Four pinecones in the sand, with a tiny sprout

Creative Mandalas and Curiosity Projects

 A Workshop for Teachers

Central Okanagan School District

Professional Development Day
February 23rd, 2018

With Susan Neilson

Starting with Mandalas,  explore an approach to integrated learning for the new B.C. Curriculum.

  • Practice activities and find resources for lesson plans that begin with art, math and curiosity.
  • Process is more important than product, and every person’s design will be unique.

. . .  of geometry in nature,  in art, in everyday design and in cultural heritage. Begin with circles and mandalas.

. . . for shape, repetition and symmetry using basic drawing tools and/or simple paper folding.

Use a straight edge, a compass, string, jar lids, and possibly even scissors or x-acto knives.  Try building shapes, dividing sections, flipping, and reversing. Emphasize some shapes and eliminate others.  Basics will be quickly demonstrated, but then you will just experiment to see what happens . . . within a time limit.

Designing shapes can be wonderful for its own sake, but usually artists will explore a theme of interest. Consider ways that the geometry or radial balance could give structure while a theme provides unity and purpose to your project.

Choose some simple motifs, shapes, symbols or types of marks that will relate to your theme. Try making a simple visual vocabulary page in your sketchbook.

Build, connect and elaborate, with quiet focus. This process (especially with mandalas) can be calming and meditative.

Secondary School student at work.


Let’s focus on processes that are open to possibilities, building confidence and independence for students. We set the stage with some initial inspirations, access to materials,  and triggers for curious questioning. Then we support students to dig deeper and learn skills for positive self-talk as they work through the challenges.

Explore what it means to "think like an artist."

starting with motivation questions, experimentation, research and problem solving.

The Preview or "Sneak Peak" Helps Ideas Percolate

In your classroom consider ideas to arouse curiosity a day or more in advance

  • Experiences/motivators, games, walks, stories, experiments, etc,
  • Encourage habits of collecting curiosities, just keeping a folder or box of materials, objects, ideas, to use in your art another day

Ignore your inner critic!

For today, focus on experimental processes. We learn more from trial and error than from trying to produce a perfect finished product the first time.

We can build confidence by practicing a few cool techniques

. . . and teach students the right words to talk about their work

  • tessellations
  • symmetry
  • radial

and more.

And find ways to help develop and refine ideas

Students could include words, colours and images to strengthen design and communicate meaning.

Getting Started

Gather materials, set-up, settle and focus


Workshop participants were asked to bring a sketchbook or notebook, a black pen and a few basic drawing tools. Some additional mixed-media materials will be provided in class. We will practice different ways of making and dividing circles. It takes a little practice to control a compass for drawing, or to make a circle using a string, but it can also be a lot of fun!

In the classroom you will be able to do this type of project with any and all supplies available to you. We will talk about possibilities and examples.


What are mandalas, kaleidoscopes and tessellations?

What is a “curiosity project?”


In your classroom it would be good to give some cultural background and show photos a day or two ahead of time. For this workshop our time is limited, so we will skip straight to the sketchbook play.

Resource links are all provided for you to look at later when you need them.

Time for Hands-On!

Set the Tone

Quiet warm-up activity

Silent timed warm-up exercises can create lovely quiet opening routines that help to set the tone and begin each day.

We will do one independent warm-up and one quick collaborative activity.

Sample of a short motivating video

Spicas Tangle Pattern, by Athena Light
from her One Tangle Mandala Series, posted to YouTube

In this artist’s example students can see how she designs a small motif to suit her theme. Then she repeats this shape on her mandala.

Practice a Few Techniques

For example:

Try drawing circles with and without a compass.

Then try . . .the seven circle magic fit.
It’s easier than it looks!

  • X marks the spot! (Sample bisector and circle games are in your information package)
  • Fold paper to make eight sections in a pie. Draw or cut lines to make it into an octagon.
  • Use a compass to quickly construct a hexagon
  • Cut, flip, repeat patterns and games . . . so many possibilities!

Consider digital options for pattern design in the real world (Next level topic for another workshop another day!)

Choose a Theme

This could be related to current work in your class or a topic of personal interest

* This is where  cross-curricular connections can come in. It is also a big part of thinking like an artist, and making the work meaningful. 

  • Draw little samples of some simple motifs that could be repeated (This could be on a “visual vocabulary” page in your sketchbook, or just on scrap paper)
  • Make samples of shapes, lines, colours and easy patterns that suit your theme
  • Words could also be included

Light Pencil Planning

  • Light planning in pencil can help find the structure. With geometry and symmetrical repetitions this plan might be more important than it would be for the free-flowing parts of compositions.
  • A general guideline for art is to think big first before you get caught up in detail.  Look at main proportions and placement on your page.  Geometry construction lines can be light and erasable. 
The photo example above shows some sections lightly shaded in. This is not necessary at all, unless it helps you sort and balance negative/positive, or find main shapes early in the process.
This dark photo, was snapped quickly with my phone, just to remember the construction process based on an experiment with a compass and straight edge. Lines were very lightly drawn, and most were erased once the key shapes  of the hexagon were found.

Drawing with Permanent Ink

Confident Continuous Lines

  • The pencil should help with structure and placement, but it does not need to tell the entire story. It is easier and fresher, to draw new marks rather than trying to draw things twice.
  • Still, with geometric designs there will be times when you ink over pale pencil plans. *HINT ∙ Keep turning your page as you work!


  • This is where the real fun begins!
  • Quiet focus and peaceful music make this process very enjoyable in the classroom or at home.

Focus, Emphasis and Energy

  • Where is the eye attracted first?
  • How can you use colour, flow of lines, or contrast to emphasize your focal point and/or create movement?
  • The colour in this doodle is very random because I was testing new markers. How could colour have been used more selectively to create flow or focus?
This page in one of my old sketchbooks, started with a little cut-out from an envelope full of  collected collage inspiration images.

It continued with a compass, then more randomly.  Months later, after flipping back through the book, a section from this sketch inspired a composition plan for a painting. Then a few years later, that painting led to another new series.

Try asking “What if?” questions along the way . . . or making up prompts, like a game. (For example . . . Start with a small cut out . . .add swirls . . . add gradations . . . doodle the little leaf beside me . . . throw in a quick figure to express the mood . . . think about focus, movement, etc.)

Before going further on this page . . .

. . . at our workshop it will be time to take a starting point from any process introduced so far. Decide on your theme motifs and how you would like to start making a design of your own.

If you get it started now, we can move straight into a quiet drawing session after lunch!

Extensions for the Classroom

  • Mandalas use repetition and flipped or rotated shapes. These processes lead quite naturally into printmaking activities.

  • Larger theme projects could be developed, using collage and painting processes

  • Collaborative projects work extremely well using tile sections, wedges, or working around big tables

  • Check the resource page for helpful links about tessellations and wallpaper repeat patterns, and consider possibilities for extension (or alternative) activities.

  • Any lessons with patterns, repetition and symmetrical repeats  lead naturally into twenty-first century digital design processes using iPads or computers

  • Consider any of the following: cultural connections, history, nature observations, more math/science connections, photography games, work with poetry,  yoga/mindfulness lessons, “zentangles,” making collaborative “body kaleidoscopes” in the gym, or circles from objects found on a nature walk, etc., etc. . . .
Student Project (Example by Mackenzie H.) – Oversized playing cards

(Random selection from a deck, two classes or two cards each for a complete set) – The design works both ways up and shows an understanding of rotational symmetry. All cards are the same size but each student’s card is unique in every other way.

A few examples of other student projects using repetition and reversals.

Student examples are from Karen Nightingale’s classes at Dr. Knox Middle School

Constructive Feedback is Essential

In the Classroom, for Students

  • Art matters, and depth of thought matters, so being positive also means being specific. What is working? What is most interesting? What new question does this raise? What is next?
  • Encouragement and questioning take us deeper

Noticing  – Not judging, Not good, Not bad

Questions, Real Experience, and Curiosity – Motivators may need time to gather creative momentum

All Ideas are Valued – Create opportunities for idea exchange and coaching

Interpret, Look Again,  Reflect but without overthinking . . . Make Connections and Continue the Journey

 Artist Examples

  • Historical examples are on the resource page, but there are also many examples of contemporary artists that we could look at in class. There are many who play with geometry.
  • Here, with permission, I have posted one example from a B.C. artist. This is a good sample to show repeated theme motifs.
This example is by Joanne Green, from Pender Island.

Joanne Green’s mandala is inspired by nature.

Link to Joanne Green’s Art Website

Examples of geometry in experimentation or planning stages for my own work

Experimental digital play

Cutting up my photos for fun and practice


Reminders from our previous workshop:

MARK MAKING  is a physical activity. It can be learned and practice builds fluency

HANDS  are the original digital device. We all need opportunities to work with our hands, build skills and make things!

Natural Geometry

Noticing beauty and balance everywhere!

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