Programming Ideas

Painting Under the Table: Innovative K-5 Art Programs

Linda Potter, an Early Literacy Specialist at the Kenosha Public Library, has turned the tables on ordinary art programs at the library. On one particular Friday, children lie on their backs, painting paper that’s been taped beneath the meeting room tables. Why? They’re learning what it’s like to be Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. (Turns out, it’s a tad difficult to paint like Michelangelo. Who would’ve guessed?)

Children’s art on display at the Kenosha Public Library

This is just one program in a popular series called “Art Sparks.” Art Sparks is a drop-in program for children in grades K-5 that runs for 2.5 hours once per month. Each month, Linda turns the spotlight on a different artist and offers an age-appropriate project in that artist’s style. For example, while exploring the work of Wayne Thiebaud, children painted giant cardboard doughnuts and sprinkled them with paper confetti. A program on Jackson Pollock found the meeting room kitchenette covered with plastic tarps so that children could literally fling paint at a giant sheet of paper.

No matter the subject, each child who attends is treated to a mini Art History lesson in which Linda shows them examples of the artist’s work, talks about how the artist did what they did, and introduces that month’s project. Children are offered the option to leave their finished artwork at the library to be prominently displayed until the next session.

Though Linda has a Bachelor’s degree in Art Education and a minor in Education, she stresses that you don’t have to be an art teacher to emulate these programs. To get started, find an artist that intrigues you and do a little research. Then, use Google or Pinterest to find an art project that is stylistically similar and try it for yourself to gauge its difficulty.

For Linda, the most important thing is that participants be allowed to do each project in their own way. “Children can do it,” she said. “At the library, where there’s nothing they have to create in order to get a grade, they can learn how to manipulate the media. What I love about Art Sparks is that it shows them that you are an artist. All of us are in some way! We all love to be creative and be complimented on something we’ve made.”

So, what is there besides cardboard doughnuts and splatter painting? Here are a few ideas:

Keith Haring-Style Foil Squares: Cover pieces of cardboard with smooth aluminum foil before the program. Have children use colored Sharpies to draw men, dots, and lines on the squares.

Roy Lichtenstein-Style Comic Art: Have each child pick an action word like “ZAP!” or “BLAM!” to write on a piece of paper. Add plenty of color and comic strip flair with Do-a-Dot paints and markers.

Kenojuak Ashevak-Style Birds: Draw a bird with markers. Add color coding dot stickers (whole or cut in half). Or, if the kids are feeling extra ambitious, they can use markers to fill their bird in with pointillist dots.


Vincent Van Gogh-Style Landscapes: Put shaving cream into foil pans and smooth the surface with a spatula. Add drops of liquid watercolors and use a plastic knife to swirl the paint through the shaving cream. Gently place a sheet of paper down onto the shaving cream. Peel paper up slowly and set it face-up on the table. Use a squeegee (which can be something like a jumbo craft stick) to scrape off the shaving cream. Allow the paper to dry while they draw and cut out a black skyline. Paste the skyline onto the paper.

Dale Chihuly-Style Chandeliers: Gather plastic water bottles from fellow staff members. Before the program, cut off the bottom of each bottle and sand the sides so that paint adheres better. Children use tempera paint to paint several bottles however they want. Once the bottles are at least somewhat dry, have them cut each bottle in a long spiral strip. Bunch the bottles together and slip knotted string or rubber bands through the tops. Attach the strings or rubber bands to a central loop to hang it up (Linda used pipe cleaners to create her central loop).

Mostly, though? Get creative, have fun, and get messy!

Heather Thompson is the Youth Services Programming Librarian at the Kenosha Public Library and a member of the ALSC School-age Programs & Service Committee.


  1. Carol Simon Levin

    Love this! (I always wanted to do the “under the table Sistine Chapel” but our carpeted program room floors precluded it.) I have done many artist-based programs over the years — if folks want to see plans, they are available at:

    1. Heather Thompson

      I should’ve noted that for the “painting under the table” program, there were definitely tarps underneath the tables to protect our carpet! 🙂

  2. Samantha

    Is this for any age like 11

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