Type and Press Enter

Underwater Inspiration: Digital Mandalas | Arts & Activities
  • /
  • Features
  • /
  • Underwater Inspiration: Digital Mandalas
May 2019

Underwater Inspiration: Digital Mandalas

Underwater Inspiration: Digital Mandalas

My students are used to being introduced to a variety of living artists in our art room. This lesson introduces them to yet another artist, but in this case, it happens to be a recently discovered species of Japanese puffer fish. I love their reactions and responses when they discover that the artist is, indeed, an animal, not a human.

Before sharing a short video of the fish creating, I ask students to listen for the answers to two questions while watching it: 1) What are the artist’s tools? and 2) How long does it take the artist to create its artwork?

Afterwards, students share that for about a week straight, the puffer fish uses its fins to create a large (7-foot) mandala out of sand and shells. They learn that the artist uses these drawings to attract a mate/partner. They also discover that the drawing looks like a giant circle split into many slices, where the lines get thinner and thinner towards the middle.

ONCE WE’VE WATCHED THE VIDEO, out come the iPads, and the buzz of excitement is felt throughout the room. I tell students that, since we did not bring our bathing suits to class, we’ll use our tablets to create colorful radial designs inspired by the work of our focus artist.

Then we take a look at a brief how-to video about the free app we’ll be using to create our art: Drawerings–Mandala Kaleidoscope Drawings! If you’re using desktop computers, it can also be used on their website (www.drawerings.com). At the front of the room while the video plays, I model how to use the app’s tools.

Our designs are different than the puffer fish mandalas in a few key ways: Ours will have a minimum of three overlapping layers, the lines will get thinner with each layer—thinnest in the foreground, and the lines will get lighter with each layer. In this way, they also resemble the round stained-glass windows found in many cathedrals. (If interested in including current events, this lesson could connect to the rose windows that survived the recent fire at Notre Dame.)

My students have already experimented with color value and overlapping in a landscape collage lesson, so this provides them the opportunity to see how similar concepts can be used and are present in artworks that look a lot different from each other from a style and/or subject point of view.

BEFORE DISTRIBUTING THE EAGERLY ANTICIPATED TECHNOLOGY, I explain that this experience will be a lesson in teamwork as well as art making. They will be working with a partner to create a visual design together. Accordingly, they will need to be kind and respectful toward one another.

I enjoy giving students opportunities to collaborate with digital tech. Too often, kids (and adults) have their heads bent down in solitary experiences when using tablets or cell phones. I love seeing them turn toward one another with the iPad between them, taking turns and talking about ideas.

Of course, there will be some struggle with this aspect. When problems arise, I take different steps: giving a team a verbal or timed reminder to switch turns; a quiet talk about the importance of respecting each other; or finding an alternative grouping. By and large though, the kids do well with the experience.

WHEN STARTING THEIR DESIGNS, I walk them through the steps again: Open the app, find the toolbar, change the number of lines of symmetry, change the brush size to large, change the color to something light and, of course, I show them the ever-important clear all/delete button. They are given about 5 minutes to experiment.

We then pause to adjust the brush size and color value, and they go at it again for another 5 minutes. Again we pause to make size and color adjustments. These steps are also noted on the dry-erase board in the front of the room as a reminder.

After going through all the steps, I give them more time to play. If any team has a design they really like, they can call me over to save it—but only if they can show me thick, medium and thin, and dark, medium and light.

Once they have an image saved, the students are expected to continue working on a new design, so they may have the opportunity to choose one from several designs for final printing. This step is important because it gives the team a chance to discuss why they like one design more than the others. It reinforces that visual art component, as well as the social-learning aspect of the experience.

ONCE THEY HAVE A DESIGN SELECTED for printing, students delete the others from the iPad photo gallery and turn in their tablets and cards with name/number, so I know whose work is on what iPad. After class, I go through the iPads and print two copies of the design for each partner to keep.

I generally don’t repeat many lessons from year to year, but my first-graders have experimented with this digital puffer fish mandala lesson the past three years. It’s a fun, low stress, collaborative experiment that touches on a number of key concepts. It’s got nature. It’s got technology. It’s got talking. Maybe, just maybe, it’s now got you.


A persistent puffer fish inspired these works by elementary-level students.


A lesson in teamwork as well as art making, students worked with partners to create visual designs together.


Elementary students will …
collaborate with a partner to create an original work of art.
verbally identify different color values and different line types in their work.
explain their reasoning for selecting one design over others to print as their finished artwork.

Creating: Engaging collaboratively in exploration and imaginative play with materials.
Responding: Classifying artwork based on different reasons for preferences.

Tablets (we use iPads) or desktop computers, access to color printer
App: Drawerings – Mandala Kaleidoscope Drawings! (available at the App Store and Google Play)
National Geographic source video (see A&A Online)

aa-finalbitton60ONLINE EXTRAS
click here for resources related to this article

Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Don Masse, is a K–5 visual arts teacher at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in San Diego, California. At a recent NAEA convention, Don was named 2018 Pacific Region Elementary Art Educator of the Year.


Want More Classroom Projects From This Issue?

Order Your Copy of A&A June 2019 Issue For Only $6

Download a PDF of A&A June 2019 Issue For Only $3


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *