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Art Activities to Support Your Students' Emotional Wellness

Explore the artworks below and discover activities to support your students' sense of well being. This resource is also available as a slide presentation.

Shown from the chest up, a man with short, orange hair and green-tinted, pale skin looks at us, wearing a vivid blue painter's smock in this vertical portrait painting. His smock and the background are painted with long, mostly parallel strokes of cobalt, azure, and lapis blue. His shoulders are angled to our left, and he looks at us from the corners of his blue eyes. He has a long, slightly bumped nose, and his lips are closed within a full, rust-orange beard. He holds a palette and paintbrushes in his left hand, in the lower left corner of the canvas. The background is painted with long brushstrokes that follow the contours of his head and torso to create an aura-like effect.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, 1998.74.5

Create a Self-Portrait
Social Emotional Learning Target: Self-awareness

Draw a wheel and label each section or triangle of the wheel with a different emotion, such as anger or happiness.

Use colors and shapes in each section that match each emotion—for example, the anger section of the wheel might be filled in with the color red and sharp lines.

Then, use your wheel as a guide in creating your own self-portraits that show different moods.

Explore more about this artwork here
Listen to guided audio about this artwork here

Black lines and one small, black triangular shape stand out against patches of color, in indigo and sky blue, pumpkin orange, butter yellow, emerald green, and ruby red, against a white background in this vertical, abstract painting. The paint seems thinly applied, resembling watercolor. Near the lower right corner, the black shape is roughly triangular and has five curving, parallel lines emanating from the bottom. Given the title of this painting, Improvisation 31, Sea Battle, the black lines could represent tall masts and outlines of sails amid areas of vibrant color that make up a boat and water around it.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1978.48.1

Paint to Music
Social Emotional Learning Target: Self-awareness

First, choose a special song or piece of music. Close your eyes and listen to the music. How does it make you feel? What kinds of lines, colors, and shapes do you think of as you listen to the music?

Next, listen to the music again—this time, while painting. Start with a background color (or use colored paper) to show the overall mood of the piece. Then, as you listen, paint a line that follows the melody. Pick a shape, such as a circle or square, and paint it every time you hear a part of the song that repeats. Finally, add colors inside and around the shapes that match the different feelings the music inspires in you.

Explore more about this artwork in a resource for pre-K kids here

Shawn Walker, Untitled (Harlem, New York), c. 1980c. 1980

Shawn Walker, Untitled (Harlem, New York), c. 1980, gelatin silver print, Charina Endowment Fund, 2018.82.4

Photographing Calm
Social Emotional Learning Target: Self-management

What shapes can you see within this image? Trace the edge of the different shapes with your eyes. What gives you a sense of calm or inner peace? Take a photograph that captures the feeling of calm. It might be a place, time of day, or person that brings you peace. Or create an abstract painting with the colors that bring you a sense of calm.

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J.E. Shadek, J.E. Shadek Sketchbook, 1861/18621861/1862

J.E. Shadek, J.E. Shadek Sketchbook, 1861/1862, bound volume with 93 drawings in mixed media on wove paper, Gift of Mrs. Halleck Lefferts, 1980.57.1

Keep a Visual Journal
Social Emotional Learning Target: Self-awareness

Try to carry a sketchbook with you one day a week and stop to record a person, place, activity, or event that you observe — in your home, neighborhood, school, or on a trip.

It might be an everyday occurrence or something unique that you notice. It might be a quick five-minute sketch or a longer drawing. Write the date at the bottom of each sketch. If you wish, paste photographs into the sketchbook alongside your drawings.

At the end of twelve months, you’ll have a visual diary recording your memories of the year.

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We look onto the side of a rowboat crowded with nine men trying to save a pale, nude young man who flails in the water in front of us as a shark approaches, mouth agape, from our right in this horizontal painting. In the water, the man floats with his chest facing the sky, his right arm overhead and the other stretched out by his side. Extending to our left, his left leg is bent and the right leg is straight, disappearing below the knee. His long blond hair swirls in the water and he arches his back, his wide-open eyes looking toward the shark behind him. To our right, the shark rolls up out of the water with its gaping jaws showing rows of pointed teeth. In the boat, eight of the men have light or swarthy complexions, and one man has dark brown skin. The man with brown skin stands at the back center of the boat, and he holds one end of a rope, which falls across the boat and around the upper arm of the man in the water. Another man stands at the stern of the boat, to our right, poised with a long, hooked harpoon over the side of the boat, ready to strike the shark. His long dark hair blows back and he wears a navy-blue jacket with brass buttons, white breeches, blue stockings, and his shoes have silver buckles. Two other men wearing white shirts with blousy sleeves lean over the side of the boat, bracing each other as they reach toward the man in the water. An older, balding man holds the shirt and body of one of this pair and looks on, his mouth open. The other men hold long oars and look into the water with furrowed brows. The tip of a shark’s tail slices through the water to our right of the boat, near the right edge of the canvas. Along the horizon line, which comes three-quarters of the way up the composition, buildings and tall spires line the harbor. The masts of boats at port creates a row of crosses against the light blue sky. Steely gray clouds sweep across the upper left corner of the canvas and the sky lightens to pale, butter yellow at the horizon.

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1

Danger! Shark! Making Brave Choices
Social Emotional Learning Target: Responsible decision making

What is going on in the painting? What do you think happened just before this moment? Come up with a list of adjectives to create a class definition of a hero/heroine. What are the character traits that a hero/heroine possesses? Was there a time when you were saved or helped by a friend? What happened? How did you and that person feel?

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Listen to guided audio about this artwork here

Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, George Jules Taylor, 19721972

Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, George Jules Taylor, 1972, oil on canvas, William C. Whitney Foundation, 1973.19.2

Reading Visual Cues in Portraits
Social Emotional Target: Social awareness

Portraits can embody a surprising number of qualities that range from the impersonal and public (status, profession, or group identity) to very individual characteristics (appearance, expression, or gender).

Artists and their sitters use portraits to convey a particular impression, such as turning your “good side” to the camera, trying to appear serious, or focusing attention on a particular social issue. Discuss what you think the people pictured are trying to say about themselves and who they are through their portraits.

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Berthe Morisot, Spring Landscape, c. 1890/1891c. 1890/1891

Berthe Morisot, Spring Landscape, c. 1890/1891, colored pencils and graphite, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.163

Mindful Drawing
Social Emotional Target: Self-awareness

Can a line suggest an idea, emotion, or movement?

Draw what might represent a quiet line, a loud line, and a dancing line.

Write down an emotion that you are feeling.

Draw a line that might represent that emotion.

Fill your page with similar lines.

Explore more mindful drawing tips here

Susan Middleton, Crown Point Press, Asa Muir-Harmony, Emily York, Ianne Kjorlie, Requiem, 20082008

Susan Middleton, Crown Point Press, Asa Muir-Harmony, Emily York, Ianne Kjorlie, Requiem, 2008, color photogravure on wove Somerset paper, Gift of Kathan Brown, 2011.119.63

Poetry, Art, and Nature
Social Emotional Learning Target: Social awareness

Poets and visual artists alike create work about the natural environment. Read through the poems listed below.

What are the poets’ points of view, and what sentiments are the poems expressing about nature? How do they evoke the reader’s senses? What emotions or thoughts do you have after reading the poems?

“Patience Taught by Nature,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  “What Kind of Times Are These,” Adrienne Rich
“Some Effects of Global Warming in Lackawanna County,” Jay Parini
“Remember,” Joy Harjo

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This square portrait shows the head and shoulders of a young woman in front of a spiky bush that fills much of the background except for a landscape view that extends into the deep distance to our right. The woman's body is angled to our right but her face turns to us. She has chalk-white, smooth skin with heavily lidded, light brown eyes, and her pale pink lips are closed. Pale blush highlights her cheeks, and she looks either at us or very slightly away from our eyes. Her brown hair is parted down the middle and pulled back, but tight, lively curls frame her face. Her hair turns gold where the light shines on it. She wears a brown dress, trimmed along the square neckline with gold. The front of the bodice is tied with a blue ribbon, and the lacing holes are also edged with gold. A sheer white veil covers her chest and is pinned at the center with a small gold ball. The bush fills the space around her head with copper-brown, spiky leaves. A river winds between trees and rolling hills in the distance to our right. Trees and a town along the horizon, which comes about halfway up the painting, is pale blue under an ice-blue sky.

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1967.6.1.a

A Double Sided Self-Portrait
Social Emotional Target: Self-awareness

Imagine what your own emblematic portrait might include (words, symbols, and so on). Think about what you would illustrate about yourself. Which of your personality traits do you want people to remember? What characteristics make you unique?

Create a double-sided self-portrait, with one side showing your physical appearance and the other side presenting an emblem of your personality and/or interests.

Explore more about this artwork here
Listen to guided audio about this artwork here

Step Inside a Painting
Social Emotional Target: Self-management

Watch the video below to immerse yourself in the setting of Rembrandt van Rijn's The Mill

Explore more guided video tours here