Kirigami Prayer Flags by Elaine Luther as installed on porch

“Wow, this is a great project, they could use this in this other art program!” That’s a comment I often get on my Kirigami Prayer Flags (aka Blessing Banners) project. Because it’s super cool, almost fool-proof, can be enjoyed by adults and kids, and uses upcycled fabric, which can be obtained for free!

I’ve written a tutorial on how to do the project. It’s right HERE.

I’m writing this blog post to share more ideas of affordable art projects that art teachers, expressive arts facilitators and others can do in their classes, as well as some terrific places to find lesson plans and ideas when you need new ideas.

I’m not into making art with recyclables just because. I feel that being creative with upcycling effectively can be difficult, and children shouldn’t be given a bunch of junk and told to make a junk sculpture that will fall apart. I believe that recycled or upcycled bits should be transformed into something completely new. (I wrote a whole manifesto about that HERE.)

People sometimes think I’m a recycling artist and I’m really not. I’m an artist on a budget. : ) And I’m also a found object artist, I’m inspired by what I find and how I respond to it, so upcycing is a creative constraint.

Sources of Terrific Art Lesson Plans for Teachers, Expressive Arts Facilitators and Volunteers

Art therapist Shelley Klammer recommends this site: Hildegard Center.  To help you become an even better art teacher, Shelley Klammer has a number of free and fee-based art classes, HERE.  Shelley also has this resource on how to set up an art cart.

Incredible Art Department has wonderful lesson plans, just tons of them, submitted by teachers, and searchable by grade or topic. I have found some great lesson plans there.

Here are some of my favorite lessons and games from Incredible Art Department:

Who/What/Where Game

Wire and Nylon Stocking Sculpture

Here are some images of student work in progress of the Wire and Nylon Stocking Sculpture.  Notice the bronze paint!

Blick Art Supplies Lesson Plans

These are terrific, they sometimes have videos and each lesson has a pdf with all the information that you need: the supply list and the step-by-step. The projects are uniformly solid. For school teachers, the learning standards are included as well.

Lessons are searchable by grade or discipline. Here are some of the lesson plans I’ve used from Blick:

My Daruma
Kokeshi Dolls
Veils of Light and Color

Veils of Light and Color, student work


Another resource for lesson plans is Teachers Pay Teachers

They also cover art history, which the other sites do not in as much depth. Search for what you need HERE.

Need to learn something in a hurry? A friend told me about Creative Bug, the lessons site recently bought by JoAnne Fabrics. Free trials are available and it’s a shockingly low $5.00 or so per month after that. Yes, you might be able to find some of this information on YouTube, but you will find it faster, with higher production values, on Creative Bug.

Rolling Ink, Image from Artforsmall

Here’s a terrific blog post on block printing with Scratch-Foam, that specifically tells you how to teach young children (or anyone, really) how to tell if the right amount of ink is on the brayer based on the sound. It’s a really good technique!

It’s also a useful guide to doing a lesson on printing with Scratch-Foam.

Marvin Bartel: My Virtual Mentor

Here is the single most important resource that I have used since 2008, when I transitioned from teaching jewelry making to teaching art: Marvin Bartel, professor emeritus at Goshen College.

Here’s his Art Education Home Page.

He has taught art and/or how to teach art for over 40 years, so whatever I think I’ve figured out, he has figured it out on a deeper level.

Here’s what he has to say about Teaching Creativity.

Of the many, many lessons I’ve learned from Prof. Bartel, one of them is to never, ever, draw on a students paper. I was already inclined not to do that, and he gave me more and specific reasons not to do that, HERE.

An important classroom management issue is how you handle the “as we gather” time, as you wait for everyone to arrive. Prof. Bartel suggests this for art classes: you set up the room, before students arrive, with a still life, or still lives, and each student has a pencil, a blind (a piece of cardboard that blocks your view of what you are drawing), and a piece of paper. Students learn that you come in, you sit down, and you draw.

I have used this in my art classes since 2008, in all different kinds of settings, including after school programs and day camps. It’s wonderful and there’s no time wasted. And everyone gets more practice looking and drawing.  Here’s his article about warm-up drawings.

One tweak I use for this is that in some classes there are multiple still lives set up to draw – this makes it impossible for students to compare their drawings to others’ because everyone is drawing something different, or at least the same thing from the opposite side.

Another essential lesson he teaches is that of not demonstrating a drawing, because children will copy it, will see it as the “right” way, and copying is not our goal in teaching drawing. You can read all about that HERE.

His site is an absolute wealth of information, print it all out and put it in a binder, in case the college ever takes it down! I do wish he’d put it all in a book. He has written a book on drawing, you can buy that HERE.

Projects that specifically Use recyclables/upcycled Materials

“Glass” Panel Book 
Tubular Bowls

Here’s a picture of a project I took while on vacation of a nifty, low cost group project.


Where to get your art supplies for less

And lastly, where will you get your art supplies? There are two (maybe three) approaches to getting your art supplies for your art program for less.

1. There’s begging. : ) You use freecycle and your network and you ask for stuff. If the stuff your asking for is recyclables, people are generally happy to save it for you, they’re happy to have to go to art. (Photos help, see below.)

2. There’s fundrasising, use Donor’s Choose or crowdfunding or other forms of fundraising.

3. There are creative reuse stores! Yay for creative reuse! These are not for profit stores that collect usable stuff for regular people, teachers and artists to use. They keep thousands of pounds of stuff out of the waste stream and make artists very happy!

Do you have a creative reuse store in your state? Check the list HERE.

It’s important that you design your art projects first and then collect your stuff in a targeted way. (Unless you have unlimited warehouse space.)

Here are some examples of stuff I sometimes collect and how images can help.

When I’m collecting recyclables for my own assemblage art or for a class I’m teaching, I take a photo and post it, so that when I ask my friends if they’ll save something for me, it’s very clear what I’m looking for. And a photo gets more attention. Of course, I always offer to pick the items up.

It’s okay to be picky. If you’re using recyclables in art class, it’s a good idea to be picky about what you use, so that you can transform the item into something completely new, or in the case of glass jars like this, I sometimes have students collage tissue paper onto them to make lovely tea light candle holders.

I wouldn’t use baby food jars, because of the threads. Jars like these, in the picture, do not have threads and make a nicer candle holder. Even for kids, I wouldn’t have them use baby food jars, because their parents are also my “customer” and I want the art projects their kids make in my class to be something they are happy to have in their home.

How to Make the Most of a Small Budget for Your Art Classes

1.  Look at materials creatively, see upcycling as a creative constraint and create projects that use “junk” but transform it completely.  This is the key, start here.

2.  Find and support your local creative reuse store!

3.  Ask your friends to save useful items for you.

4.  When you’re out of ideas, take advantage of the many free and for sale tutorials that are out there, and choose the ones for which low cost or free materials can be used.

I hope that this has been helpful to you!  

While I have written this post to fellow teachers, expressive arts facilitators and volunteers, the same ideas an apply to you at home, wanting to make more art, and also parents wanting to provide art opportunities at home for their kids.

Please feel free to post your questions in the comments and share photos of projects you’ve taught in this way of thinking!

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