When the twinkling lights of Christmas have been boxed up, and glowing candles of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa have been blown out, bring some light back into your life with this beautiful chalk pastel project inspired by nature’s great light display. As an elementary art teacher, I need a fun, low-prep activity to look forward to after winter break, and this project helps brighten that post-holiday funk. Even though the aurora is at its peak during the spring and autumn equinox, the icy climates in the northernmost reaches of the globe where this phenomenon occurs make for a great winter scene.
When charged particles from the sun dance with our magnetic atmosphere, we are treated to a bucket list-worthy show. The colors vary due to factors like altitude, but the most common is green, followed by red, blue, and purple. This activity is a great chance to learn about analogous colors because you need to choose colors next to each other on the color wheel to get a realistic result. I do this lesson with my fourth-grade classes, but it is easily adaptable to younger or older children.
If you do this project with 5-8-year-olds, I highly recommend pairing it with the book Rory: An Orca’s Quest for the Northern Lights by Sarah Cullen and Carmen Ellis. This fun rhyming book not only has Arctic animals and excellent illustrations of the aurora, but it also has a lesson in teamwork.
The northern lights have inspired and amazed people since the beginning of time. Vikings thought the aurora borealis was a sign of war. The Inuit legend is that the dancing lights are the spirits of their ancestors. A great book to use with third through fifth-grade students that has another aurora myth is Aurora: A Tale of the Northern Lights by Mindy Dwyer. This imaginative story gives us a glimpse into the seasons and what it is like to live with perpetual daylight or darkness. The illustrations also provide a good image of a caribou in silhouette. For enrichment, students could write their own aurora legends. Nonfiction books and real pictures of the northern lights are not only a must but also a great way to incorporate science into your lesson.
Get Your Supplies Ready
For this activity, you will need chalk pastels in a variety of colors, black construction paper, copy or scrap paper, black and white tempera or acrylic paints, and a paintbrush. To prevent the pastels from smudging on the finished project, I recommend using a spray fixative such as Krylon Workable Fixatif, but aerosol hairspray will work, too.
I like to begin by showing the children real pictures of the northern lights and discussing what they are and where they occur. At this point, I love sharing a picture book for inspiration. If your children have never worked with chalk pastels before, let them experiment with “Super Chalk,” as I call it. Some children really don’t like the feel of pastels, though I find this varies by brand. If using them gives them the willies, try sidewalk chalk or colored pencils. Chalk pastels are very messy, which also can bother some. For these kids, I fold a piece of facial tissue in thirds and wrap it around the pastel like a little blanket. It’s a good idea to keep baby wipes or a wet paper towel nearby to aid in keeping your fingers clean. This gives little ones peace of mind and will help keep their paper free of unwanted smudges. Also, make sure to protect your work surface with newspaper.
Time to Create
Tear the copy or scrap paper into jagged strips the width of your black paper. Try to avoid straight lines – peaks and valleys are much more accurate. It’s alright if the paper strip gets torn shorter than the width. You can still use these pieces, but try to keep them at a minimum.
Choose pairs of chalk pastels in analogous colors such as green/blue, green/yellow, red or pink/blue, or blue/purple. Pairing white with blue is also a good combination.
Starting about two inches from the top, lay a torn strip down on the black paper. Hold it in place with one hand while you stoke upward from the strip onto the black with a pastel. Make sure they begin on the torn strip, not above it. Continue across the paper in an A, B, A, B pattern. You may gently blend the color upward onto the black paper using your finger or tissue to give it a more atmospheric appearance. Carefully lift off and discard the strip. (This would be a good time to wipe those fingers so you don’t muddy the black paper.)
Repeat Step 3 down the paper using different torn strips and color patterns. Make sure to leave plenty of black space in between for contrast. Stop about two inches from the bottom to leave room for the snowy ground.
Spray the black paper with fixative or hairspray and let dry.
Use white paint to create the snowy ground by painting all the way across the bottom two inches of paper. The Tundra is quite flat, but the children could also paint a glacier in the background. Refer back to the pictures of the northern lights and examine the terrain. Explain that they are creating the horizon line with the white paint.
Create stars by striking the brush loaded with white paint against a pencil or the handle of another brush, like you’re playing a rhythm instrument. Aim the splatter at the sky. Do this lightly so as to not distract from your aurora. This step could also be done before creating the aurora color bands, but the paint needs to dry thoroughly before applying the pastels. If splatter paint makes you cringe – just saying kids love it, but all I see is mess potential – then make stars by dipping the end of a toothpick into the paint.
Use black paint to make tree trunks at various heights. Add branches to the trunks in a triangular shape. As an alternative for older children, I have had them paint an arctic animal such as a caribou, moose, wolf, or polar bear in the silhouette. A simple way to do this is to print a picture of the animal they choose and cut it out. Place the animal in the desired spot in the foreground and trace around it with a pencil. Fill in the shape with black paint.
My Favorite Part
My favorite part about this activity is hearing the kid’s reaction when they peel back their first strip to reveal their work. To them, this simple process is as magical as the real northern lights. You may want to keep plenty of supplies on hand for them to make multiple pictures. This would be a good time to experiment with different color combinations, as well as length and direction of the light rays. Study photographs of the aurora and try to mimic what you see in those. Have your children try using a different animal or multiple animals in the foreground. It will make for a great discussion on art techniques to compare and contrast their different pictures.
If you’re looking for more ways to study art with children, check out my newly released picture book, Art Museum Spider. In this story, a spider escapes a storm by going into an art museum. He falls in love with the artwork inside and moves from piece to piece, spinning his webs. You can use the illustrations in this story to ask your child what picture they think the spider chooses and why he chooses that particular one. It’s also fun to ask them which picture they would have picked. No matter what art your children create or what books you use to enrich their knowledge of the art world, you will be giving them the gift of beauty and self-expression.
Kim Hintze is the author of Art Museum Spider.