3 Visual Artists—and Tricks—for Integrating the Arts Into Core Subjects

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow by Piet Mondrian. Public domain.
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow by Piet Mondrian. Public domain.
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I once asked my 4th grade students what kinds of arts lessons they had enjoyed in their core subjects. One young student's story stands out to me in particular. He spoke quietly but enthusiastically, explaining that he loves visual art because creating helps him “forget the bad” and he needs that “more than once a week.”

Arts integration has many benefits—whether it’s helping students learn better and retain knowledge, construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form, or simply letting kids have fun and express themselves. Engaging in the creative process helps students and teachers connect art forms to other subject areas and meet objectives in both. Research has even shown that arts integration significantly reduces the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students.

I've taught both regular education and visual arts for 10 years. I know it can be intimidating and challenging to start integrating the arts into regular curriculum. To help you get started, I've picked the top three visual artists to use in different subject areas—with tips for integrating those projects across any curriculum.

1. Piet Mondrian

Mondrian’s simple compositions use line, shape, and color as the dominant visual arts elements.

  • Check out his line over form works and "Broadway Boogie Woogie," which lend themselves easily to the subject areas of math and language arts.
  • Show several of these works to students and use discussion to expand their background knowledge of rhythm in music to include how rhythm is used in visual art and writing as well. "Lost in the City" is an excellent short video to help them understand how rhythm can be visual as well as auditory.
  • Have students cut quadrilaterals from red, blue, yellow, and black paper. You can give them dimension requirements for each shape so that they have to specifically measure their pieces. Then have them glue the shapes to white paper in an arrangement that shows rhythm.
  • Integrate students’ visual work (which was created using math skills) into language arts activities by having them compose a poem about their piece using rhythm in their writing.

2. Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci’s famous notebooks can be used to teach brainstorming as a habit of mind for creativity and innovation, which can be integrated into almost any subject area.

  • Teach the process of brainstorming by pulling up a Google image search for da Vinci’s notebooks, showing students how brainstorms can look messy and a bit disorganized. I also point out all of the hand-written notes in his notebooks because labeling is an important aspect of brainstorming. Last but not least, I make sure to preview images for age-appropriateness before showing them to students.
  • Model the brainstorming process by sketching at the board and labeling parts. I always make an intentional mistake, scribble it out or fix it quickly, and move on. This helps students see what the physical act of brainstorming looks like and how to move past mistakes without delaying the ideation process.
  • Have students brainstorm ideas for specific projects. For example, they could brainstorm how to make sculptures from reusable materials for a science lesson. Students might sketch five or six different shapes for a sculpture and label what reusable material they would need for each part. But be careful not to show students actual sculptures made from reusable materials. You want them to come up with their own ideas, not copy the ideas of others.
  • Have students bring in the materials they need and actually create their sculptures. Tacky glue works well to hold common materials together.
  • Integrate math into this project by having the students draw a plan to scale for their actual sculpture based on the ideas from their brainstorming. They will need to use skills such as measurement and estimation as well as mathematical calculations.
  • Have them finish up by writing a procedural piece about how they created their sculpture. This project integrates visual art with history, science, math, and language arts.

3. Roy Lichtenstein

Pop Art is always very popular with students. The simple imagery is easy for them to imitate. It’s also engaging because much of Lichtenstein’s work looks like what can be found in many comic books.

  • Have students do a quick Google image search for Lichtenstein and pick out images with onomatopoeias. They can share what they find with one another and then discuss how the onomatopoeias are used in the imagery. This activity can be used as a simple anticipatory set for teaching onomatopoeias.
  • Extend this into a science lesson by having students identify primary colors in Lichtenstein’s works. Then use the scientific method to conduct a simple experiment on mixing colors. A lot of great science and visual art vocabulary is available online.
  • Have students create their own visual art pieces by drawing a figure with a text bubble and an onomatopoeia. Have them trace the drawing with a black permanent marker to increase the likeness to Lichtenstein’s work and enhance their lines. Next, they can add color by using markers or cotton swabs to put dots of paint on their paper.
  • Integrate math by having students estimate the number of dots on their paper. They can actually count the number of dots or disaggregate the data by color to create graphs. Have them work in teams if you would like the data to have larger numbers. This makes the task more difficult and adds an avenue for differentiation by difficulty.
  • Create a class comic book by combining student art pieces and having them work together to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The comic book can be displayed in several ways. You can arrange it in the hallway with the text attached so passers-by can read it or have students photograph their work and put it in a document with text to share digitally. If you have access to tablets, there are several apps available for creating comic books with students.

I hope this list helps jumpstart your thinking and makes it easy for you to start integrating visual art into your core curriculum. You can also check out the Whole Schools Initiative website, which offers numerous resources for integrating art into daily classroom instruction, or follow There’s a Party in the Art Room, where I blog about visual arts education and arts integration.

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