Art Project: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Vincent Willem van Gogh, Dutch - Sunflowers - Google Art ProjectSummers are a special time of year. While I ascribe to the philosophy that every moment is a teaching moment, there’s no denying that many people view summer as academic-light. Some see summer as an opportunity to do something “fun,” be it Scooter, Lego or Drama Camp. At MSO, where I work, we have Summer Camp. Each year, I take a theme that appeals to me and run with it, in as many ways as I can think of. This summer, my camp’s theme was France. The choice was entirely selfish; I’m a terrible Francophile. Still, I got to do some fun stuff. A smattering of activities:

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  • We learned about the caves of Lascaux and did our own “Cave Paintings” on the large rock at the front of our sphoto (17)chool.
  • We made a number of French dishes, from Cherry Clafouti to Ratatouille.
  • We built chateaux in the sandbox.
  • We did a number of art projects. France, luckily, was home to a large number of famous artists!

Today I decided to share with you one of my favorite art projects of the summer: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. This project was born of a similar project I saw on One Artsy Mama. I took her idea and ran with it, but I want to make sure I give her credit for inspiration! The other person I must give credit to is Patty at Deep Space Sparkle. I’ve been a fan of Patty’s art blog for a long time. I know she’s not the inventor of painted paper, but I learned about it from her, so I must give credit where credit is due.

Also, a general art project tip: Try before you teach! I do this for two reasons: One, I like to have a sample art work for the kids to see. Two, trying the project before you teach it will help you to troubleshoot when you actually do the project with kids. In fact, it’ll help you figure out any kinks before you even run into trouble.

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I’ll start with the basics:


Day One:

  • Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt
  • A bouquet of sunflowers (I consider this a necessity!)
  • Tempera paint in yellow, brown, orange, red, turquoise, blue and green
  • Largish paintbrushes
  • Texture tools. You can use forks, make your own own of those foam meat trays or buy them from Montessori Services like I did. They’re available in most art stores in one form or another. There are even expensive silicone ones if you have the money!
  • Pencils
  • 12″x18″ white construction or art paper

Day Two:

  • Orange and yellow tissue paper
  • Gold glitter
  • Scissors
  • Yellow and brown construction paper
  • Liquid glue and glue sticks
  • Stencils, made from cardstock or whatever traceable substance you have:
    • Draw the shape of a vase. Cut the shape in two pieces, with the top in a smaller piece than the bottom. Double-check Van Gogh’s picture for approximate proportions. I made three of these so more than one child could trace at the same time.
    • Large circles and small circles. I used the top and bottom of a yogurt container.
  • Pencils for tracing shapes


Day One:

Day One is painting day. It’ll get messy, so make sure you have a table cover and smocks for your kids! And one for you, too!


  • I usually do art lessons at the board, simply because I like to have lots of examples on hand and the board provides a backdrop. If possible, pin up a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings. There’s more than one, but try to use one with a blue background. (Some have yellow on yellow.) If you have a postcard of the painting, pass it around so the kids can get a closer look. You can also put up other Van Gogh pictures so the students can see how visible his brushstrokes are. Ask if they can see them. (You’ll be surprised to see how many say no.) Some kids will be familiar with Van Gogh. Others will not.
  • Read Camille and the Sunflowers. Discuss. They’ll have lots of questions, I promise!
  • Look at the painting with the students. I generally ask them if Van Gogh’s painting looks like a photograph and if they say no, I ask them how they then know what the painting depicts. I mention the words “Post-Impressionism” and “Expressionism,” but I don’t get into any detail. It’s gentle exploration.


  • Start by passing out the white construction paper. The first thing I always discuss with my students is the difference between landscape and portrait. I like to use those words rather than “the short way” and “the long way.” Usually, students are itching to say which is which before I can get a word out. For this project, the paper should be portrait (the long way).
  • Have your students put their names on the paper and then turn it over. Sorry if this is a no-brainer, but I often forget this part! You should learn from my mistake! It’s a hassle when you forget to have them write their names.
  • Show them how to break the paper into thirds. Roughly–you don’t need to get the ruler out. Ask them which is bigger: The background or the table? Have them draw a line to separate the top two-thirds from the bottom third.
  • Let them choose a background color for the bottom. They can choose red, brown, yellow or orange. Let them paint the entire space one color first. Then they can add the other colors as they desire, in dabs, ribbons or strokes. Show them how to use the texture tools to move the paint around so it resembles Van Gogh’s large brushstrokes.
  • For the top they can choose green, blue or turquoise. The rest of the process is the same as above.
  • Set the paper aside to dry. Overnight is usually plenty of time.

Day Two:

Day Two is cutting and pasting. It’s assembly day, when everything comes together for a final product. Day Two isn’t as colorfully messy as Day One, but there will be lots of small pieces of paper, glue and glitter for you and your students to clean up. Yay!


Set out scissors, pencils and glue sticks. Have small pots of liquid glue ready for a bit later in the process. For the liquid glue, use paintbrushes you don’t care about. They’ll be stiff no matter how much you wash them.

Cut up pieces of yellow and brown construction paper so they are roughly the right size for tracing. Pass these out so kids can start cutting and tracing. (If you don’t have time or you’re not inclined to precut the construction paper, you can also put a bunch of uncut paper on the table and let them have at it. It’s good policy to limit waste as much as possible, though, so consider only putting out one or two pieces. Encourage the students to figure out how to make sure there’s enough for everyone if they’ve only got the one piece.)

  • Begin with tracing and cutting out the shapes of the vase. Your students should have two parts made from two different colors. Someone, invariably, will have a yellow bottom and a brown top. That’s okay! It’s those differences that make each art project unique.
  • Give them some yellow and orange tissue paper so they can trace a minimum of six large and six small circles. It’s actually easier to cut layers of tissue paper, so show them how to fold and cut. They’ll enjoy the discovery of cutting multiple circles at one time. Be prepared for some frustration, though, since tissue paper tears easily. I usually cut a few extra circles in case anyone gets too overwhelmed.
  • Start gluing with the two pieces of the vase. Make certain your students put the “bottom” of the vase on the table. Glue the “top” so it overlaps the bottom a little and the background doesn’t show.
  • Using a small circle of glue, start placing the larger of the tissue paper circles. Not all of the tissue paper should be glued–just a dot in the center.
  • In the center of the larger tissue paper circles, add another small circle of glue. Place the smaller tissue paper circles in the center of the larger ones.
  • Now it’s time to switch to liquid glue! You can do the glitter with a glue stick, but you’ll get more with liquid glue. Have your students dab some liquid glue in the center of the smaller circle. Shake the glitter directly on top of the glue. The more the better! When they’re done with the glitter, it’s easy enough bend the paper and pour the excess into a cup for others to use.
  • Hang to dry and display!

Some additional thoughts:

  • Art projects can be stressful, so preparation is key.
  • I purchased a plastic painter’s drop cloth from Lowe’s to protect the tables where kids are working. I’m lucky enough to have a few large tables, but you can cut the drop cloth so it fits on smaller tables, too.
  • It’s a good idea to give yourself over to the mess until the project is done. To lessen the amount of cleanup you have to do yourself, direct students to help. After all, many hands make light work. I usually find that there’s a student or two who likes to help with cleanup, but I never count on it. I give students jobs (e.g., Bobby collects all the pencils and Sara is in charge of scissors) and that usually works better than simply telling them to help with clean up.
  • Play around with the project and alter it to suit your needs and likes. We didn’t draw stems for our flowers, but they may be important to you. It’s okay to add and delete whenever you feel necessary.

Hope you liked the art project! I’ll be back with more soon.


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