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Birding with Brill | Arts & Activities
Sep 2017

Birding with Brill

Birding with Brill

Every year, I have my kindergartners experiment with more complex cutting and layering as the year winds down. This helps me see how far they have come with their motor-skill development. Leading up to this project, they practice cutting different types of lines and geometric shapes with lessons like robot collages and abstract portraits.

Last year, my kinders looked at the work of Josh Brill, an artist based in Portland, Maine. They practiced cutting, layering, and combining different shapes to make brightly colored abstract versions of various birds.

I view Josh as a modern-day Charley Harper in the way he breaks down the organic forms of plants and animals into more geometric shapes that maintain a sense of three-dimensional volume. There is a clean economy of shape and color in his work that appeals so much to me, personally, while allowing students to gain a better understanding of complex forms.

When I introduced my students to Josh’s work, we primarily focused on birds native to the West Coast. In San Diego, we see hummingbirds all the time, so we studied Brill’s interpretations of a variety of these tiny birds. We identified eyes, beaks, wings, and the circles, semicircles, ovals, triangles and rectangles that made up these parts.

We approached this activity as a direct-instruction lesson. I would model a step, the kids would try it out themselves, and we would continue until the project was complete.

We started with the larger, dominant shapes, and added smaller ones that overlapped those to add more detail. Once all of the paper was cut, assembled and glued in place, we added a few shadow elements with gray or black color sticks.

While Josh’s work looked very clean, I emphasized that theirs would have a bit more “character.” Lines didn’t need to be perfectly straight, shapes would be glued in place crooked. This was completely okay and made each of the student interpretations more unique.

If they felt frustrated with their first attempt, I encouraged them to try making the parts again. The most common cause of this frustration was drawing and cutting a shape too small. To help, I suggested they use dots near the edges of the paper to act as guides for making those shapes larger.

I see 10 different kindergarten classes (we’re a big elementary school), so I had them create different bird collages. Most did hummingbirds, but my two transitional kindergarten classes created cardinals. We don’t see many of these in South California, but their forms were more simple and I wanted my youngest artists to feel as successful as possible with this final collage project.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a direct instruction–type lesson. These students had previously done student-led collages that included more opportunities for student choice, in terms of subject, shapes and techniques. I believe, especially at the younger levels, that there should be a balance between projects that emphasize student voice/conceptual development and those in which the emphasis is on the formal elements and technical skill building.

This project could easily be adapted for different grade levels, and to include more opportunities for student conceptual development. You could have students research birds that are native to your area and then create their own abstractions inspired by those birds in the style of Josh Brill.

You could put together how-to videos of different types of birds and your students could choose which bird they wanted to create, use mobile devices to watch the videos, and execute a collage.

Or, if digital technology is available, you could offer student the choice of creating their birds with cut paper or they could build them with an app such as “Assembly,” which allows you to create digital collages.

Any way you “slice it,” I think the work of Josh Brill is worth using as the inspiration for a lesson with your students. His natural subjects are engaging and fun to look at, and you can approach his work in a wide variety of ways with your students. 


Students first drew and then cut their birds’ dominant shapes. Then they glued these down and overlapped them with smaller shapes to add detail. After the cutting and gluing was done, some of the children added shadow elements to their birds with gray or black color sticks.







Lines that were not perfectly straight and shapes that were glued on crooked made each student interpretation unique.



Primary-level students will …
• identify parts of bird anatomy and describe the shapes that are used to create those parts.
• continue to build skills with scissors and glue by creating a collage project.

• Creating: Through experimentation, building skills in various media and approaches to art making.
• Responding: Describe what a image represents.

• Colored construction paper
• Scissors, glue sticks
• Pencils, erasers
• Examples of Josh Brill’s artwork www.joshbrill.co/

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Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Don Masse, is a K–5 visual arts teacher at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in San Diego, California.


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