Friday, February 10, 2012

making art together: collaborative circle painting

This year I have done quite a few of these "circle paintings" with my Kindergarten and first grade Art students. I am always amazed by the boldness and gusto my students have when they're creating work together, characteristics I sometimes never see from many of them. I absolutely adore these projects, and I think after reading about the elements and principles of circle paintings, you may even be inspired to give it a whirl with your students!

Heip Nguyen, who created the first community-based circle painting, desired to connect with the children of his neighborhood. The neighborhood children kept coming back for more, often bringing friends with them. He was inspired to use circles (a symbol of connection) as a way to connect with others in the community. Originally, circle paintings have been part(s) of community functions, bringing community members together to create LARGE, colorful, collaborative works of art.

I have brought that same excitement to my classroom recently:

My Kindergartners creating their collaborative circle painting.

I love doing this project with my Kindergartners because they begin with a circle, a small, relatable and attainable shape. "So cool! I know how to make a CIRCLE!" Working along with the other students in the class, layers of color and circles are added and added and added by their peers to produce a much more complex project: a collaborative celebration of color and circles.

During the collaborative process of circle painting, something magical happens. Every single student, not just select "stars", suddenly begin to work and think like real artists...from which colors to use to where to add their newest circles. I see them thinking more on a collaborative project than on individual ones. Every time we do this project, the kids are amazingly enthusiastic, and they’re involved in the whole range of the artistic process, from conceptualization to execution.

Even though we, as adults, know the complexity and symbolism of the circle, the kids have no idea how powerful their work has now become...or how beautiful it is. All they often see is scale (large) and colors (many).

Collaborative art-making is a great way to teach pre-K and K students the theme of UNITY. Students who feel inferior in the art-making process suddently come alive. They realize that their contribution to the artwork is just as important as their classmate's...everyone is now an equal game-player, and everyone's contribution matters. Whats even better is that while creating, students develop relational skills ("I like the polka dots you added to MY rings!") and they just plain GET ALONG. There are conversations about colors mixing and compositional terms I had no idea they even KNEW. It's magical on so many levels.
I am always amazed at the amount of pride and sense of ownership every student expresses at the end of the project: “I made this. I did THAT one right there! Isn’t this great?” No one is going to pick out the "wobbly" circle, in fact no one even notices. It’s a huge self-affirming lesson for a child to experience a job well done, especially a job well done collaboratively. Together students can create what they could never create alone. What an essential lesson! It can’t be taught too often.
While there’s nothing new about circle painting OR collaborative art-making, what is new is
bringing this approach into your classrooms and taking the plunge to "go there" with your students. Don't be afraid of the "what if's"--that is what is so great about the minds of young children and what is so HONEST about their artwork. There will be wobbly circles, there will be mixed-paints. Let me tell you, thier pieces of the puzzle don't even come close to stacking up to the final product. Your students will see this, too.

There is no doubt that your students can create astonishing art that you never dreamed possible. Circle paintings are do-able, the experience is powerful for everybody
involved, and the final products are amazing. Collaborative art-making has tremendous potential for changing the "inferiority complex" that your students may have about making art.

And in the end? After I've displayed their collaborative work for (what, to them seems like) an eternity...I cut it up into 22 individual squares and pass it out to them. They don't even care if they got THEIR circle. They're just happy to have a slice of the masterpiece!

So, go forth and create...and if you decide to take the "plunge" please come back and link your project in the comments section of this post!

Joanna Davis-Lanum is a National Board certified Art Teacher and teaches at Garden Elementary School in Venice, Florida. She is the author of her classroom blog "We Heart Art" and amazingly (to everyone's surprise) wears white pants on occasion in the art room! For more lessons on the circle project, you can check out the lesson plan here or a circle painting mishap here.


  1. Joanna - I couldn't agree more. I loved listening to the conversations my 4th graders had in their groups of four as they created their part of the larger piece. We were focusing on balance of color and I overheard SERIOUS conversations of where colors should go (and why), the use of complementary colors, darks and lights, etc.... It is such a rewarding project on so many levels. I, too, cut up the work into smaller pieces (9" X 12") for each student and the smaller pieces are just as terrific as the large work!!

    Our last piece is here:

    1. Christie, thanks for sharing! It's such a powerful medium :) your work(s) look awesome!!!

  2. I love this idea! I shared it on my FB page and also sent the link to a homeschooling parent I am working with!! She is going to use it to review circle but also work with different shapes, too. Thanks so much!

  3. This is soooo incredibly amazing! I LOVE the look of this artwork! I would love to have something like this in my house even :) It is amazing what such young children can create! Truly a masterpiece! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Carie!---it's hard to part with them, thats for sure!

  4. So beautiful! They did a wonderful job!

  5. Amazing ... such a beautiful and meaningful creation! I love the concept of a collaborative art project, and it's wonderful to hear how well it works. I pinned your post to my Kids' Art Projects Pinterest board at

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