Class for young artists on character design and illustration
In this 4 week class, students will create their own characters for a class role-playing adventure game!
Design and draw characters using illustration techniques and tools, create a backstory including strengths, weaknesses, motivations and conflicts. Then, launch your character into an adventure RPG to collect tools, develop experiences and interact with other characters!
This class is perfect for students interested in storytelling, role-playing games, comics, fantasy and adventure. Students will leave with a sketchbook of character details, polymer clay figurines of their character, tools, and sidekicks, plus stickers of illustrations and images.
One of my favorite activities to do with my kid and adult classes is to handbind our own sketchbooks and journals. For classes or residencies where students will use sketchbooks for practice, writing, or to make observations, this is usually one of the first activities I introduce.
Journal-making is a great activity to set the tone for the class; with so many options for choice and customization for individuality, I like to demonstrate that the preferences the students make are celebrated and choice is a standard in the class. I focus on that freedom particularly for youth students where we may also explore new skills and story-crafting.
This pamphlet binding is super simple and straight-forward, and uses a small collection of materials that I’ve been able to source somewhat inexpensively from local craft stores and online. Plus, it’s expandable, with the option to add more pages as students need them!
Another reason this is my favorite initial activity is because of the sense of wonder I usually see in most students when they finish this project and realize they’ve made an actual book! I do teach bookbinding classes for teens and adults where we dive into more sophisticated and complicated methods of binding. In those classes, the point is to practice bookbinding specifically. In my other classes that are centered more around community, story-crafting and reflection, creating a journal/ sketchbook can be the first way to dip into personal expression for the class.
I remind students in these classes that the journal they make is their book; they can put anything they want in it and they don’t have to share, so it’s a safe space to experiment, practice, fail, and try again. I’ve seen multiple students do this project and then want to spend the rest of the class period just making more books because they’re so elated to have actually made something themselves, so I always have more materials on hand.
Here’s the activity process, which can be done with most students 8 years and older. That’s the age group I’ve kept in mind for the project plan, although I’ve also made these with much younger children with some adaptations. See the end of the post for those and other adaptations to make this project accessible for all ages and abilities.
Handbound Sketchbooks/ Journals
Students will use materials to make choices and create their own sketchbooks for use throughout the class.
Students will make choices from several options
Students will use special tools and materials for book-making
Students will be able to use the words and identify an awl, embroidery thread, a needle and book signatures
Materials (per student)
One sheet 12″ x 12″ Scrapbook paper, decorative, several options
4 – 16 individual sheets of writing or sketching paper, cut to 9″x 11.5″, folded into 4 sheet signatures
Tapestry needle with large eye (No. 18)
1 hank embroidery thread, various color options
Scissors (one pair for the whole class is usually enough)
Optional (for no-pocket option): Paper cutter
Optional (for pocket option): glue sticks
Students should have their own individual spaces and materials to use. Place the signatures for each student, the tapestry needle, and the awl at each spot. Make separate piles of scrapbook paper in different areas of the room so that students can see the options and make choices.
Invite students to observe the materials at their desks and share their observations.
What do you think the tools are called?
What are the tools used for? What could be a different way to use the tools?
How should the tools be handled for safety?
Introduce the activity: we’re going to make our own sketchbooks
Name the tools and their use:
The awl is the sharp tool with the wooden handle, we’ll use that to punch holes in our paper and cover.
We’ll use the needle and thread to sew the pages of our book together.
The paper is four sheets folded together, which makes one signature.
Students can select their covers from the piles of paper around the room. note: I usually have lots of options so I make sure to tell students to look at everything and share what they find with each other.
After students select their cover pages, ask them to fold the page in half into the orientation they want for their book cover. Some decorative pages might have patterns that have a specific orientation, so make sure students understand that how they fold their paper is how their book will look in the end.
It’s helpful to also demonstrate that the cover pages are too long for the book, and so they’ll need to be trimmed down by 3″ off one end. Or, students can fold the sheet up 3″ from the edge to make two inner pockets. I ask students to make the choice of what they want to cut off or fold.
If not making a pocket, use the paper cutter to trim off the excess 3″ and the student can keep the scrap to make a bookmark or an even tinier sketchbook.
If making a pocket, use the glue stick to glue the two open edges of the pocket to the cover.
Binding the Sketchbook
Use the awl to safely punch three holes into the folded edge of their cover: one about 1″ from the top and bottom edges, and one in the middle. Help students do this safely by securing their cover in their hand with one finger on either side of the folded edge.
Take one signature of paper and fold it on the outside of the cover.
Using the holes in the cover as a guide, punch holes in the same spots on the signature.
Measure embroidery thread to 3 times the length of the spine of the cover.
Thread the needle to prepare binding.
Place the signature into the cover, making sure the holes line up.
Sew the needle into the cover from the outside into the middle hole, going all the way through the signature as well.
Pull the thread through, leaving a 3″ tail on the outside of the cover.
Next, sew into one of the edge holes from the inside of the signature, pulling the thread through to the outside of the cover.
Sew into the last hole on the outside of the cover and through the signature.
Lastly, sew back out the middle hole going through the signature and the cover.
It’s helpful to make sure the beginning tail and the needle are on opposite sides of the thread that’s passing down along the outside of the spine.
Take the thread off the needle and tie the thread and the tail together to finishing the binding.
To add more pages to the sketchbook, take another signature of 4 sheets of paper, folded in half. Lay the signature along the inside of the sketchbook, near the inside of the spine and mark on the signature where the holes of the sketchbook has been punched. Use the awl to punch holes in the new signature in those spots. Place the new signature inside the sketchbook behind the signature already bound, and follow steps 7 – 13 above to bind in the next signature.
Note: The dimensions for cutting the cover paper and the signatures leaves enough room for 4 signatures to be bound into one book.
Adaptations for Accessibility
This project requires eye-hand coordination, ability to fold paper, thread a needle and sew. Students with limited dexterity may need support from other students and adults.
For students who cannot use the awl safely or effectively, students can point to where they want another person to use the awl to punch holes in their paper for them.
Students may need support with threading their needle. A needle threader or a needle with a larger eye may be useful.
Students may need support with folding. Having pre-folded signatures is helpful for saving time and avoiding confusion. Adult or other student help for folding the cover page will support students with folding.
For much younger children, adaptations can be made by using a hole punch or larger awl to make holes in the cover and signatures larger, plus a large plastic darning needle and yarn instead of thread. Adults can also hold the cover and sheet together and point to where children can sew into the binding. I’ve made this project with children as young as 24 months with adult or older child help.
In Summer 2021, I got to work with some creative minds at The Arts Center in Corvallis, OR, in a Monsters Maker 4-day camp for kids.
In this camp, students created their own creatures using illustration, image references, sculpting and making considerations for where and how the creatures might live and what physical adaptations the creatures would need to survive. This camp ignited so much creativity and inventiveness among the students and encouraged sharing ideas, inspiring each other and joining their imaginations. While our focus was mainly on using the sculpting tools and being creative with our stories about our creatures, this camp can be adapted to meet more rigorous science and biology standards for early education.
In this post, I’ll share my camp outline and some of the resources and discussion we used in this camp. This outline can be adapted to different ages, contexts and physical abilities.
Set up & Goals
Schedule: 4 days, 1.5 hours per day (6 hours total) In-person
Ages: 6 – 13 years old (1st – 6th grade) Note: since this was designed as a summer camp, I kept the ages pretty broad to accomodate families. As a school program, I would offer this for narrower age ranges (1st & 2nd grade, 3rd & 4th, etc.) and make changes to my discussion points and objectives for different age groups. Keeping the ages broad meant that my focus was more on the skills of art-making rather than being specific to science learning, although there’s lots of room for adaptation and change with this outline!
Camp overview/ learning objectives: Students will:
Discuss habitats and physical adaptations of animals to exist in those habitats
Share their ideas with and respond to the ideas of their peers
Practice drawing skills with shapes and details
Work with polymer clay and special tools to create unique objects
Write about their creations as characters, developing a world for their character to occupy
Share their work and respond to the work of others
Materials & Equipment:
Drawing and coloring materials
Waterproof pens – (Micron 12)
Polymer clay (oven bake)
Polymer clay glaze
Aluminum foil (full roll)
Adult only use: Toaster oven, safely plugged in and placed in well-ventilated area
Optional: findings for jewelry, key chains to turn figures into toys
Adult only use: Epoxy glue for broken pieces
Environmental Set up:
Tables and chairs for each student to sit or stand comfortably & safely while working and interacting with others
Access to bathroom/ hand washing stations
Materials and tools for each student (clay, clay tools, paper, drawing tools)
Table for educator to demonstrate, visible by all students, or the ability to walk around, if needed
Extra supplies nearby
Toaster oven easily monitored by adults, in a well-ventilated area, safely plugged in
Space for cooling sculptures after they are removed from the oven
Introductions & Agreements
In all of my classes/ residencies/ camps, I’ll start off with student introductions and an overview of the class. For youth classes, I’ll also work on agreements for the class, which I’ll write up and have available to look at and review for each of the class sessions.
Student Introductions: Say your name, pronouns, and choose one place to live: the boreal forest, the rainforest, the ocean, a city, the desert, the savanna, the tundra, or somewhere else (tell us)
Bonus (to engage student experience and ability): What is something you could teach the rest of us?
Class Agreements: (These agreements help set the tone for the class, and are a useful place to return to when things start to feel “off track” in a way that might leave some students behind.)
Try – some things we do might be new/uncomfortable/ difficult or even seem boring, and our job is to try our best as much as we can!
Non-judgemental language – When we look at each other’s artwork and share our own, let’s avoid words like “Good” “Bad” or “Like” and let’s think about what we can ask the artist about their work, what their work reminds us of, and if it’s our art, what we might want to change or try that’s different.
Share – Be willing to share your work so we can learn from each other and get new ideas!
Experiment – Try something different when you can, be curious about the materials, tools, and find different ways to use them or create something new!
Observations & Discussion
In this first day of the class, we looked at examples of ecosystems in our opening, starting off the conversation with an idea that we’ll be creating creatures that would exist in an environment they were adapted for (even if the creature and the environment were both imaginary). We look at examples of boreal forest, rainforest, ocean, cities, deserts, savanna and tundras and ask observational questions:
What do you notice about this environment?
What do you think a creature would need to live in this environment?
What else are you curious about this environment?
We also looked at examples of real-life animals and imaginary creatures. I brought a set of reference images for the class to look over and started our discussion again, this time encouraging students to use their sketchbooks to sketch out physical elements (ears, tails, horns, wings, etc.) from the animals that they were interested in or curious to explore more. Students were invited to pick an animal from the pictures on their desks (the students had different collections of images) and talk about their creature:
What is something you notice about this creature?
Where do you think this creature could live, and what physical elements do you think help it to be adapted to its environment?
I try to dive in immediately with art-making, since that’s really the hook of the class: students want to MAKE!
When students are working on drawing, it’s my goal as an arts educator to preserve the organic impulse to create immediately. I encourage students to look again at the references I’ve provided them, along with any of the sketches or doodles they’ve made so far. After 10 – 15 minutes of leaving space for students to explore, I’ll begin to make suggestions for approaching drawing practice, while also still preserving room for students to follow their own paths.
Start with basic shapes: using a reference as an example, I demonstrate how to find the most basic shape that’s similar to the biggest parts of the reference. For example, I’ll show an image of a bunny and how the body of the bunny is round like a circle, and start by drawing that, making adjustments with my pencil and eraser as I go. As I go over the different parts of the bunny, I’ll find more shapes and add those on top to make a bunny shape.
Next, I’ll start adding details like eyes and noses, and remind students that this is where we can get creative with different features and think about where our bunny-creature might live (add wings for an aerial bunny? a flexible tail for a tree-dwelling bunny? big scooping claws for an underground bunny?). This is a fun moment to invite students up to the demonstration drawing to add their own elements and talk about how this changes where the creature might live or what it might be able to do.
Students use their sketchbooks throughout the camp, referring back to doodles as they create with clay.
Polymer Clay Practice
On the first day, I try to also get clay into kids’ hands as soon as possible so they can start to experience this medium and imagine ways to use it right away. I’ll encourage them to explore the medium first, share any observations or questions about it with each other and also share some guidelines. These guidelines will be repeated throughout the entire camp, so I try not to take up too much space at first by trying to say everything all at once.
The clay starts out hard when it comes from the package
Artists can warm it up and soften the clay with their hands by kneading it and smooshing it or using the roller (clay tool) to smooth it out. This is conditioning the clay
When we make something we want to keep, we’ll bake the clay in the oven. The clay will harden in the oven and stay that shape forever! But until we bake the clay, we can still change things about the creatures and objects we make.
Recommendations, Tool use
Use a small amount at a time
Figures can’t be too big or they won’t bake well – try to keep them to about palm-size
Don’t see the color you want? Try mixing colors together!
Like drawing, shape simple forms (balls, pyramids, cubes)
Use tools to attach with scoring
Use tools to smooth out finger prints
If clay feels sticky, allow it to cool on your foil
Things to consider with polymer clay: too thick, the clay might not cure evenly, too thin, the clay might be brittle and break easily when handling it
Details can be carved into the clay and then painted after being baked
Marbling colors is also a cool way to get effects
Wash hands before and after clay use
Polymer clay is not appropriate for food use
One of the first projects I’ll demonstrate to the students is to make figures using balls and snakes: by creating large or small clay balls and pressing them together (this is a way to make the body shape of some creatures), or creating a long thing clay snake that can be coiled or twisted for cool effects (like making tails or horns).
I also demonstrate tool use to create details and to join pieces of clay together by first scoring the clay in the spots where they will be joined. This will prevent the pieces from falling apart after baking.
Sometimes that falling apart happens, anyway, and so having a small tube of epoxy glue to mend broken pieces was very useful.
For baking times, I follow the directions for the materials I use, making sure to bake in my toaster oven that’s specifically for polymer clay pieces (I got mine cheap off of a community board), and kept in a well-ventilated area. I also make sure to keep the students aware of the bake and cool down times so that they know they can look at their pieces but they won’t be able to touch them until they’re fully cooled.
Some students wanted to make necklaces and keychains with their clay pieces, so I helped them prep their pieces before baking by adding holes for jump rings that we could attach after baking.
While students create and have their pieces baked, I encourage them to write and draw their creature’s environment:
Where does it live
What does it eat
What does it usually surround itself with (treasure, tools, other creatures…)
Students can illustrate their scenes on cards that we fold to create backdrops for their creatures. I also encourage students to create character cards about their creatures, which includes information about the creature:
What’s its special abilities?
What is it afraid of?
What makes this creature unique?
As a special element of the class, I also created stickers for the students using their drawings and my die-cut machine at home.
Outcomes, Further Exploration & Adaptations
As the week went on, the students became more familiar with the tools and materials and created some amazing pieces. The depth of detail and imagination that went into their creations was truly impressive. This camp could have been adapted into a deeper exploration into ecosystems in which the students’ creations lived and worked alongside each other.
Accessibility adaptations to consider:
The motor skills of the student: for some students a softer clay like paper clay may be more accessible. Paperclay is definitely different from polymer clay, and it can be wetted with water to make it softer, as well as baked in the oven. The use of cookie cutters or molds to help shape clay is a great way to also increase accessibility, where students can use those to get started and then add details on top.
The smell and tactile feel of the clay should be considered and may be offensive to sensitive students.
This was such a fun camp in the summer, and it’s an outline I’m continuing to develop for my other residencies and classes for kids. If you’re an educator or artist and plan to use some of these ideas, tell me about it! I’d love to hear about any changes you make or challenges you come up with in your experience!
This camp was made by The Atelierista and shared openly to make arts education accessible to everyone! Educators, artists and students are encouraged to use this description to explore and learn more about creativity and art-making. If you like this and want to support The Atelierista (and get updates and exclusive content access), check out the Patreon page and consider becoming a member!