Art history for kids: Celebrating Grandparents

Kristen from Art History Mom is here today to share an awesome lesson in art history for kids. This activity focuses on Grandparents, but also gives so many great tips for appropriating art and how to create a portrait. Enjoy!

Warm greetings to the readers of A Mom with a Lesson Plan. My name is Kristen Nelson and I’m honored to be a part of this week’s posts. I too publish a blog, Art History Mom, where parents and kids, teachers and students come together to view, discuss and enjoy art. My blog presents lessons in art history for kids and art history-themed art projects. I believe that exposing kids to great works of art is important and teaches them not only about beauty and ideas, but history, culture and values.

This art lesson is all about fostering an appreciation for grandparents within our kids. You might be familiar with Bruce Feiler’s 5 Secrets to a Happy Family, one of which is telling your family history.

We are fortunate to have my mother-in-law, Carol, living down the street. “MaMaMa” visits for dinner twice a week. Our energetic kids are 4, 5 and 7 so you can imagine mealtime is a bit of a circus some days. Lately I’ve asked MaMaMa to share a few stories from her childhood and when she does, something magical happens. The children actually sit in their chairs, eat their broccoli and listen to her with wide, curious eyes. They enjoy hearing about great-grandpa Lawrence who was a Marine and one of the first men to land a plane on an aircraft carrier at night. And how when she was little there were no computers, cell phones or video games, and only one black and white television in her home.

art history for kids! Celebrating Grandparents by painting their portrait.... love these tips!

My mother, “MiMi,” was recently visiting from New Orleans and I wanted to create opportunities for the children to get to know her family history too. My daughters enjoy art so I thought it would be fun for them to paint her portrait. I decided to make it a group art lesson and invited a few neighborhood friends over. They each brought one photo of a grandparent.

The holidays are the perfect time of year for this family art activity. Here’s an idea: after Thanksgiving dinner, have your child paint a grandparent’s portrait.

Art history for kids: Celebrating Grandparents

Art history for kids – Get the creative juices flowing

Visit my portrait Pinterest board with your kids or simply show them the portraits below.

Portrait of Madame Matisse (Green Stripe),1905, Henri Matisse.
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark. Image attributed to Wikipaintings. Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress, 1783, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 “Whistler’s Mother,” 1871, James McNeill Whistler.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image attributed to Wikipaintings.

Look at the images and ask the following questions:

  1. How are these portraits alike and how are they different?
  2. Why do you think people paint portraits?
  3. What colors and shapes do you see?
  4. What emotions do you think the people in the paintings are feeling?
  5. What do these portraits tell you about the people in them?

Art history for kids – Paint a Grandparent’s Portrait

You’ll need:

  1. A grandparent…or…a photo of one
  2. Art paper
  3. Pencils
  4. Washable paints
  5. Egg cartons or palettes
  6. Paint brushes
  7. Cups of water and towels for cleaning brushes
  8. Black marker or pastel

Observe your subject

Observation inspires the artist and is essential to learning to draw what you see. When my daughter Kolbe was sitting in front of MiMi we looked closely at her grandmother and talked about what shapes, colors and textures we saw in her face, hair and clothing. Kolbe pointed out what beautiful earrings she was wearing! We also paid attention to the background and I told the kids that they could draw what was really there or invent their own setting.

Draw the portrait

The kids then did a sketch using pencil. I reminded them to make the head large so as to leave plenty of room for the facial features. Again we discussed shapes such as a round or oval head and eyes, an angular nose and heart-shaped lips. I also pointed out that a person’s eyes are almost vertically centered on their face, since children often draw eyes up where the forehead is supposed to be.

Paint the portrait

Now it’s time for color. I helped the kids mix different skin tones using white, red, yellow and orange. Ana’s grandma has lovely silver hair so together we whipped up a nice argentine. When the kids were finished painting, they traced over the pencil lines with black oil pastel.

If your child is creating a live portrait, you could have them ask the following questions while painting:

  1. What was it like going to school when you were my age?
  2. What’s your favorite memory of your mom or dad?
  3. Did you have a special toy as a child, and if so, what was it?
  4. Who was your best childhood friend and what did you like to do together?
  5. Please tell me about any pets you had as a child.

Here’s how our little artists portrayed their grandparents.

Meredith, age 6. Her grandmother was wearing sunglasses in the photo. Ana, age 6, used artistic freedom to paint hearts and flowers in the background. Kolbe, age 6, placed a landscape painting behind her MiMi.

I hope your children and their grandparents enjoy this art project. While painting the portrait, Kolbe learned about MiMi’s dog, Skippy, who’s favorite meal was meatballs and spaghetti. What will your children discover about their family history? Please tell me all about it over at Art History Mom, where you can also post a photo of your child’s portrait in the comment section. If you enjoyed this post, why not subscribe? And be sure to join in the art history fun on Facebook!



  1. Pingback: Art History for Kids: Celebrating Grandparents | Art History Mom
  2. I just adore this. My daughter has started to do this all on her own, but not of her grandparents who will all be here for Thanksgiving! What a great lesson AND activity for the kids that love painting. Thanks so much for the idea 🙂

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