Monday, March 20, 2017

Step Back 2000 Years To Imitate the Work of the Man Who Invented Paper

The word paper comes from the Egyptian word for the reed that grows along the Nile River: papyrus, so it’s easy to assume that paper was invented by the Egyptians.

Papyrus plant (Public Domain:

While it is true that around 2400 B.C., Egyptians
  • Sliced the flower stems of papyrus into flat slices,
  • Soaked them,
  • Laid the stems criss-crossed on top of each other, and
  • Pressed them to dry, creating mats for writing and drawing.
The mats that resulted were just that: mats made from strips of papyrus stems.

Paper as we know it, however, came about in a different way.

Egyptians were not the only ancient culture to invent things on which they could record the details of their history. Here is a timeline of some other inventions:
  • Around 6000 years ago, the Sumerians, in what is now Iraq, recorded pictographs on clay tablets taken from the bed of the Euphrates River.

Sumerian clay tablet (Public Domain:

  • Around 2500 years ago (about the same time Egyptians were making papyrus mats), in Southeast Asia, people were etching their writing on bai-lan palm leaves and then applying a mix of soot and resin to make the etching more visible. There are still a few Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who do this kind of writing.

Palm leaf manuscript (Public Domain: picture

  • More than 400 years ago, people in Russia, North America, and the Himalayas wrote on bark with a stylus. The stylus leaves a kind of bruised line on the bark that is quite easy to see. Today traditional craftsmen in Ukraine still still etch birch bark to create pictures. This one was a gift to us from a Ukrainian friend.

Ukrainian etched birch bark picture

However, paper as we know it today is made of pulp

Cloth or plant fibers are separated and stirred until they become a slurry of wet soggy soup. The idea of making paper this was invented in China about 2000 years ago. The person who is usually given credit for inventing this method of making paper was a man named Ts’ai Lun, a member of the imperial court.

Ts'ai Lun (Public Domain:

Ts’ai Lun combined fibers from mulberry, hemp, silk, bamboo, and grasses; he pounded and cooked them to mush, and then spread the mush on a screen to dry. When the flat sheet of mush had dried, Ts’ai Lun had a tough, flexible paper that was perfect for imperial records!

When we were in Thailand recently, we picked up a few sheets of paper made of mulberry fibers. As you can see, the paper maker mixed in bits of some dried plants for decoration. I couldn’t help but think that my new paper had a history 2000 years old!

Thai mulberry fiber paper

You can imitate Ts’ai Lun's invention and make your own paper. 

You’ll need
  • a blender, 
  • a piece of window screen, 
  • a cheap picture frame, and 
  • scraps of paper. 
Printer paper, toilet paper, paper towels, and napkin scraps will make white paper. Construction paper, newspaper, non-waxed cardboard, or magazine paper will add color.
  • Attach a piece of window screen to a picture frame with duct tape or staples.
  • To make the paper pulp mush, put paper scraps in the blender and add water until the blender is about 2/3 full.
  • If you want paper hard enough to write on, add some liquid starch.
  • You can add color with food dye or plant juice.
  • You can add interesting texture with small leaves, string or yarn, or flower petals.
  • Set your framed screen in something to catch the water (a sink or a large pan with edges, for example). Pour the paper mush onto the screen, and shake the screen to get an even layer of mush.
  • Press the mush flat with a flat object like a cookie sheet.
  • Prop the screen up on one side so air can circulate around it, and let the mush dry, until you have paper.

Have fun!

This new paper could be the foundation for an exciting new art lesson for kids!


Monday, March 6, 2017

For the Love of Paper - A Thai Adventure

I love paper. As with any art material - brushes, paint, whatever - the quality of the art product helps determine the quality of the project you are completing.

For example, a few years ago I was asked to teach an art class for children at a local youth camp; organizers agreed to provide the art supplies, tables, equipment, and even some volunteers to help the students. All I had to do was teach.

The lesson - based on ArtAchieve’s lesson, “The Kitenge Tree Wall Hanging from Tanzania” -  involved painting with watercolors, so I specified my favorite crayons, drawing paper, watercolors, and watercolor brushes. When I arrived to teach, however,
  • the “drawing paper,” was thin printer paper, and 
  • the  “watercolor brushes” had wiry bristles that were so stiff they tore the paper. 
It was too late to get replacement supplies, so I proceeded with the lesson. Students were happily involved as they drew and colored with their crayons, but when they applied watercolors to create a batik effect, the paper started tearing, and soon each student was left with a soggy shredded mess.
An experience like that is a good reminder that the kind of paper we use in an art project is really important; it puts me on a constant lookout for new paper products. It’s fun to see how they affect my art work. So you can imagine how exciting it was when our guide in Thailand drove us to the Elephant Poopoo Paper Park!

Entrance to the Poopoo Paper Park

Thailand has 3000 elephants living on elephant farms, and somehow the country needs to pay for their feed. They have enormous appetites. Thai elephants eat grass, and it takes them only 2 hours to digest a meal before it’s bathroom time.

With such a short digestion time, only 40% of the grass is digested; the rest is eliminated. So one way to pay for elephant upkeep is to turn the elephant poo and all that undigested grass into poopoo paper. (That’s poopoo paper for art projects, not for the bathroom!)

It sounds disgusting, though, and our first question was, “Does the paper smell?” The park attendant assured us it did not and then took us on a tour of the park to show us a process whereby Thai people turn poo into paper. The tour was in a park, so industrial scale processing what not what we were going to see. This was a concept tour. Industrial scale production would be taking place elsewhere.

Our park attendant with a lump of dried poo

Standing in front of bags of dried poo, the ranger offered us a chance to to feel and smell the read-for-processing poo. To be honest, it seemed pretty inert and really did NOT smell at that point.

So off we went to the next stage of processing: poo washing! During this first stage of the process the poo is boiled, cleaned, and rinsed.

Each of us got a turn stirring the boiling pot. It felt a bit like a scene from Macbeth: "Round about the cauldron go . . .Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!"

When the boiling, washing, and rinsing stages are finished, only the undigested grass fibers remain.

Next, the undigested grass fiber -
  • along with some plant dyes (These paper makers are purists: no chemical dyes or bleaches!)
  • and tough fibers from mulberry trees -
get sloshed together in a big mixing tub.  The mulberry fibers add strength to the paper.
A mixing tub with dye and mulberry fiber added to the poo

When the slurry is completely blended and pudding-like, the slurry gets spread out on a screen, and the screen with its paper mush coating are set out in the sun to dry.

Poopoo paper on drying racks

At the end of the tour, we visitors got to make greeting cards from the finished paper, and since our daughter is expecting our first grandchild, we also bought a picture frame made from the paper. How many other grand kids get to claim that their baby picture was wrapped in PRETTY elephant poo?!

Greeting card, bookmark, and picture frame

Does elephant poo paper work as a foundation for art? Yes it does! Here is my quick experiment with poo paper and oil pastels. The paper is tough, soft, and really nice to work on!

A bear: oil pastels on elephant poo paper

 You can learn more about this unique paper at these two sites.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

6 Ways To Encourage Students To Do Creative Work

And Picture Books To Illustrate Them

Here are 6 things you can do that will encourage your students' creative work.

Get Rid of Distractions

Creativity thrives in a quiet environment, for example:
  • Silence, or quieting sounds. (In our art lessons we recommend having music in the background because kids often find complete silence a bit overwhelming.)
  • Uncluttered space. Noise can distract us from creative work, but so can clutter.

The sparse layout of the book, Not a Box, is a reminder of how productive we can be when we are not distracted by clutter and noise.

Set Boundaries

Creativity thrives on limitations and routine. Having a daily routine - devotions, mealtimes, chores, a routine for starting projects and for cleaning up - provides a foundation for the kind of quiet we just talked about. Creativity isn’t helped by chaos.

Liza, in A Day with No Crayons, thinks she knows all there is to know about how to color - until she faces a limitation: a day without crayons. She discovers that there are lots of ways to make pictures, and you don’t NEED to have crayons to color. It has taken a limitation to give her creativity a boost.

Give the Gift of Confidence

There are plenty of kid’s books to remind us how to give kids the confidence they need to be creative.

Appreciate effort
In The Dot, Vashti is convinced that she cannot draw. However, when her teacher coaxes her to draw just one dot - and then frames the dot in a gold frame and hangs it on the wall - Vashti learns that her meager effort is vastly appreciated, and she creates a whole art show of dots. All it takes is a teacher who valorizes her effort, no matter how small.

Give positive feedback
Ish reminds us that there are two kinds of feedback, a kind that builds confidence and a kind that ruins confidence.

Be open to mistakes
The Day the Crayons Quit helps remind kids that having a rigid idea of how things ought to look is often a lot less interesting than being open to mistakes, difficulties, and new observations.

You can find more tips to boost kids confidence at and at

Ask “WHAT IF?”

A friend of Einstein hoped that her son might become a scientist, so she asked Einstein what kind of books her child should read to prepare to be a scientist.

Einstein replied, "Fairy tales and more fairy tales." The mother protested that she was really serious about this, and she wanted a serious answer, but Einstein persisted, noting that:
  • Having a creative imagination is an essential part of being a scientist, and
  • Fairy tales stimulate the imagination and introduce us to the world of WHAT IF.

The hilarious book, Arnie the Doughnut, starts with a crazy WHAT IF.  What if doughnuts could talk? What if they wanted to be our friends?!

Arnie the doughnut would have been EATEN alive if he hadn’t asked WHAT IF.

The book, The Three Pigs, applies the big WHAT IF to the fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs. What if  - when the wolf comes to blow the house down - he blows the pig out of the picture, and pigs are free to have some REAL adventures?

Art and Max begins by asking, “WHAT IF a character in a book were really only lines and color?”
  • If you could blow the color off the character, you’d get nothing but lines, and
  • and if lines are like string, you could unravel the drawing.

Give permission for special interests

If kids are inventive or original, other kids may find them to be “different.” This is not to say we should ask our kids to act weird just to stand out from the crowd, but they do need permission to get lost in a special interest and to find their own voice. Creative kids often don’t mind being alone because they’re so lost in their work. They ask questions others might find strange. But don’t worry. Thirty years from now those same nerds may become millionaires, and the quiet girl a novelist.
On the other hand, the search for popularity can be a risk factor for peer-pressure related problems. As long as your child has a good friend or two, that's healthier than being “popular."

Weslandia is a good reminder that pursuing your own interests may be more important than being popular.

Encourage persistence and curiosity.

When our kids were small, we had the habit of asking everyone around the dinner table, “What did you learn today?” It was our way of encouraging curiosity. Each day each of us had to tell about something interesting we had learned. But recently I heard of an even better question: “What question did you ask today?”

Flotsam is about a boy whose curiosity about the debris on a beach takes him on a trip around the world. It’s also a good reminder of the many other ways we can encourage creativity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

5 Picture Books That Capture the Nature of Creativity

If you want to explain to kids what creativity is all about, here are 5 picture books you might like to discuss with them.

Art points to transcendancy

In David Wiesner’s wordless picture book, Sector 7, a boy and his class go to visit the Empire State Building and view the city. But it’s foggy: there is nothing to see when they get to the observation deck.

So the boy plays a trick of the imagination and makes the fog a creature/friend. Boy and foggy friend go off on an adventure to a mysterious place in the sky called Sector 7 where the boy redesigns the clouds, turning them into the shapes of fish and other sea creatures.


The story transforms a foggy, disappointing day into an magical adventure and reminds us that art helps us transcend the mundane.

The book also reminds us that a perfectly “real” picture may not be the most interesting kind of picture.

Teachers might like to use the story when a child complains that his/her art doesn't look real/right. Sometimes looking “beyond right” is better than looking right.

Art and creativity bring order out of chaos.

Art is one way we make sense of what goes on around us. We take what we see and ORGANIZE it to make sense of it. The boy in Sector 7 starts in a confusing fog and creates order - he transforms amorphous clouds into nameable objects.

One way we begin to make order is by letting two planes of thought intersect. An example of that kind of activity - connecting seemingly unrelated things - can be found in the Look-Alikes books.


You’ll find stacks of CD covers that look like high-rises, nut-crackers that transform into bridges, and boat masts made out of compasses. Soon you’ll being seeing all kinds of connections between what you ordinarily see and other things that they may remind you of: two planes of thought will be intersecting!

Creativity requires reflection and evaluation.

After we (1) connect ideas to create a new idea, we need to (2) test its value.

In the book Going Places, notice how both of these skills:
  • Letting two planes of thought intersect, and 
  • Testing the value of a new idea 
are used as two kids build their go-cart.


The teacher announces a competition called Going Places. Every kid gets a go-cart and all the go-cart kits are the same. But Maya, instead of using the kit as it is, glances up at a bird and lets two planes of thought intersect - a go-cart and a bird.

She makes a trial version and joins up with her neighbor, Rafael, who takes charge of evaluation. Together they make a go-cart that flies. Of course, THIS is the go-cart that wins the race.

Art and creativity require total involvement.

In order to be creative, we need to get lost in our work. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon. We’re so involved in an activity that we forget the time. We forget to eat.

Likewise, we do creative work because we WANT to. Others can’t make us be creative. A perfect illustration of this is the book Art.


Drawing is all Art wants to do. Art is so involved in his art we are left wondering, “Can you tell them apart?”

And as this book reminds us, a cheer-leader is also a great spur to creativity. A little bit later Art sees his art on the refrigerator, “Held there by magnets (stars and a heart), put there by mother, ‘cause mother loves Art.”

Art and creativity are NOT self-indulgence.

You have probably met those creative types who use creativity as an excuse for self-indulgence. Creativity, however, is not meant for self-indulgence, nor is it first of all for one’s own pleasure. The goal of creativity is the service of others.

Iggy Peck is “an architect, and has been since he was two.”


All goes fine for Iggy until he gets to grade two, and his teacher bans any discussion of architecture.
But when the class goes on a hike and arrives on an island, the bridge they have just used collapses.

The class is doomed until Iggy collects everyone’s shoelaces and builds a bridge that saves the day. Creativity isn’t about self-indulgence. It’s about service.

Art and creativity are practical.

Last of all, art and creativity are practical skills. That may come as a surprise, because  -  just think about it - in order to be creative,
  • We have to waste time,
  • We work in silence,
  • So that we can bring order out of the seeming chaos of our lives.
It seems like craziness.

But there is an increasing call for creative people.

IBM recently asked CEO’s around the world what were the top qualities they sought when hiring someone. The answer? “The ability to deal with complexity.”

When asked what qualities they found lacking in today’s workplace, they said “creativity.”
Sadly, in spite of this, tests show a decrease in creativity in today’s students.

In my next blog I’ll show you some picture books that capture the ways we can promote creative work in our students.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

How 200 People Collaborated To Create Inspiring Art

My wife and I just came back from spending a week in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I was a plenary speaker at the Asia Education Resource Consortium’s Family Education Conference. AERC serves ex-pat homeschooling families who are working in places across Asia, and the theme of this year’s conference, which focused on the place of creative arts in the curriculum, was “HeARTS Matter.”

With activities for all ages, conference events included drama, dance, music and visual arts, as well as inspirational gatherings. One of the inspirational events was

A visual art project


 that required the participation of everyone: adults, children, workshop leaders, and conference organizers - about 200 people in all.

Laura Sprague setting out supplies

Led by Laura Sprague, the goal was to create two enormous wings that would be a visual reminder of the uplifting promise from Isaiah 40:30-31: “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

The art-making process

Each conference participant began their contribution to the project with
  • a sheet of white paper,
  • their choice of a primary or secondary color of tempera paint
  • some black and some white tempera paint.

With that they created a band of color on the paper that ranged from
  • a tint of the color
  • to the color itself
  • to a shade of the color
Here you can see the completed paint projects of several children.

Painted papers

When the paint was dry (It’s humid in Thailand, so drying took a whole day, even though the hotel was air-conditioned!), various feather-shaped templates were used to cut the painted papers into feather shapes.

Feather template

Each artist/participant then decorated their feather with a white china marker.
  • Some decorated their feathers with abstract patterns,
  • Some with favorite images, and
  • Some decorated with expressions of their thoughts.

The finished artwork

As that was happening, Laura drew a wing shape on a huge sheet of black paper that was then hung on the back wall of the conference stage. Then she and a few assistants pinned the feathers into place, and at the end of the conference the art was unveiled.

Families lined up, stood between the wings to create the eagle’s body, and had their picture taken. Of course, we had our picture taken too!

Laura’s friend, Tabitha Morgan, created a mini-poster about the project, and when all pictures had been taken, each conferee unpinned the feather they had created and took it home as a memory of the conference, along with a copy of the poster.

What an inspiring way to unify conference events!

You can find more of Laura’s art at

Monday, January 30, 2017

Lines Have Emotions! Part IV: Two Last Lines

If you have been following me in the past few blogs,
You’ve learned about the feelings conveyed by a total of nine kinds of lines. Here are three more kinds of lines to make an even dozen!

You’ll remember the diagonal line from Part I of this series, and the movement it gives to a picture.

If we have diagonal lines crisscrossing in different directions, the picture becomes even more energetic. But what happens if we lean the tips of two diagonals against each other? This is what we get:

The pyramid line

You have undoubtedly seen this line before:
  • Mountains, and
  • The pyramids of ancient Egypt use the line.

What feelings do these lines give? Do you notice what’s happened to the energy and motion of the diagonal line? It’s gone! In fact, if you want to give a portrait the feeling that the person is
  • imposing
  • unmovable,
  • rugged and tough,
the pyramid is a good choice. Goya’s painting, Repentant St. Peter, is a good example.

Think about the contradictory statements the painter is making about the Biblical event he describes. St. Peter has just denied knowing Jesus, and now he is seeking forgiveness. You might expect the painter to use a grief line, or a roman arch to compose the picture, but instead he uses a pyramid - one of the strongest lines he might use!

What was Goya thinking?!! Might he be suggesting that in repenting from his sin, Peter becomes strong? It seems so.

Van Gogh used the line when he painted L'Arl├ęsienne: Madame Ginoux With Books. Again, the line makes the figure seem strong. Madame Giroux and her husband owned the cafe that Van Gogh often visited. Judging from the picture, what kind of business person might she have been?


One last line that is interesting to study for its emotional effect is

The circle

It’s very telling that at Thanksgiving time in the United States, we use a cornucopia as a common decoration. Why use a cornucopia to symbolize a bountiful harvest? The answer is probably to be found in the fact that we use a series of circles to draw a cornucopia (the word comes from the Latin words cornu copiae - horn of plenty):

And what do we have spilling out of the cornucopia? Lots of round fruits and vegetables: More circles! The circle suggests
  • plenty
  • fullness, and
  • luxury,
so the cornucopia is a perfect representation of a bountiful harvest.

Renoir seems to use circles quite often, and they make his pictures feel comfortable, and his figures full-bodied. Here is his Landscape with Trees. All the shapes are soft, but notice how rounded everything is.

Can you find the circles in his painting, The Artist’s Family?

There are many more lines we could look at, and if you're interested, a great resource is Law Walkin's book, The Language of Design. Now that you've learned about lines and what they can communicate, why not open an ArtAchieve art lesson and make some lines of your own!