art from a scientific point of view – something Leonardo also did throughout his life, as he strived to prove that painting deserved to be considered a ‘qualitative science.’”

And as it turns out, my biggest, most successful, cross-curricular initiative so far, has been my STEAM initiative. Which I am currently tackling with my partner in crime, LaShonda the Physics teacher. So I’m going to tell you more about it in detail, along with a few other cross-curricular initiatives I am working on. My collaboration started when LaShonda and I, we started the same year at Stone Ridge, began to go for a happy hour drink after work. We don’t actually do this frequently anymore, back then we were unmarried, and more carefree. I now have a fixer upper, and husband. I mean the house I just bought is a fixer upper, not my husband. LaShonda is busy with her life outside of school, too, so anyways I’m getting off track.

We realized, through talking about work that we had a HUGE overlap of students. Foundations of Studio Art is the prerequisite for all other levels of visual arts, and visual arts is our biggest arts department compared to orchestra, choir, and drama, so long story short my four sections of Foundations of Studio Art are attended by 75-80% of our Freshman class. LaShonda teaches four sections of Physics; our required ninth grade science class. There are 5 sections total with another teacher taking one of those Physics classes, and so LaShonda teaches about 80% of the freshman class and 100% of them take Physics.

So as we researched Art and Science cross-curricular stuff we had to accept that what we were embarking on could easily fit into the current educational trend called STEAM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. A lot of what we wanted to foster was similar to the goals of the Maker Movement, things like using the engineering process in both classes. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel we looked to these movements for inspiration. Unfortunately, Pinterest and the rest of the internet is so full of elementary age appropriate artsy science projects that it was hard to steal other people’s ideas directly. Instead we’d have to design our own projects.

Our first brain storm session went something like this:

LaShonda: “What do you guys learn first?”

Me: “The color wheel and movie making, what do you learn first?”

LaShonda: “Sound waves and the electromagnetic spectrum!”

Me: “Oh cool, we should focus on the sound happening in the videos to reinforce their sound waves unit.”

LaShonda: “Yeah, and Physics can compare the light and pigment color wheels, we can talk about visible light and color in both art AND science!”

Me: “We’re brilliant!”


More ideas came up and we lined our units up side by side. LaShonda even let me have access to her excel spreadsheet that broke down each of the required Physics Units even further. It is worth pointing out here, that while her curriculum was fixed, mine was not, so I was free to move things around to suite potential connections more easily. However, I then had to work backwards as far as planning my incorporation of different artists and their movements. So it was still pretty tricky. I was trying to bring physics into art just as much as I wanted to bring art into physics. I can imagine, if you don’t have the flexibility and autonomy that I do, you could easily remove half of the initiative I’m explaining here and imagine that you could modify it to be just art enhancing science. So we embarked, with our administrations vague approval to try something new.

Curriculum Line-Up

To begin the school year LaShonda asked me to help her kick off the year with an art project. And like I mentioned before they begin the year with a study of waves and sound. She wanted the girls to create visual representations of sound waves and illustrate how they vary. So we brainstormed all of these great ideas: Bracelets with beads to represent different wavelengths, paintings of sound waves, posters about sound waves, videos of sound waves, and even large scale recycled art sculptures about sound waves… Unfortunately, LaShonda liked ALL of these ideas, so after purchasing a large number of art supplies she explained the concept to the girls and said, “Go!”


See this didn’t really work out great as far as classroom management and cleanliness was concerned. There was junk everywhere, and she could hardly keep track of who was doing what. One student made a poster shaped like a violin with each string mimicking the sound waves of some series of notes, and another student was making that bracelet I mentioned, while another just hung out in the corner and splattered paint. Literally. She was making a splatter paint on canvas, representing a soundwave. And the most important thing to mention is the Rubens tube. See this link:


Now after all of this the Physics classroom produced some pretty quality works of art, but it was clearly a bit stressful on the teacher’s side, including the classroom management, time management and grading aspects. My suggestions were the following: Limit Materials and let the students use their creativity and ingenuity within the limits of those materials. Create sample projects so that you the teacher have an idea of the time limit you should place on the project, and finally, use vocabulary that they have already learned in the classroom. There is no reason that color theory should be forgotten just because they’ve left the classroom. However, for vocabulary LaShonda and I would need to spend even more time together, working, and coordinating. And as you all know time is precious during the school day. So it was difficult.


On my side of things I was encountering similar successes and pitfalls. As I began my light and color unit I had my students sketch and take notes in the same notebook as they were using in Physics, except some days they had turned it in to be graded, and other days it was home because they had too much to carry every day and Physics fell on the opposite day of the rotation… But not to worry, we still charged ahead with our color theory unit and painted our single object still lifes with objects that interacted with light. Unfortunately, while these two units fit beautifully together in our minds, we saw little to no connections being made.


By the end of the year, we saw it wasn’t enough just to leave room for coincidence, but that we would have to ask our students to literally verbalize any and all connections, and also require them to try, and support them in this. A great example can be found in LaShonda’s end of the year project last year. It was all about coding using the arduinos. These are small computers I barely understand. Instead of leaving it up to the students she gave them each an arduino, LED lights, copper wire tape, and cardboard, paper and glue. Then she assigned them a Physics concept and assigned them another class. They had to make a work of art that did something based on the arduinos programing, that had to do with the assigned subject.


I don’t want you to think our project was a bust, it was quite the opposite. These are some photos from my unit on recycled art, that coincided with LaShonda’s energy audit unit, her unit that inspired this whole thing. For this project students actually spread awareness about material waste by creating sculptures from recycled materials, and installing them around the school. You can see exampels here: The green dragon is made of old green soda bottles, and the tree is made out of old cans and covered in our old table cover sheets of butcher paper. I had wanted to create recycled sculptures with my class for a long time, and this was the first time I had been able to really do it, and our Physics connection was a huge success on this project. We asked students to verbalize connections and they did! They could!

Here are some of the BIG lessons we learned. Our Do’s and Don’ts:


  • Expect Perfection, the Common Core wasn’t written in a day…
  • Rush (Rush to tell your admin, so they can start to facilitate, but don’t actually rush the planning process)
  • Expect your school to facilitate time for collaboration
  • Forget to schedule time for collaboration later in the year


  • Document! – have your students do this as well
  • Remember to get your students to verbalize the connections
  • Communicate with students and colleagues you’re working with – consistency is big
  • Schedule time to collaborate, and then schedule more…


LaShonda and I had the distinct advantage of liking each other, and sharing a friendship outside of school. However, If collaboration isn’t necessarily an option, I’ve also had great success sharing art with colleagues on professional development days. I’ve done a step-by-step portrait lesson, you’ve probably all taught this one before, it;s a classic, but you’d be surprised how many of your fellow teachers haven;t tried it! Fair warning the adults behave just like the kids. In other words, “Is this good!?” “Can you help me” “WAIT! WAIT I’m erasing my circle!” I would do this and then suggest that this is a fun example of proportion and ratios and might be useful in the math room. It also has the potential to become a history lesson with portraits of historic figures or portraits of a fictional characters in literature.


I have also facilitated other teachers in my school by just letting them audit my class on certain days. This is actually fantastic if the schedule allows it. Now, whether or not you can do this depends largely on your school’s culture, but at Stone Ridge we had a Drama teacher take an entire year of Spanish one classes. She took the exam and everything! When it has worked best for me is inviting teachers to visit me on a day when I am introducing a new program like Adobe Photoshop or InDesign. I have also let other teachers know that the large sketchbooks that I give my art students are fair game for drawing based lesson in their classes. I mean, there is no way they are going to use every page of that thing otherwise, there are like a million. (Although there is always that one kid who halfway through the year is like, “Can I have another?”) Finally I have also facilitated other teachers by doing the simplest favor you can imagine. Helping them figure out what art supplies to buy, for a certain art heavy project in their class. This is Usually one they have already developed, but want to improve on.


I feel like I’m trying to sell you something, but I am convinced that you can do this too! (For my art teachers reading this.) The benefits of creating or facilitating a cross-curricular initiative are vast, and the process is simple. You could do this with another colleague just by sitting down, laying out your curriculum, and seeing where connections could be made and emphasized. If it’s possible, look at how you could re-arrange units in order to make connections. Or think about enhancing an already existing unit. See what your colleagues are teaching and make suggestions. If you have a standardized curriculum with less flexibility, study the curriculum document for potential overlap and connections. Keep in mind, the more enthusiasm you have in your cross-curricular initiative the more awesome it will become. The more awesome your department becomes the more valuable your department becomes to the school as a whole, and then BAM! more money for your classroom…maybe. Either way the positive attention from administrators can’t hurt and it does put you in a great position to ask for more supplies. So in conclusion, if you’d like to spend less of your own money in the Target $1 discount bins, and more time enjoying yourself, cross curricular.

Foundations Unit One: Light and Color

In Foundations of Studio art we are beginning the year with a unit on Light and color, as you’ve seen the past two years. This year I would like to do something different and break down my units by day. Please feel free to use the comments section and let me know what you think.

Our Light and Color unit is a study of the color wheel, color families, color mixing, light vs. pigment, an introduction to the elements and principles of art and design. Students start by making a color wheel poster in small groups, and then a logo in Adobe illustrator. Finally, they use their color mixing techniques and color theory to create a beautiful still life painting. We also take a closer look at Photorealism from 1968 to the present, and artists like Mary Pratt, Robert Bechtel, Charles Bell, and Chuck Close. We focus on the elements of color and value specifically, and work with the principle of contrast. 

At the end of this unit students present their still lifes and are asked to reflect on how they have used their color wheel skills, captured light, and how light is interacting with their object. The final piece here hopes to connect this project with the study of the electromagnetic spectrum and the study of visible light that they are beginning in their Physics classes.

Also, just so you can get an idea, the classroom time is broken down into four or five parts depending. We begin each class with some form of quiet reflection in the form of a Visio Divina, a method of meditation I picked up this summer at a catholic teachers conference. Or we have another form of warm up. Then I move into a demonstration and explanation period. Afterwards we usually have work time, which is followed by a reflection period on days when time allows, or we have finished a project and are presenting. Finally I allow at least ten minutes for clean up. It is important to keep our room neat and organized so that our students feel empowered to find and use the art materials. This structure also helps students monitor their own use of time.

Breakdown of Warm-Up and Daily Activities:

Day 1

-We reviewed the Syllabus, wrote down the Elements and Principals in our brand new Sketchbooks! Which I also handed out that day.

Day 2

-I introduced Visio Divina, a method of meditation I picked up this summer at a catholic teachers conference. 

-We also began our color wheel assignment 







Day 3

-Visio Divina

-Color Wheel Assignment was finished and presented. See google doc for presentation questions. 



Day 4

-Visio Divina

-Introduced Color in Design:

-Invented imaginary companies and begin logo design with colored pencils.

-Reminded students to bring in special objects for still life paintings.


Day 5

Reviewed color contrasts

-Began Logo Designs (Emphasize meaning in color, list adjectives)

-Began designing logo on illustrator.


Bouquettes for Ballet

Caroline Tangang


Cecilia Hornyak Logo


Jillian Perry

Logo Beyer Bulard

Day 6

-Warm-Up: Drew Nats Logo from memory, then revealed. Many students were suprised at how accurate theirs were.

-Finished Logo design, and present.



Shira Nash

Day 7

-Visio Divino of Mary Blair

-Quick, fun, simple collage on bristol board folded in half. (This is a ONE DAY assignment) Created  collages on cards, employing color schemes or groups, and color contrasts, inspired by the work of Mary Blair. (Los Colores de Mary Blair, video)

-Reminded students to bring in Special Objects!


Day 8

-Visio Divino Mary Pratt

-Intro to painting (How much, what brush, from where, what colors)

-Painted Ground on canvases

-Constructed light boxes

-Begin backgrounds

-Ended early for introduction to clean-up (Brush cleaning, storage etc.)




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image (1) copy

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Day 9

-Short Visio Divino (Robert Bechtle) w/ reflection in sketchbook (an example of analogous color scheme)

-Intro to photo realism w/ article (

-Began sketching objects in charcoal


Day 10

-Visio Divino (Charles Bell)

-Intro to acrylic mediums: Slow Dry, Glazing, Gel etc.

-Began painting objects.

Day 11

-Article on Chuck Close w/ reflection in sketchbook

-Worked on Paintings






Day 12

-Visio Divino (Chuck Close)

-Finished Paintings


Day 13

-First half hour for finishing touches

-Presentations (*see requirements below)

-Rubrics Graded

-Homework for the semester handed out: 

*Below are the final works of art hung up and on display in our school gallery space. You can see some of my new colleague Tom’s student work from his section of Foundations of Studio art. Notice that they used pastels and more than one object. It is nice to see another art teachers perspective on this assignment, and the variety adds to the look of the show. (You can also see a few Ceramics 1 pieces in this first photo.)












Final Presentation Requirements: Did your color wheel influence your final painting? How? How has your understanding of color changed, or has it? What color scheme or group did you use in your painting? What color contrasts did you use? Did you use value to create the illusion of a 3D object? Finally, since you are learning about light in physics, please explain how the light is interacting with your object. For example, is it going through your object? Reflecting? Being absorbed by your object?


Physics Connection: Electromagnetic Spectrum, Light Interacting with Objects. 

And So It Begins…

I know, I know, it’s October, but September is a busy month for teachers, especially this one. I have been very busy adjusting for the exciting new changes that came with this year. To begin with, we have two new teachers in our upper school visual  art department. That makes four of us. We have yours truly, our foundations of studio art teacher, and Katya our photography teacher, and new this year are Tom, our ceramics teacher, and Lee, our advanced studio art teacher. Second thing that’s new this year is that I’m teaching not only Foundations of Studio Art and Yearbook, but I am adding a section of Studio II. This means I’m dropping one of my four Foundations of Studio Art classes and handing it over to Tom, our new ceramics teacher. I am thrilled to be adding a class, but it has kept me busy with syllabus planning, and making sure to communicate my lesson plans and objectives with another teacher. This also means that the classroom is now being shared by not two, but three teachers at a time. This has kept us very busy, since I saw this as a great time for total classroom re-organization! Finally, LaShonda the Physics teacher and I have been collaborating and lining up our curriculum for the sake of cross-disciplinary learning for two years now. This summer we presented our development of this program at the NCGS conference. However, this year, for the first time, we have to share our initiative with an additional physics teacher and a new foundations teacher. (More on that later.) So big changes, but good changes, and all bode well for the fantastic year ahead.

So Lets begin with Foundations of Studio Art. A wonderful place to begin. We are once again starting slow and steady with our unit on Light and Color. We began with Color Wheels and are going to work our way up to single object still life paintings.


In Studio II we began our year with a unit on line. Line is a fine place to start. Our plan is to  move on to book-making as a short break from drawing as well as a focus on craftsmanship, and then re-visit drawing through value, and eventually paint!


And Finally, in Yearbook we are charging into the year full steam! Our three student Editors, and our staff are running the show. They have already chosen our theme for the year (TOP SECRET) and our color scheme, fonts, and many other pieces. We’ve even started designing the senior pages. These are entire pages of the book, one dedicated to each senior, with photos and quotes selected by them.

Screenshot 2015-10-06 16.05.32


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