Using Spatial Intelligence to Make Earth-Friendly Art

Preparation Step:
     1. Have the class collect leaves from the school grounds or have students bring them in from home. Also, have your students bring in aprons or old t-shirts to protect their clothing from the dyes in Activity Three: Make Your Own Plant Dyes.

     2. The teacher will have to collect many of the ingredients ahead of time for Activity Three: Make Your Own Plant Dyes. It may be helpful to create workstations for each group of students.

Warm-up: Visual-Spatial Intelligence
     1. Break students into groups to discuss the meaning of visual-spatial intelligence (this will be review if students already completed Earth Day Network’s Multiple Intelligence lesson plan, found at

     2. Pass out Reproducible #1 – “Understanding the Brain: the 8 Dimensions of Intelligence” and review with students. Explain that just as we all have different strengths and weaknesses, we also have different intelligences. People learn in many different ways, yet it is possible to stretch other areas of the brain through exercise, the same way you would strengthen any muscle.

     3. Students should brainstorm which types of activities require them to use their visual-spatial intelligence (for example: drawing, painting, sculpting, doing a puzzle, reading a map, recognizing faces, packing a suitcase or box, building things).’

     4. Have students match which intelligences they feel that they most strongly relate to.

     5. Explain to students that they will be using their visual-spatial intelligence in the next few activities to study the environment.

Activity One: What’s in Your Paint?
     1. Do your paints have harmful dyes in them? Do the markers have toxic fumes? Have students look at their art supplies, or at the ones available in the classroom, and read the ingredients list. Look for ingredients such as ammonia, formaldehyde, acetone, methanal, and methylene oxide.
               • For more information on harmful ingredients and products to avoid, please visit the Oregon Toxics Alliance. For a comprehensive list of toxic ingredients that humans are most likely to be exposed to, please visit the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website to view the CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances.
               • Many manufacturers do not list their ingredients on their packages. For example when a consumer wrote to the Crayola Crayons company website asking what ingredients were used in making their crayons, the company replied, “The exact ingredients of our products are proprietary...”, and would not publish their recipe. They assured consumers that their crayons were free of common allergens such as latex, peanuts and shellfish.

     2. Explain that toxic chemicals found in some art supply pigments and dyes, in large doses or sustained exposure can cause headaches, nausea, burns, breathing problems, lung and kidney damage, and even cancer.

     3. Explain to students that some paints and other art supplies contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which can be harmful to the environment. VOCs are a group of chemical compounds that contain carbon. In chemistry, organic means something containing carbon. Volatile means 'easily evaporated' - like water boiling away in a kettle. It can also mean explosive. A compound is something that is made up of two or more elements. So a volatile organic compound is a carbon substance that is made up of two or more elements, is easily evaporated, and may be explosive. The VOCs in paints are emitted or evaporate into the atmosphere and have been found to contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.

                 • According to the federal Labeling Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA) passed by Congress in 1988, art supplies must carry labels to warn people if a product is hazardous. Also, the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) is a not-for-profit organization where member companies volunteer to have their products evaluated for safety. Products that have the Approved Product (AP) seal are not toxic to humans, and products with the Caution Label (CL) contain harmful ingredients and should be used with discretion. Follow the link above to see pictures of what the seals look like. You may want to pass out pictures of the labels for the class to familiarize themselves with what they look like.

     4. Do any of the products in the classroom have either an AP or CL label on them? Have students search around their classroom or art room for materials with a label from the ACMI and share their findings with the class. Note: Products with the CL label are prohibited for use in K-6 schools in California. To view a list of art products that are prohibited in schools, please visit California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Activity Two: Original Art Supplies
     1. Explain that people have been producing art since as far back as history can tell and art is a part of virtually every culture.
                 • The earliest drawings painted on cave walls and etched into stone (petroglyphs) can be found in places all over the world, such as in Egypt, China, and areas in North and South America.
                 • Different cultures produced art out of many different materials depending on their locations and the purpose of their art. For example, some of it was used to tell stories and relay information in an age before newspapers and e-mail, and other pieces of art were created for religious purposes or for aesthetic value. Sometimes art had a functional purpose, like when Greek warriors dyed their battle garments red to hide the blood that splattered on them. Egyptians would dye their clothes light colors like blues and browns so their clothing would stay cool in the heat. Sometimes art was fashion, much as it is today, used to show the personality, social status and other information about a person. For example, for many cultures, since brighter colors were more elaborate and harder to produce, they were used to show the importance and affluence or power of the wearer.
                 • Ask students to come up with some examples of early art supplies. Examples may include: stones for carving or painting, homemade paper, fabrics and textiles, stone and metal tools for carving, brushes for painting, natural pigments and dyes, clay, wood, shells, feathers, animal skins, grasses for weaving, stones and gems for jewelry and adornment, etc.
                 • Early artists did not use the same art supplies we use today. The only supplies available to them were found in nature or made from natural ingredients and therefore did not contain any man-made chemical toxins or VOCs.

     2. Further explain that every culture dyed yarn and fabric to make colorful clothing, rugs, quilts, and other pieces of art. Ask students what people used to dye yarn and fabric before there were chemical dyes and manufactured art supplies. They used plants and plant materials because many of them naturally have strong coloring that can be used to dye fabric. Bark, berries, leaves, crushed nutshells, and spices are some examples of what was used.

     3. Divide students into small groups and have each group research a different culture’s method of making natural dyes and coloring their yarn and fabric.
                 • Examples of cultures for students to research: ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans, Native Americans, early English settlers, African tribes, Europeans in the Renaissance era, Incan and other indigenous South American cultures.
                 • Ask students to research:
                         • the culture in general, especially arts,
                         • dyeing procedures,
                         • the dye ingredients,
                         • what influenced their dyeing techniques (geographical location, plant availability, cultural beliefs, historical events, religious affiliations),
                         • types of products produced with the dyes and their purposes,
                         • examples or pictures of the dyed finished products from that culture to show the class.
                 • Some useful links to help in the research process:
                         o Metropolitan Museum of Art
                         o Native American Ethnobotany
                         o The history of plant dyes, from the University of Michigan
                         o The Fashion Encyclopedia

     4. Have the groups give mini presentations about the information they found about their particular culture. This activity could be adapted or incorporated into social studies units or could focus on specific cultures.

Activity Three: Make Your Own Plant Dyes
     1. Explain to students that they will be making natural dyes in ways similar to the various cultures they learned about through their historical research. As they learned in the previous activities, not all art supply ingredients are safe for people and the environment, but it is possible and simple to make home-made dyes and art supplies using all natural ingredients that are nontoxic. Have students work in groups to follow the recipes for making all-natural plant dyes. Suggestion: this activity may be easiest to do in a science lab, home economics room, kitchen, or even outside, with access to burners, water, and easy-to-clean spaces.

     2. Have enough beakers or pots for each group of students to boil their water for the dye bath. Plan to have safety equipment for handling hot water (hot mitts, wooden spoons, tongs etc.) *Note: be sure students do not handle boiling water without assistance from an adult.

     3. Emphasize safety and the need to wear goggles when handling and stirring hot dye baths. Aprons or old t-shirts worn on top of clothing should be worn as a precaution to protect clothing from splatters.

     4. Hand out Reproducible # 2 – “Make Your Own Plant Dyes – Student Lab Sheet” and have students follow along while demonstrating procedures. Make sure to show students how to stir without spilling and how to handle hot fabric with tweezers or tongs.

     5. Allow students time to go through the steps to dye their own fabrics. Assist students with chopping and grinding plant material.

     6. Have your students assist in the clean-up process to make sure everything is put away properly.

Wrap Up: Discussion
     1. Ask students what intelligences they used in the activities they completed. Have students explain their answers to demonstrate their understanding of the multiple intelligences
                 o Logistical: mixing plant material to create a new colors requires planning and experimenting.
                 o Spatial: designing your dyed fabrics (which colors to use, tie dye techniques) requires spatial skill to determine which colors look good together.
                 o Naturalist: experimenting with the plants found in nature and using plants found in your local environment to make dyes requires you to observe the environment and have some knowledge about what it includes.
                 o Kinesthetic: practicing safety techniques in the lab requires fine motor movement
                 o Linguistic: following the procedure to conduct an experiment, understanding the teacher’s directions requires language comprehension and interpretation, reading the ingredients list on art supplies requires literacy skills.
                  o Intrapersonal: creating a new color that is unique to the student and designing a t-shirt they will like requires self knowledge.
                  o Interpersonal: working as a group to make the all natural dyes as well as sharing the colors requires interpersonal skills.

     2. What are VOCs? How can they be harmful to humans and the environment? A Volatile Organic Compound is a carbon substance that is made up of two or more elements, evaporates easily, and may be explosive. The VOCs in paints and other art supplies are emitted or evaporate into the atmosphere and have been found to contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. These and other chemicals found in art supplies can cause headaches, nausea, burns, breathing problems, lung and kidney damage, and even cancer in large doses or sustained exposure.

     3. What are some ways ancient civilizations used art? What are some examples of why early civilizations choose to dye their clothes certain colors? Examples of cave paintings and stone carvings can be found from the earliest civilizations, such as Egypt, China and parts of North and South America. Early art was often a way to tell stories, relay information, or for religious purposes. In Greece, warriors wore clothes dyed red to hide the blood that spilled on them when in battle. Egyptians would dye their clothes light colors like blues and browns so their clothing would stay cool in the heat. For many cultures, since brighter colors were more elaborate and harder to produce, they were used to show the importance and affluence or power of the wearer.

     4. Name some organic materials that can be used to make paint? Which materials produce certain colors? The juice from thawed berries or squeezed berries, the juice from a drained can of beets, or the strained water after boiling the tree bark, leaves, walnut hulls, onion skins etc.
Blue: blueberries, red onion skins
Brown: walnut hulls, paprika
Green: oak bark, crab apple leaves, spinach leaves or other greens
Orange: yellow onion skins, oats
Purple: purple grapes, pomegranate
Red: cranberries, beets
Tan: coffee and tea
Yellow: apple tree bark, white onion skins, turmeric, chili powder

Extension: How Can We Expand on What We Learned?
     1. Have a “Green Fashion Show” where students can display or model their naturally dyed fabrics and clothing. Have students go to Track my T to learn about the process that goes into producing a sustainable and environmental friendly t-shirt from the farm to the consumer
     2. Turn their preliminary research on the art of different cultures into a larger research project. Students could choose the culture that interests them the most and write an essay or research paper about their art. Please visit Art History Resources on the Web for a good place to start.