brainchildIt’s easy to view art and math as completely separate subjects.  Right brain vs. left brain. Creative vs. analytical. Imaginative vs. practical. Right?

In fact, many of the core skills in art and math are closely related. Both disciplines require spatial reasoning skills and the ability to recognize patterns. Artists and mathematicians use geometry in their work — including shapes, symmetry, proportion, and measurement.

For this reason, among others, many educators have changed their focus from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to STEAM –  adding an “A” for Art.

But sometimes, kids see themselves as either “an art person” or “a math person” – as if they can’t be both.  As parents, we can fall into that habit, too –  viewing our own skills and talents as fixed and unchangeable.

When we help kids see the overlap between art and math, we not only strengthen their skills in each, we expand their vision of what it means to be an artist and a mathematician.  Math can be creative! Art can be analytical! Both can inspire our imagination.

Try It At Home

Once kids start looking for shapes and patterns in art, they will see them everywhere. Sometimes I go on “shape hunts” in picture books with my preschooler, asking him to find a square, a circle, or a triangle.

For some extra fun and enrichment, here are five artists who employ shapes and patterns in inventive ways. Below, you will find a link to their art, questions you can ask your child, and an art/math activity based on the artist’s work.

Ruth Asawa’s Wire Sculptures

  • Conversation: Ruth Asawa’s wire sculptures were inspired by shapes and forms found in nature. Take a look at a few of her sculptures and describe the kinds of shapes and lines you are seeing. Do any of her sculptures remind you of something you’ve seen in nature?
  • Activity: Go outside with a notebook. Draw some of the shapes you see in nature (the shape of a leaf, a spider web, a piece of grass, etc.). Using pipe cleaners, turn one of those shapes into a wire sculpture.

Alexander Calder’s “Lobster Trap and Fish Tail”

  • Conversation: Describe the lines and shapes you notice. How is this hanging sculpture the same or different than the sculptures of Ruth Asawa? Calder named this mobile “Lobster Trap and Fish Tail.” Do you see a lobster trap and fish tail? What else do these lines and shapes remind you of? What title would you give to this hanging sculpture?
  • Activity: Make your own hanging sculpture! You can experiment with pipe cleaners, twisteez, or strips of paper. What three-dimensional lines and shapes can you make? What will you title your work of art? If you need more inspiration, click here to see more of Calder’s hanging mobiles.

Carmen Herrera’s “A City”

  • Conversation: For this painting, Carmen Herrera was inspired by the shapes she saw around her when she lived in the city of Paris, France. What shapes do you notice in her painting? Does this painting look like a city to you? Why or why not?
  • Activity: Take a walk around your neighborhood. What shapes do you see? When you return home, draw or paint a picture of some of the shapes you saw on your walk.

Stuart Davis’s “Swing Landscape”

  • Conversation: Stuart Davis is another artist who was inspired by shapes he saw around him when he was staying in Gloucester, a fishing village in Massachusetts. Instead of simplifying what he saw (like Carmen Herrera), he put lots of shapes together to make a busy painting. What lines, shapes, and patterns do you see? It might be fun to play the game of “I Spy” as you look at this painting together.
  • Activity: Using construction paper, cut out some of the shapes you see when you walk around your neighborhood. Mix them together and use glue to make your own landscape. Do you want your neighborhood collage to be realistic or imaginary? To be simple or busy?

Pablo Picasso’s “The Three Musicians”

  • Conversation: Pablo Picasso often used regular and irregular polygons to depict people or scenes. Can you find the three musicians in this painting – including their eyes, noses, mouths, and hands? What instruments do you think they are playing? How many different shapes can you find in this picture?
  • Activity: What if this painting were titled “The Four Musicians.” Can you draw another musician, following Picasso’s style? What instrument will your musician play? What shapes will you use?

*Special thanks Rachel Farmer, an artist and art educator,  for her help in designing these activities.


Play and Watch Together

  • The Peg + Cat Paint-A-Long game teaches kids basic shapes and encourages them to create shape-based art.
  • In the Peg + Cat episode “The Painting Problem,” Peg Casso and Vincent Van Goo use math to find the right color of paint.
About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

You Might Also Like