How Does Water Move? Art and Inquiry

Interested in attending the July 1 workshop at Smith College’s Field Station? There are a few spaces left in this kick-off event for the Water Inquiry Teacher Group.  Please e-mail Carol Berner

“Some people might call this painting, but really we’re watching water move.” 
– Bob Hepner, Smith College Campus School Art Teacher

The following lesson is the launch for a series of 3rd grade art explorations at the Smith College Campus School with art teacher Bob Hepner. Elena Betke-Brunswick, Bob’s student teacher, recorded this experience as students began observing and experimenting with some of the ways that water moves.

Source of the Lessonwater03
Inspiration for this lesson stemmed from an experience Hepner had while watering his garden.  He noticed how water traveled down his driveway and formed different patterns and branches as it flowed downward, imitating the way that rivers make pathways on smaller scale. He explained that students can recite facts about rivers but they have trouble understanding what is happening because of the large scale of a river.  This lesson helps break down the properties of how water moves while eliciting student curiosity about the properties of water at the same time.

water02Engaging Students

On their way to the art room the class makes a brief outdoor detour to a sloped driveway where they form a line from the top to the bottom of the small hill.  To help students begin observing and forming questions about the behavior of water and rivers, Hepner asks students to notice three things as he pours a bucket of water from the top of the driveway. The water flows downwards, following the dramatic pitch. The Hepner asks if any students would like to share one observation and a handful volunteer. Students seem excited to notice how the water is moving, and to think about how it might mimic a larger river.

Student Experimentation

Next, the class heads into the art room, gathering together on the rug. Surrounding them are photographs of various rivers, waterfalls, and birds-eye-views of winding, snaking rivers.

water paper cut demo


Hepner explains that students will have a chance to conduct this experiment themselves. Instead of a bucket of water and a driveway, they will use this piece of paper and a paintbrush to move water over the page. He models various ways to move water across the page, creating dots that hold tight to the paper and strokes and drips that flow smoothly across from one end of the paper to the other. The students head to their tables and experiment with their brushes, water, and paper while music plays in the background.

water07Ceiling lights flash, and the teacher announces a new variable: blue pigment. Each pair of students receives a cake of blue tempera paint, advised to add it slowly. After a few minutes, students are asked to share what they have discovered. Their eagerness to share is encouraging: this is just the beginning of the exploration and is meant to get everyone excited to learn more about rivers.

Reflecting on the Lesson
“I really liked how this lesson connected to the unit on rivers.  Students were engaged by exploring the properties of water in in a very specific and detailed way but the door was open to so many different directions for students to take.  I also loved the meditative quality of the painting, and how it wasn’t about the paint or the image but the feeling of moving water and noticing the way it interacted with the page.”  Elena Betke-Brunswick

Integrating Art into the Mill River Study:  Further Explorations by 3rd Graders

water paintings

Students created water paintings using only black ink to begin. They looked carefully at the shapes of water using photographs they had taken on a field trip to the Mill River in Northampton. As their images developed, students were invited to add one or two colors into their exploratory paintings.

water cut-out 02 water cut-out 01

Students looked at paper cuts by Matisse and water paintings by David Hockney before creating their own paper cut-outs of water shapes. Students were encouraged to used all the positive and negative shapes they cut out to create movement and layers of water.

drawings for print

Finally, students created sketches for easy-cut prints which they carved and printed on blue paper. The class experimented with layering prints and creating their own flowing river by connecting their prints in a long string of currents.

water print demo print set-up


Text and photos by Elena Betke-Brunswick
Edited by Allyson Ciccarone and Carol Berner


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