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Reimagine van Gogh's 'Starry Night' With This Art Project 

click to enlarge Bhavik, 8, Crayola markers
  • Bhavik, 8, Crayola markers

When post-impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh created his renowned painting "The Starry Night" — rendering the night sky with swirling brushstrokes of blue and gold — he brought to life his own unique vision. Though the night sky and the starlit landscape below it would have been largely still apart from, perhaps, some wind rippling the fields and trees, van Gogh's painting comes alive with movement. Through his painting, we see the world through his eyes, alight with motion, vivid color and infinite beauty.

This interpretive aspect of van Gogh's work — his tendency to take creative liberties with the lines, tones and textures of the world around him, rather than painting it exactly as it appears — is one of the things that makes his art so noteworthy.

click to enlarge William, 5, oil pastels and watercolors
  • William, 5, oil pastels and watercolors

In one of my favorite art projects I've done with students over the years, we observe the work of van Gogh and consider originality and interpretation in art. Then, with "The Starry Night" as inspiration, my students exercise their own imaginations and creative powers, reinterpreting the famous painting. I have done this project with artists of all ages, from kindergarten to eighth grade.

After my students give their first impressions of the famous painting, sharing what they notice and what they wonder, I instruct them to observe the composition of the painting — the scale and placement of the cypress tree in relation to the faraway town and mountains beyond.

We discuss foreground (the part of the picture that appears nearest, or closest to the "front" of the image), middle ground (that which appears to be in the middle of the space portrayed) and background (the part of the picture that seems farthest away and is also usually smaller in scale). Then students begin to think about what their own reimaginings of the scene might look like, planning images that retain the composition or organization of van Gogh's original painting but transform the scene. Students imagine how they might replace each part of the painting with new colors or subjects to create their own original work of art.

click to enlarge Claire, 8, Crayola markers and oil pastels
  • Claire, 8, Crayola markers and oil pastels

Some students might envision an urban starry night, with a skyscraper in place of the cypress tree and city buildings in place of the little village that van Gogh painted. Other students might change the season or the time of day in their reinterpretations, filling their artwork with fall leaves and autumnal colors, or turning the starry night sky into a sunset swirling with cotton-candy-pink clouds.

As they brainstorm and sketch, I share examples of surrealist art with my classes, as well, encouraging them to go beyond the bounds of reality in their reimagining of van Gogh's work by including fantastical details. For example, students might replace the cypress tree with a giant ice cream cone, or with a dark tower with eyes as windows. Instead of stars, students might fill their skies with peppermints, hot-air balloons, spaceships or clocks!

Like van Gogh, students can create their reimagined landscapes as they see them in their mind's eye — limited only by their own imaginations.

Getting Started

click to enlarge Mikaela, 12, oil pastels
  • Mikaela, 12, oil pastels

This project can be done with oil pastel or acrylic paint to mimic the texture and swirling sky in van Gogh's painting, but it can also be adapted for any artistic style or medium. I have had students do this project with oil pastel, with markers, and even with crayon and watercolor paint.

Suggested materials: thick drawing paper, oil pastels

Optional materials: markers, crayons, watercolor paint, tempera paint

Steps:

  1. Look carefully at van Gogh's original painting "The Starry Night." (Find it at any of the sites listed under Additional Resources.) Notice which parts of the painting look closer and which parts look farther away.
  2. On your piece of paper, you might wish to lightly sketch shapes and lines to mimic the composition or organization of van Gogh's painting. You can lightly draw a big isosceles triangle or a tall skinny rectangle on the left side to represent his cypress tree. You might lightly sketch circles in the sky where van Gogh painted stars and the moon. You might lightly outline the hills in the background and sketch a faint box around the space where van Gogh painted the little town.
  3. Brainstorm! How will you change and reimagine the original painting? Will your scene also be set under a starry sky, or perhaps under a blue sky swirling with clouds? Will you instead create a sunset? What tall item will you draw on the left side of the foreground, in place of the cypress tree? Will you also draw hills in the background, or will you transform them into waves, buildings, trees or giant scoops of ice cream?! You might choose to sketch out a few different ideas before you choose what you will draw.
  4. Begin to draw details and create your own reimagining of "The Starry Night." If you want, you can mimic van Gogh's brushstrokes by using short, repeated strokes of watercolor or tempera paint, or by drawing repeated dashes with marker, crayon or oil pastel.

    Pro tip: Use a few different colors of oil pastel to create dashes that all flow in the same direction, forming a swirl in the sky. Then use a white oil pastel to carefully color over the dashes, moving the white oil pastel in the same direction. This will smudge and blur your colored dashes so they resemble a swirl of paint.

  5. Continue adding details and color to your picture until it is complete!

Additional resources:

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