Whimsical Landscape Art Lesson: an Inquiry Based​ Exploration

I have been intrigued by the whimsical landscapes in Yellena James’s paintings for quite some time now. 
The imaginary ecosystem bursting with colorful flora and fauna seems to really resonate with younger audiences as well.
Filled with textures, details, and colorful shading, James’s art is the perfect inspiration for today’s project.

The art lesson is structured as an inquiry-based exploration: it is meant to be a starting point for further investigation, rather than a stand-alone, self-contained exercise. (See the Reggio-Emilia approach)
If you are unfamiliar with inquiry-based learning and wish to learn more, here is a list of resources to get you started.

Whimsical Landscape Art Lesson

Materials for exploration

  • A3 size watercolor paper
  • Oil pastels
  • Watercolor or gouache paint
  • Large, soft paint brushes
  • Water containers
  • Drying rack

Materials for clean-up

  • Recycled newspaper
  • A sink or a bucket of water to clean hands and brushes
  • Paper or cloth towels to clean spills
  • Trash can


Setting up the studio

For this project, we are taking illustrations as reference and inspiration. Depending on the equipment available, you can either print the reference material or use a projector.
Personally, I prefer physical prints: details and colors are more evident, and students can freely pass them around to observe them.
You should consider how the students will settle in the classroom and set the reference prints accordingly.

Will they gather around one table?
Will they sit on the floor?
Will they be seated at their own desks?

While watercolors are reasonably easy to clean, oil pastel shedding can be tedious to scrap away from surfaces.
Cover the table with newspaper to minimize the cleanup time, then set the watercolor papers and pastel trays thinking of how children will be seated.

As we are looking to create a nice contrast between the mediums, darker shades of watercolour are better suited for this project. I would typically select three to four possible choices, usually dark blue, dark green and dark red.

Additionally, each student will need one small container to mix the color and a thick, soft brush. One bucket of water every three or four students will suffice.

As you prepare the classroom, you may want to set up a small station to demonstrate techniques and materials.
Personally, as I begin my lesson, I like to walk through the whole project and get students familiar with the materials to allow for self-directed work.

This time, we won’t need to use the watercolors until later in the lesson; it is your choice to prepare all materials beforehand or introduce them as you go. Generally, to avoid accidental water spilling and distractions, I would fill the water buckets once students are ready to paint.

The finished paintings will be quite wet and will need to dry horizontally, so make sure to have a drying rack available or another suitable alternative.


The process of exploration

Welcome the students by calling their attention to Yellena James artworks.
Have pairs of students observe and discuss for a couple of minutes.

What caught your attention the most?
What do they remind you off?
Do you have any emotional response to the images?

After about two minutes, or as you see the attention level decreasing, ask again those questions to the whole class. Discussing first in pairs makes it easier for kids to formulate their ideas and to articulate their answer.

Listen to the students and try to move further into their exploration to ignite their curiosity and imagination.

James’s paintings will remind them of plants and flower, of an alien world, or even of bacterias and microorganisms. Ride with each kid’s imaginations so that their final artwork will be drawn from their own imaginative universe, rather than from the visual references.
Remember, as an inquiry-based project, the goal is to establish a solid starting point, rather than to set a final objective.

Material Exploration

Once the kids are inspired and eager to start, direct their attention to the materials.
Explain how they will first use oil pastels to draw and then watercolor to fill the background.
If they haven’t used oil pastels before, invite them to touch the materials.

How does it feel? Is it dry? Is it oily? Is it hard or soft?
How would you describe the material?
How does the pastel move on the paper? Is it smooth? Are the colors vivid? How thick is the line?

If they have done this exploration already, they can start drawing their whimsical landscape.

Practical Learning

They can draw directly with pastels and shouldn’t worry too much about mistakes. Instead, they should employ their pre-acquired knowledge to ponder about composition, color, and proportions as they draw.

As students go on with their work, get them to talk about their concept and inspiration, and remind them to leave enough empty space for the watercolor background.

Finally, they can use white oil pastel to add some extra details to the painting. It might not be obvious right now, but it will make for great ha-ha moment once the watercolor is added.

When students are satisfied with their drawings, invite them to give each other feedbacks and constructive criticism for a few minutes while you prepare the water buckets.

Ask to choose one color that would complement well the whimsical landscapes they created. This presents an excellent opportunity to refresh their knowledge about color theory and complementary colors.

Mix the color with water in the containers and have them freely start painting, brushing color all over their paper.
Enjoy as they see their drawing pop through the watercolor.
Depending on their age and experience, they will ask a lot of questions on how and why that happens.

Why did the oil pastel appear through the water?
Why didn’t the watercolors cover the oil pastel?
Can we answer based on what we know about those materials?

Once they are done painting (should take about five minutes), discuss what they just witnessed.

Most times, students can eventually answer those questions on their own and will even come up with new examples of water-resistant materials.

Make sure to leave a few minutes before cleanup for students to share their works and their inspiration with the class.


Have students place their artworks on the drying rack.

They can now empty the water buckets and rinse brushes and containers.
The oil pastels should be placed back in their tray, and the newspaper should be piled up neatly.
It isn’t a very messy lesson, so two-three minutes should be enough for students to tidy up and wash their hands.