Find me a kid who doesn’t like drawing funny and zany doodle faces. Now slap them on something unexpected and surprising like skyscrapers, throw in some bright, bold colors and you have the makings of some James Rizzi cityscapes. Kids love ’em. Loveeee. Them. And you will, too, if you’re looking for engaging art projects for upper elementary students.
If you’re wondering who this James Rizzi guy is, he was a Pop Artist from Brooklyn, New York who had a deep love for his neighborhood in Soho, NYC. Rizzi loved the people there and he captured that in his paintings and sculptures of the city.
Interestingly enough, James Rizzi was a business major in college and switched to art after his roommates encouraged him to sign up for art classes. And once he graduated, he wasn’t an overnight success. Matter of fact, he recounts the days where he’d sell his paintings and prints on the steps of a building in his community. To make ends meet, he was a taxi cab driver. He eventually went on to do album covers for The Ramones and The Police amongst other things. But that didn’t happen overnight.
I convey these facts to my students so they understand the real challenges artists face.
Not every artist gets to be world famous and those that don’t work just as hard as those that do. And that’s OK! I feel like this helps them with their growth mindset, especially if they want to be a working artist.
James Rizzi Cityscapes
The first step to drawing James Rizzi cityscapes is making a series of overlapping buildings. Now, I teach my students to make two rows of skyscrapers but some of them make a third row. It’s all good. I also tell them to try to vary the shapes and give some of them a “hairdo” at the top. You know, some simple architectural details like a curved or pointed roof or some fancy dental moulding.
Also? I encourage them to skip the pencils and erasers and go right to permanent marker. Why? Because I’m trying to make it real hard for them!
Just kidding. Sorta.
I want them to focus on each mark they make and not worry about “mistakes.” Cuz really? Kids spend too much time worrying about being perfect! And James Rizzi skyscrapers? Are childlike and fancy-free!
Next, we figure out what elements we’re going to draw on and above our buildings.
Now, imagine taking the fun that is James Rizzi artwork and throwing in a game. Yep, that’s what we do cuz we’re cool like the other side of the pillow.
I bust out my roll a dice game and we roll, roll, roll until we have a whopping 15 things for our design.
Before they start drawing, I have them assess the best place to put the things they rolled for. Some need more space than others. Some can only be put in a certain place. Like cars can’t go on roofs so they need to plan ahead.
Meanwhile, I stand at my elmo and help any student who is having trouble drawing the details. Those who are more confident plow ahead.
Once they’ve drawn everything, they color the details only with construction paper crayons.
Marker Painting James Rizzi Skyscrapers
So the last part of this art project is to paint in the skyscrapers.
This is my absolute favorite moment because just like James Rizzi cityscapes by the artist, the buildings really come alive with the bright, bold colors.
My students are pros at this marker painting thing. So they know the drill.
The only part I walk them through is how challenging it can be to use the side of their marker to make thick outlines so they can do their marker painting magic.
If you’ve never done marker painting before, check out my video tutorial on it. Skip ahead until 6 minutes into it to get right to the point of what I’m saying with these thick outlines.
The gist is they make a marker outline, dip a brush in water, and rub it into the marker to make paint. They love it because it has the fluidity of watercolor paints coupled with the control of tempera cake paints.
Now, some of the colors are stinky. You know what I mean. They don’t show up as well as others.
And there’s always that one kid who wants to color with a light shade of blue or pink.
I show them that they can use an old food container lid as a paint palette to rub marker colors on and dip their brush into. Then, they transfer that more concentrated “paint” to the skyscrapers and it shows up better.
I do have to remind them that dipping a perfectly good marker in anything wet will ruin it. So keep an eye out for that if you do this art technique with your cherubs.
But if you’ve never witnessed a student trying this for the first time, you really need to. It’s just as magical as teaching them how to do transfer techniques. They are simply amazed by it.
“What do you mean I can paint with markers?”
“WOAH, that’s so cool!”
“I can do this at home, teacher!” Why, yes child, yes you can. 🙂
It’s total disbelief and euphoria all at once, friends.
Now certainly if you have liquid watercolors you can use those in place of this marker painting technique. But for those of us who teach in a lower economic school district, those lovelies are pricey and marker painting is economical.
Find me a kid who doesn’t like playing games, especially in art class because it helps pep up the art history portion of the lesson. The moment I pull out one of these bad boys, the kids are all excited!
If you’d like to snag a copy of this James Rizzi cityscapes art game, you can grab it here.
And hey, if you’re going to be absent, these make awesome art sub plans. They come with step-by-step instructions that include pictures. Just hand them over to the kiddos.
If you wind up doing this project and you take pictures to post online, please tag me in them so I can check them out. I love supporting other art teachers! I’m Glitter Meets Glue everywhere.
Happy painting, friends!