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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

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This week the Gallatin Rest Home celebrated Art Week (intended to “focus attention on how artists make the world a better place”) so we did a project involving a recognizable masterpiece. I had seen student art projects that cut a work of art into a grid, then have each student paint a piece. I thought this would work well for our group of seniors citizens, so we undertook Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

I cut an image of the original painting into a grid of 15 squares.
I sized each square at 4 inches and placed them on 8.5×11″ sheets for easy desktop printing. I also made a printable “coloring book” version of the 4-inch squares with black outline only, to give the painters a bit of a head start.

You can download the colored 4″ “puzzle pieces,” the 4″ “coloring book” squares and a printable example sheet PDFs here:

Since the rest home activity director wanted to do something more special than just painting on paper, I took the project a step further, and transferred outlines to 4″ mini canvas boards (purchased at the craft store). I coated the back of my 4″block print-outs with powdered graphite and traced on top with a pencil to transfer simple outlines to the 15 canvas boards. (Graphite is messy, so carbon paper is a good option, if you have it!)

Materials:

  • 15 numbered Puzzle Piece example squares (from the PDF above)
  • 15 4″ mini canvas-board squares (or the 15 printed 4″ coloring book squares from the PDF above, printed on card stock or some other paintable surface)
  • Smallish acrylic brushes, water cups, smocks, paper towels
  • Acrylic paint: Phthalo blue, white and yellow. (I also provided black and violet to artists painting dark areas along the left side.)
  • One black canvas (20″x 12″ or larger) to mount the finished canvas squares on when done.  (A black poster board or foam core would be good alternatives)
  • Glue or heavy double-sided tape to mount squares

Process:

I printed out one copy of my painting puzzle squares, cut them out, numbered them 1-15, and temporarily attached them on my black canvas using double stick tape.

I also numbered my corresponding “coloring book” pieces on the back. (If you don’t think your painters need guidelines, you could just provide a colored example square and a blank canvas)

We showed the painters the entire painting-puzzle, completed, and asked each to select a piece to reproduce as an individual painting.

Next we gave each painter the black line “coloring book” square that corresponded with the example piece they selected.

Each painter received a paper plate palette with blue, yellow and white paints, and those who selected darker parts of the painting also got small dots of black and violet.

Volunteers and rest home staff passed out brushes, water, paper towels and smocks. We helped the painters get started by pointing out a place to begin, and continued encouraging them keep painting as needed. We also demonstrated how to mix colors, as needed.

Outcome:

Participation was good. Four-inch squares were enough to keep our senior painters busy for the whole hour. Some people had time to do more than one. It was fun to see how they all looked when reassembled and mounted to the black canvas.

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I just started leading some art activities at a local senior care center. The class meets once a month, for one hour, so it presents some challenges: What can a group of seniors, who may never have painted before, complete in a single 1-hour class?

I set two initial goals:

  1. Get people to dip paint brushes in paint and put it on the canvas.
  2. Have them leave with a sense of accomplishment.

I thought for the first class it would be a good idea to give them something to start with, so there wouldn’t be anxiety about a blank canvas. Since tulips have been going wild this spring, I chose tulips as the subject. I prepped the canvases with a neutral background to ensure that the result look would look complete (this is a step the participants could have done themselves, but there wasn’t enough time for a multi-step process).

What I did for prep ahead of time:

  1. Buy cheap canvases and acrylic paints (red, yellow, blue, white) using half-price coupons at a craft store. (Cost of materials for 16 was about $50.)
  2. Download and print a good (not over-complicated) stock photo of tulips.
  3. Quickly sponge a neutral ground onto the canvases using a thin wash of acrylic paint and let it dry. (Blow dryers work great if you’re in a hurry.)
  4. Quickly carbon transfer the lines to the canvas, using a dull pencil or similar dull pointed implement. (I made carbon paper by rubbing powdered graphite on the back of a tulip print-out. You could use carbon paper.)
  5. Darken the lines on the canvas with a black sharpie.

With help from rest home activities staff, I gathered

  • portable table easels (They cost about $8 ea. on line)
  • smocks
  • water cups (We used urine sample cups! –Unused– ha ha)
  • paper towels
  • paper plates as palettes
  • 1/4″ size acrylic brushes.

(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.)

You could do without easels, but I think they help to prevent people from dragging their arm across the wet painting.

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Getting started:

We set up each painter with a canvas and easel. I offered blank canvas, or just a neutral ground as another option to start with, but everyone chose the ones with lines.

Helpers passed out brushes, towels and water cups. Each artist got a color copy of the tulip photo for reference.

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I gave each painter a palette with a dot of red, yellow and white paints, explaining that I’d give them blue later. (If people requested to blue, we gave them blue, too! But I thought people would feel more successful in general if they began with colors that all mix together without making mud.)

  • I demonstrated on a palette how you can mix the color with your brush.
  • I explained as needed that dipping your brush in the water occasionally makes the paint flow better.

This was plenty of activity for one hour. Painters enjoyed the process of choosing, mixing and applying colors. Some needed encouragement that it was OK to go ahead and paint. (Yes, dip the brush in the paint, and then put it wherever you want! Yes, mix any colors that you like! No, you don’t have to stay inside the lines, but you can if you like!)

I did a lot of encouraging and remarking on color choices, “I see you mixed some white in the red to get that pink,” etc.

Since it wasn’t very opaque, the black lines showed through, which gave a nice effect.

After completing her painting, one woman said, “I’m proud of myself!” which absolutely melted my heart. A few others said, “I messed mine up” which is harder to respond to. My responses were things like, “You tried something new,” “You mixed some really nice subtle colors,” “Wow, look at that bold red!” “You took on quite an adventure!” etc.

Overall, as a first experience it went well. The lines may have resulted in some people feeling frustrated with their dexterity, but I think that some are always going to be a little timid, and it’s OK to just say, “You did it!” …as cause enough for celebration.

People seemed to enjoy their own works more once they saw how interesting the whole group was, with everyone’s individual choices and experiments. The activities staff hung them on wide ribbons in sets of three to display them.

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