John Nieto Animals


John Nieto is an inspiring Native American painter who uses vibrant, electric hues to depict his subject matter the way he sees them. I love showing Neito’s artwork to my students. First of all, most of the  kids I teach love animals. Second, his work encompasses the Native American vibe of being thoroughly in-tuned with nature in a way which many of us can admire and covet.


When I decided to do a Nieto inspired lesson I thought through my options of materials. I thought painting these vibrant animals with third graders might be tricky and really wanted to do a collage lesson. So I came up with this idea. I started by doing the project myself as I do with most lessons. My “spirit animal” is a deer, so I got to work and to my surprise LOVED the outcome!


Also this lesson is a fantastic way to use up your construction paper scraps!

What you need:

Let’s get started!

We begin by looking at Nieto’s colorful paintings. I often make a slide show of my favorite works to display on my smart board.

Step 1:

Day one of the project is making our collage paper. I give each student a piece of drawing paper and show how I select construction paper scraps in colors that I enjoy. I then use my scissors to cut organic shapes and glue them on my paper like a puzzle. The goal is to have a flat smooth collage surface with no white space showing. I hear many comments like “This is sooooo fun!” To my surprise my students adore cutting random shapes and randomly gluing them down. Who knew!?


Step 2:

Once their papers are completely covered I demo drawing an animal on the back of our collage papers as BIG as they can. I think it is an important skill to be able to draw from a photo: it improves hand-eye coordination and comes in handy during open studio days. When teaching how to draw from an image I tell my students to start with either the back of the animal or the top of the head, and then follow the edge of the creature like an ant crawling along the line. My students are very good at this as I start teaching drawing like this in 1st grade. New students however tend to struggle so I make sure to spend extra time helping them along.

Step 3:

Once the animal is drawn I give the OK to cut.

Step 4:

Once cut, I instruct my students to choose two pieces of construction paper for the background. I leave on piece whole and cut the other in half before they chose a color for a stripe! They then glue the pieces together and glue down their animal.

Step 5:

Now it’s time to look at the photo of our animal and add details! This part was the trickiest for me as the image is now flipped; however my students seemed to have no trouble at all! Next we use our chubby sharpie to outline our animals.

My students are wicked proud of their finished product and many want to use them for the art show! Have fun!

Student Examples: