K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education


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Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • demonstrate the safe and proper use of a compass to create circles of various sizes.
  • demonstrate the use of oil pastels to include color mixing and blending to achieve desired effects.
  • demonstrate an understanding of visual balance in their compositions using a variety of shape sizes and placement options.
  • demonstrate their understanding of what a solar system is (the sun, planets, or, in general, what space might look like) by creating a visual representation.
  • explore connections between the various disciplines of science, math, and the visual arts.
  • explore the factual information in a way that better suits their learning style.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

1 hour


  • One compass per student
  • pencils
  • oil pastels (one container per table or group)
  • twelve-by-eighteen-inch black construction paper—one per student plus one sheet of white twelve-by-eighteen-inch paper for demo
  • any books or posters depicting and/or describing the solar system and the general appearance of the various planets


Any activities that help the students to visualize what they might see if they were to travel in space would be appropriate. On-line exploration into space-related Web sites would be useful, as well as reading a story or book of the science fiction genre. The cover art and/or illustrations for many of the books of this type would give the students a visual example of other artists’ similar images. The discussion of popular movies that depict space travel would also help students to visualize the images one might experience in space.


  1. Prior to the students entering the class (if this is for an art class lesson), have the oil pastels and compasses on the tables. Pencils and erasers should be there also.
  2. When the students are ready to focus, use whatever visual aids you have available for them to see photographs and/or artistic representations of the planets and the sun in our solar system. Ask them "How do we really know what the planets look like?" Include a brief discussion on the technology (observatories, Hubble telescope, etc.) that makes our observation possible. Briefly discuss how a book or movie helped them imagine what it must be like to travel in space. Discuss how any picture in a book that shows several of the planets cannot be to scale (explain this if there seems to be some confusion as to what this means) because of the extreme distance that exists between the planets.
  3. Pass out the black construction paper and demonstrate how to use a compass safely and correctly. Have the students write their name on the back side of the paper and practice on this side using the compass to make good circles of various sizes. When they feel comfortable using the compass, have them turn their paper over. Look for the students who seem to be having difficulty so you can return to them after the next set of instructions and provide them extra help. (This should take approx. 5–10 minutes)
  4. Discuss (or review, if discussed earlier) how balance is important in a work of art. You could use the analogy of a see-saw to help them understand: if a large adult was on one side of the see-saw, how would they achieve balance on the other side with small children? In a work of art, one large shape or shapes can be balanced by several smaller shapes (in this case, circles). Have the students help you create balance in your demo piece (which probably should be on white paper for them to be able to see the drawing). Draw at least one of your larger circles so that it is partially, or even mostly, off the page. Encourage this placement of one or two of their circles to visually extend the image beyond the picture plane.
  5. Demonstrate how to use oil pastels: in order to keep your edges clean and sharp, outline the inner circle with each color of pastel. To create more depth of color, always combine two or more colors together. Use the outline-first method to help stay inside the lines then blend the colors together by rubbing with a finger (this also should be done around the circle edge first before blending the colors inside the circle). Explain that if they want to make one of their circles a sun, they need to use white, yellow, and a little orange for the color and, after blending the three colors together, rubbings that go from inside the circle out past the circle’s edge will give enhance the "fiery" look of a sun.
  6. Demonstrate how to create a "rings of Saturn" look by drawing a long, narrow oval over the center of the sphere with one side of the oval ending on both sides of the circle (to create the appearance of going behind). This can be drawn over the colors already in the circle in most cases.
  7. Small spaceships could be added but the students need to understand how tiny they would actually appear (if they could be seen at all) if this picture was drawn to scale. Comets can also be added by drawing a small dot with a white pastel, adding a few lines to create the tail and rubbing it from the dot to the tail. This is a good time to discuss why this is a comet and not a "shooting star"(no oxygen in space and a falling star is a meteorite burning up due to entering the earth’s atmosphere)
  8. Finally, demonstrate how to make stars by using a white oil pastel to create very tiny dots in the spaces between the sun and planets. Discourage pressing hard as this creates dots too large and explain how too many stars can detract from the overall appearance of their work.

This explanation and demonstration should take approximately fifteen minutes.

Student work time should take approximately 30–35 minutes.

Clean up should take about five minutes.


Students will demonstrate their understanding of the lessons given through their art work. Be sure to get back quickly to those students who were having difficulty with the use of the compass. Teacher should move about the room and monitor continuously to determine if the students understand the directions by their safe and proper use of the compasses, the balance they are able to achieve in their work, their correct use of the oil pastels and their ability to create a personally pleasing visual representation of a solar system/outer space. A short discussion following clean-up can help determine if they are aware of the connections their art project had with their science and math work and if they believed that the lesson helped them understand the concept of a solar system (or other math/science objective) better.

See a second grade student’s sample of this project.

Supplemental information

Any books, encyclopedias, videos, art prints, websites, etc. that can be used to study space, planets, the solar system, or science fiction literature.


I usually do this as an art lesson for my 2nd graders as part of a "space week" thematic unit. The actual study of the solar system, however, does not appear in the SCoS science goals until the 6th grade. The adaptibility of this lesson (and the pure pleasure children experience when creating images of this type) makes it useful for integration into a wide range of grade and ability levels. If you have any special education students whose ability level makes it difficult for them to use a compass or color inside the lines, you can create and use circle templates of various sizes and allow them to color inside the template with the oil pastels. Students who are touch-sensitive, may not care for the "feel" of the oil pastels. There are new construction paper crayons that work well enough for a similar effect on black paper for these students.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Visual Arts Education (2010)
      • Grade 3

        • 3.V.3 Create art using a variety of tools, media, and processes, safely and appropriately. 3.V.3.1 Understand how a single tool can be manipulated in multiple ways, safely and appropriately. 3.V.3.2 Use a variety of media with refined skills. 3.V.3.3 Create...
      • Grade 4

        • 4.V.3 Create art using a variety of tools, media, and processes, safely and appropriately. 4.V.3.1 Apply a variety of methods of manipulating a single tool, safely and appropriately. 4.V.3.2 Compare characteristics of a variety of media. 4.V.3.3 Create art...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Visual Arts Education (2001)

Grade 3

  • Goal 2: The learner will develop skills necessary for understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes.
    • Objective 2.02: Explore unique properties and potential of materials.
    • Objective 2.03: Demonstrate increased fine motor skills.
    • Objective 2.04: Develop familiarity with specific media and processes.