What do PAC-Man, Storm Troopers, Garfield, corn chips, plantains, toucans, hamburgers, and toilet paper have in common? Give up? Absolutely nothing! But that’s the sheer genius of a Katherine Bernhardt pattern painting. She’s a local Pop Art painter from Brooklyn, New York whose work is inspiring on many levels.
Can I get a, “whoohoo!” for an artist that doesn’t paint perfectly or take herself seriously?
She’s just what my perfection-seeking 5th graders need. I also love that she chooses not the intellectualize her artwork. Kids don’t always want to do that. Often they want to enjoy the act of mixing paints or moving paint around on a canvas or paper. It’s that visceral feeling that sometimes compels students towards the Arts.
Katherine Bernhardt Pattern Painting Project
Here’s an overview of how I structured this Katherine Bernhardt pattern painting art lesson, day by day.
Being that my school is in central NJ, I conveyed to my students we’d be taking a trip across the river to view Katherine Bernhardt’s artwork. I gave them some basic background information (where she lived, her style of art, and that she was an up and coming artist) for context. I prepared 10 examples of her paintings blown up to fill my board.
And then I told my students I wanted them to experience her work as if they were in a gallery. I asked them to openly call out loud (yes, just shout out whatever comes to mind!…am I nuts?!), comment with neighbors, and say what they saw in her artwork in the very same way we might experience her work in person.
Art Gallery Walk
I put Bernhardt’s, “Hawaiian Punch” from 2014 up on the board:
In a quizzical manner, “Is that a roll of green paper towels?” And then laughter.
“No, that’s an avocado!”
Then after a moment, “Why is there a cigarette there?”
I replied, “I’m going to let her tell you that herself very shortly.”
Next up, “Sharpies, Dell, Nikes, Toilet Paper” from 2015:
“Sharpies! I love Sharpies.”
“Why is there toilet paper in there?”
I went though each one letting them react. Honestly, I had such a ball listening to the joy and delight in their voices as they saw iconic images they recognized given the “cool” treatment with tropical colors and thick, glowing outlines.
And then I dropped some funky Star Wars on them. Bernhardt’s, “Lima Cola” from 2017 was a big hit, especially with the boys.
When I was nearly done, I threw out a question: “How do you think she made these paintings?”
One sarcastic 5th grader responded, “With paint.” 5th graders will serve you up quick if you’re not sharp enough.
I laughed, “Yeah, but what kind of paint and howwww?”
A mumble from the side, “Spray paint.”
“YAS! How did you know that?”
“The outline of everything isn’t sharp.”
Another voice, “And she added water to the paint because you can see through it.”
They got it. They TOTALLY got it.
Compositional Deep Dive
Once I laid down the hook, I dropped this video of Bernhardt talking about her pattern paintings. In it, she discusses her inspiration and how, such as the use of the cigarette, she likes “…to put things in there that don’t make sense.”
Next, we take a deeper dive into a typical Katherine Bernhardt pattern painting by discussing the elements of art and principles of design that make it a successful piece. I emphasize her strong use of positive and negative space as well as the repeated motifs throughout amongst other things.
By that time, we’re ready to begin drawing. Each student is given a couple pieces of 70lb. drawing paper and crayons. I tell them that the final artwork will be in soft pastel but they need to practice repeatedly in crayon first. Once they’ve practiced, I require them to draw a simple outline drawing to plan their composition. This helps them work out an compositional errors in their plan.
Then finally, we end the class with me showing them the soft pastel technique we’ll use to make the faux spray paint outlines to get them excited for the next lesson.
First, every table gets a pile of drawing paper, soft pastels, and cups of water with big taklon brushes. I give them a quick demo, showing them how to quickly wet the paper and draw right into the wetness. The whole first half of the lesson is practice, practice, practice!
They. Love. This.
The moment the pastel hits the paper it’s magic! The colors come alive. The outline of their shapes are slightly softened and as close to mimicking the soft edges of spray paint without smudging off the surface of our support. And the feeling of the pastel gliding through the puddle? It’s like nothing else.
Then, for the second half of the lesson, each student is given a piece of 18″x24″ 90lb paper and time to draw their motifs based on the plan they came up with at the end of the first lesson.
Friends, I’m super stingy with paper. But I spring for this lesson. It’s worth it. Bernhardt paints on massive canvases and this helps to mimic that experience.
To perfect our Katherine Bernhardt pattern painting, I let them draw their shapes super lightly with pencil first. This way they can set the positive and negative space and I don’t have to worry that someone goofs and attempts to ask for another piece. Ain’t happening!
The remainder of the lesson is me walking around problem-solving student compositions.
Viva la paint!
We’ve talked about her work, practiced our technique, and laid down a composition. They’re so ready to bang out a Katherine Bernhardt pattern painting.
Each table gets a tray of watered down tempera paint in tropical colors along with some neutral colors. In addition, I give them extra containers to mix in case they want to lighten or darken those colors.
First, they paint the background. I put up an example of her work on my board so they are reminded of how light and loose she works. It’s OK if colors spill into one another. I tell my students that if Katherine Bernhardt, an established artist, is fine with the chance encounters of wet paint colors touching one another then so should they.
Then, I show them how to tilt their paper and bam, bam, bam, drip the paint into one spot. Needless to say they loved dripping paint. And not having to worry about “pretty perfect project” as I call them.
Time to finish these.
At this point, some have painted the background, some have not. But once it’s completed, they begin painting shapes.
I encourage them balance out their colors, to pick one color and use it in several places throughout their work. This helps the viewer’s eye travel around the artwork and helps to create a sense of unity.
Oh, and, add in a few more drips. Gotta love those drips!
I also tell them not to worry if the paint color mixes a little with the pastel. It mimics how the spray paint and acrylic paint in Katherine Bernhard’s paintings mix.
Lastly, anyone who drew an image that had words on it or small details like seeds on a watermelon adds those in last. It’s much easier to paint the shape first and add those details in second, we found.
Katherine Bernhardt Pop Art Projects
How amazing are these? I couldn’t have been more thrilled with how these turned out. I’m not afraid to say I’ve hit fan girl status with her artwork. I think my students feel the same.
Art Games for Kids
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 Katherine Bernhardt art game, you can grab it here. It’s not just a game. It includes some basic information about her style of art and inspiration along with characteristics of her artwork that you can review with students. In addition, there’s an assessment rubric students fill out at the completion of the project.
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.