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This aspen tree palette knife painting project for senior citizens was done at The Gallatin Rest Home, which cares for very elderly people, many with significant health issues.

Preface about this “cookie cutter” project approach. I have found that many adults feel apprehensive about making art and enjoy themselves more if they are given some kind of structure to begin with. I’ve also noticed that using non-traditional tools and techniques helps participants overcome the fear of “messing up.” (For senior citizens, having diminished dexterity can be very frustrating, so using tools they haven’t tried before circumvents expectations of how the tool should work.)

I chose aspen trees since their shape is simple and distinctly recognizable. Fall is a nice time to talk about bright, falling leaves which are beautiful in their imperfection.

  1. Since my class time is only an hour, I prepped my canvases with a background color to dry overnight. (I used a credit card and a rag to create a smooth gradation from robin’s egg blue to navy blue. –Note on the example photos, I had first tried white to blue to black, but I decided brighter blue was better– It didn’t matter if they were perfect because the background recedes behind the trees in the finished painting.)
  2. I started with short (5-minutes or less) demonstration of using the palette knife to apply white trunks and branches, black shadows and knotholes, and blobby yellow leaves. (This is for the seniors’ benefit, but also for the helpers, who need an understanding of the process in order to assist the seniors.)
  3. I passed out example images of aspen trees that had been painted with a palette knife, making sure that people understood that their painting didn’t need to match.
  4. We gave each painter a plastic palette knife and blobs of white and black paint (about the size of a quarter) on a paper plate.
  5. I demonstrated how to drag the palette knife downwards to create a straight tree trunk, then pull the branches upward.
  6. I showed how adding black along one side of each trunk creates a shaded side, then added black and gray dots and flecks to look like knot holes and bark.
  7. I gave each artist a wet paper towel (baby wipes work great) to clean their palette knife.
  8. When trunks were done, I gave each artist two shades for leaves: a darker ochre, and a bright lemon yellow. I showed how to dab yellow on to create the impression of leaves, and talked about how some leaves might be falling, or already on the ground.

The project took about 30 minutes for each person to do. For some older seniors, this is a plenty long time to sustain attention. For younger seniors or people with fewer physical challenges or more time, I would provide some photos of aspen trees for inspiration. The painters could have painted their own gradient backgrounds using a credit card or piece or card stock if the class had met twice (so there would be time for the background to dry).

Helping seniors paint: If you’re a helper with this activity, here are some examples of how you can help.

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Getting started:

  • Sometimes people have a hard time getting started, so I’m not shy about demonstrating that first line. If I see someone who looks like they don’t know how to begin, I ask, Would you like me to make the first trunk so you can see how it works? If I get no answer, I just do it and then load up the palette knife and casually hand it to the person. Sometimes I may point to an area on the canvas and say, It looks like this would be a good place to start.
  • People often lose momentum, so helping them continue and complete a work is a delicate art. Here are some ideas to help them be attentive without nagging:

Talk about the tools and the paint:

  • Have you ever painted with a palette knife before? It’s quite different from a brush, isn’t it? You don’t have to worry about the details.
  • That white paint looks nice and bright on the blue.
  • I see you have mixed some black paint in the white. That reminds me of tree bark.
  • Do you want some more white paint? Here’s some more. I’ll load up your tool for you.
  • Load up their palette knife with paint, repeatedly, if needed!

Talk about what they have done so far, and encourage them to keep going:

  • “You see you painted one trunk. Do you want to make another one? Here’s some more white.”
  • “I see you made a nice, bold white line. What do you think it needs now?”
  • I see you made a leaf. If you want more, you could dab some more paint on.

Countering negativity:

Always resist the urge to talk about “good” or “bad” artists or art.

  • Please, never say in front of any artist of any age, “I’m a bad artist” or “You’re a good artist.” There is never a need to bring up the topic of self-judgment, even if you’re judging yourself. Keep it light and easygoing. Think more in terms of, “We’re experimenting here, and anything goes.”
  • If a participant is saying “Mine looks messy” you don’t have to contradict them. You can quietly let them have their opinion, or if you feel they want reassurance, you can say “To me it looks lively!” or “I’ve noticed when I walk in the forest that leaves do look messy sometimes. I love windy days in the fall. How about you?”
  • Again, you don’t have to tell the artist, “It’s good.” It’s not your job to judge their art. Instead, encourage them by saying something more like, “It’s adventurous of you to experiment with this messy technique!” or just validate their feelings by saying, “You like things to be tidy, don’t you?” or “This is kind of a messy process, isn’t it?”
  • Although most participants enjoyed this activity, one said over and over, “I can’t paint my way out of a wet paper bag.” In this case, I just joked, “Well, you never know!”
  • Unlike small children, many older people have spent a lifetime being judged and criticized, so don’t feel discouraged if some people come with “baggage” about art. Just congratulate them for touching art supplies and thank them for joining you on an adventure, knowing that this sensory and cognitive experience is valuable, and it’s not up to you to “fix” their attitude.

I always enjoy the end of a workshop, when people see what others have done, how different and individual each piece is, and how we can celebrate each different approach. Participants always seem to leave feeling good about the works as a group.

 

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aspen tree trunks

These are some gelatin block monoprints I’ve made using reference images. For the skull and the cat, I used background textures created with stencils.

I learned gelatin plate printing while developing art workshops for senior citizens with physical and cognitive challenges. It’s easy and fun, and there’s lots of info on the web. I used the resources of gelatin gurus Linda Germain and Sharon Giles.

While experimenting, I found that one of my favorite techniques involves hand-painting monoprints using a reference image. I made a tutorial video to help others try it:

In the video, I didn’t go into detail about building the hinge jig: Basically, I made a little foam core platform so that my paper was flush with the surface of my gel block. Then I taped an additional piece of foam-core on, to align with the top of my printing paper. This functioned as a “masking tape hinge holder.” (Depending on how big the paper is, you’d just line up the hinge-holder with its top, and tape it down.) You can also just use a masking tape hinge and skip all the foam core fuss—whatever works!

Of course you need a GEL PLATE RECIPE Gel Plate Recipe Steps (PDF)
(Again, thanks to Linda and Sharon for their resources. They really know this stuff.)

Below are steps for a rest-home art project using a simple image. I practiced with an image I found on the web (sorry I couldn’t locate its original source to credit). Click on the first image to arrow through.

UPDATE: Here are some pictures from the Gel Plate workshop I did at the Gallatin Rest Home in May, 2017. The residents loved this activity and were very successful.

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This was my second 1-hour painting activity at a senior care facility.

Last time we used medium-sized brushes and acrylic paint to color pre-prepped tulip drawings on canvases, so this time I wanted to try something more free, with bigger brushes. I wanted to encourage the painters to really go wild with their brush strokes so I modified a project I’d found that uses adhesive vinyl letters to spell words, which you paint over, then peel off, so that the letter remains white.

Supplies: (Cost for 12-16 participants was ~$25, but I already had paint and boards)

  • 1 50-sheet pad of 11×14″ acrylic paper (doesn’t warp or wrinkle when you paint on it.)
  • 3 packs of cheap adhesive vinyl letters (I got 3″ vinyl letters at Walmart near the mailboxes. Make sure they’re die-cut in the shapes of the letters, not just printed on square sheets.)
  • A roll of painter tape.
  • A tube each of red, yellow, blue and white acrylic paint.
  • Art boards (to tape the paper sheets on. I re-used 12×18″ plasti-core sheets, but cardboard or any conveniently sized stiff material would work)

Faced with a short class time, here’s the prep I did:

  • Cut the 11×14″ paper sheets in half to 5.5″ x 14″ sheets
  • Tape the four edges of the paper down to art boards, overlapping the tape about 1/4″ onto the paper along each edge.
  • Create an example
  • Sort through the letters before class and put letters for words (we did LIVE, LOVE and LAUGH) on wax paper to temporarily hold them.
    (I got more mileage out of my letter sets by using an Exacto knife to make extra As into Vs, which we needed more of.)

With help from rest home activities staff, I gathered

  • portable table easels ($8 ea. online)*
  • smocks
  • water cups (We used urine sample cups! ha ha)
  • paper towels
  • paper plates as palettes
  • 1/2″ to 1″ size acrylic brushes.**
  • A blow dryer to speed drying time

*You could do without easels, but I think they help to prevent people from dragging their arm across the wet painting. **Acrylic brushes have stiffer bristles than watercolor brushes, making it easier to control acrylic paint, which is thicker than watercolor. It can be frustrating to paint with brushes that are too floppy, too ragged, too big, or too small for a particular project.)

How it went:

  • Helpers handed out easels, brushes, water cups, paper towels and art boards.
  • We asked painters to select a word, and they placed the letters according to their taste.
  • I showed my example and explained that we would 1) use big brush strokes of different colors. 2) fill in the whole area with paint. 3) paint right over the black letters 4) later we’d peel the letters off.
  • We passed out palettes and painters picked 2 primaries of their choice and white.
    (i.e. either red and yellow, red and blue, or blue and yellow, plus white)
  • I demonstrated how loosely you can paint, and how it was fine if wet colors mixed.

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It took the group the full hour to get their whole 5.5 x 14″ sheet painted. I encouraged painters to mix any colors they liked and to keep going until they covered all the white within the blue tape. I also reminded them to dip their brush in water to make the paint spread easier. (“Yes! You’re doing it right!” “Yup! Paint right over the letters.” “Would you like to add another color?” etc.)

After the first person’s painting was complete, I dried it a bit with the blow dryer and returned the painting so the painter could pull off the vinyl letters. For some painters, I started the corners of the adhesive. Everyone was surprised and delighted with the effect.

All of the painters really enjoyed removing the adhesive letters and masking tape to reveal their finished work. Nobody complained that theirs turned out badly! It was a lot of fun. You could modify this project to ask people to think of inspiring words ahead of time and use their own words. You could also do a short phrase on a canvas, as shown in blog posts that inspired me to try this activity. Sponge painting, spatter painting, spray painting, cotton ball painting, etc. would work just as well.

Their finished works can be displayed individually or in groups.

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