The popular Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead (or Dia de Los Muertos), gives us many opportunities for colorful art lessons combined with learning about another culture! True confession time…. when I moved from a small town in upstate New York to go to college in California, I had no idea what Day of the Dead was…. I had never even heard of it. I (wrongly!) assumed it was the Mexican version of Halloween. It didn’t take long for me to be set straight in one of my favorite college classes, Multicultural Art for Children…. and Day of the Dead has been one of my favorite holidays ever since!
Day of the Dead is celebrated every year on November 1st and 2nd. This is a special time for honoring one’s family members who have died. One of the ways loved ones are honored during this holiday is by setting up an ofrenda. An ofrenda looks like an altar, but this is an altar for remembering, not worshipping. The ofrenda (meaning “offering”) is a display of items with special significance for the one being remembered. Full of color, texture, and meaning… the ofrenda is a work of art in itself!
We set up a small ofrenda at one of my teacher workshops (above). You can see a wide variety of colorful ofrendas on Google Images.
Make a Day of the Dead Ofrenda Painting
1. First, you’ll need to make an ofrenda! Finding the space for an ofrenda can be a challenge. Don’t be afraid to get creative with how/where you set up your ofrenda so that every student can see it.
If you’re a classroom teacher with just one class to deal with, you can have each student bring in an item that in some way represents a family member (or even a pet) who has passed away. A student could also choose to honor an important historical figure who is meaningful to them.
If you’re an Art teacher who sees multiple groups of students, you can choose one class to create the ofrenda, or you can set up an ofrenda yourself to honor someone from your own family.
While there are no hard and fast rules about what to include in an ofrenda, you’ll want to start with a table, and cover it with a tablecloth. Traditional ofrendas include papel picado, marigolds (either fresh or paper marigolds can be used), candles, photographs, favorite foods and drinks of the deceased (including pan de muerto and Mexican hot chocolate), sugar skulls, skeletons, and favorite clothing, games, or toys (if the ofrenda is for a child).
2. Have each student choose just one section of the ofrenda to draw. Encourage students to think of the ofrenda as a large still life and choose a small part of it that would make an interesting composition…. it would be overwhelming to try to include everything! Try using a simple viewfinder to isolate the area you want to focus on and eliminate the distraction of everything else. You can even use your fingers for a convenient viewfinder that’s always there when you need it!
3. Next, trace over all your pencil lines with crayon, pressing hard so your colors will be bold and bright. Color in some of the large open areas with crayon, as well.
4. Now, paint with watercolor, covering the entire paper, including those large colored-in areas. The paint will fill in tiny areas you didn’t even know you missed, tying everything together.
5. When your painting is completely dry, add some “bling” with white glue and glitter, or pre-filled squeeze bottles of glitter glue (much less messy, in my opinion!).