The l960s were a remarkable time to be alive! The American people were witnessing new approaches to the visual arts and music, historic military events and space exploration. Peter Max, the artist, began creating his “Cosmic Art” at this time.
Young people of the ’60s loved the music of the Beatles and, to my surprise, many of my fifth-grade students knew of the Beatles and liked their music as well. The students were eager to learn of how Peter Max often listened to their music—and that of other 1960s music icons—as he created his art.
The 1960s saw the Vietnam War, with over 2 million young men drafted to fight from 1965–72. Young people across the country protested the war, and the “peace sign” arose as a symbol of opposition to it. Peter Max included the sign in many of his artworks.
Also during this time, astronauts were launching into space, orbiting the Earth, taking spacewalks, and much more. Russia and the United States were the main players in what became known as the “space race.” Because of the omnipresent news coverage of these historical events, all of them were witnessed on television by the American people.
As we discussed these events, I realized it was a great teaching moment to address how art, music, history and science work together to influence artists and their creations.
PETER MAX—THE ICON. The students were quite interested in Peter Max, the man. They enjoyed seeing him at work in his studio and listening to him talk about how his art evolved. His style of art became very popular and recognizable. Students were able to see his creative energy on airplanes, pianos, T-shirts, and all sorts of commercial goods, as well as on his canvases.
We discussed his “Cosmic Art” period and what made it unique. We discovered that black lines, bright colors and particular subject matter identified his work. These characteristics would be the focus for our Peter Max project. We noted that he frequently used images of planets, suns, stars, flowers, clouds, hippies, hair, and rays of light in his work. Bright paint colors dominated his palette, painting inside black lines, while flat, cartoonlike figures liberated his canvases.
IN SEARCH OF A ’60s CREATION. The students were eager to create their own art—with a Peter Max feel. We talked about how each of them had a unique way of thinking and how they could use the same cosmic images to visualize a different outcome in the composition of their artwork.
Colored pencils and watercolor paint were the chosen mediums. The students had learned how to blend wax crayons and pastels in previous lessons, but this was the first time most of them would blend with colored pencil. They were shown how overlapping two colors, a new shade was made. They enjoyed this part of the lesson and were fascinated by the new colors produced by this method, sometimes a darker color over a lighter and then reversing the process.
The background was the final step and, because they had worked so intently on blending in colored pencil, the thought of working in watercolor appealed to them. We discussed a monochromatic color theme. The emphasis on watercolor being a transparent paint so the paper would show through is sometimes a difficult concept at this age.
A demonstration was given to show darker shades could be made by overlapping the same color or another shade of that color, and lighter tints could be made by adding more water to the color. The modeled monochromatic backgrounds were a success and really made their brightly colored figures “pop.”
The students were pleased with their work and were heard complimenting each other as they viewed their “Peter Max” installation in the hallways of our school. The staff enjoyed the art, with some of them smiling at the pleasant reminders of a decade from their youth.
Upper-elementary students will …
• learn about the life and work of artist Peter Max
• become aware of world events and how they affect individuals and artists.
• explore the use of colored pencils and how overlapping can affect color change.
• experiment with watercolor paint to achieve transparency and various shades and tints of color.
• learn how to create a monochromatic color scheme.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Combining ideas to generate an innovative idea for art-making.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Connecting: Identifying how art is used to inform or change beliefs, values or behaviors of an individual or society.
• Watercolor paper
• Colored pencils
• Watercolors, paintbrushes, water cups
Barbara Hildebrandt teaches K–5 art at Jefferson Elementary and Franklin Elementary Schools in Bergenfield, N.J.
Want More Classroom Projects From This Issue?