Students will explore different kinds of textures and learn how artists might have polished sculptures such as the Olmec Seated Figure. Students will also practice a polishing technique using sandpaper, then create a simple design on the smoothed surface.
Intended Age GroupEarly childhood (ages 3-5)
Length of LessonOne 30 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- describe the artistic characteristics of the Olmec Seated Figure;
- develop their vocabulary skills in describing texture;
- explain how Olmec artists might have polished ceramic figures; and
- practice the technique of polishing using sandpaper.
- Display the Olmec Seated Figure and invite the children to share what they notice. What adjectives or phrases would they use to describe the sculpture? What material do they think the figure is made from? What do they think the sculpture might feel like if they could touch it?
- Have the children pass around a variety of materials such as a piece of cardboard, a smooth rock, bubble wrap, a feather, etc. What words would the children use to describe each of these materials? Which one of the materials probably feels most like the sculpture?
- Share with the children that the Seated Figure probably felt pretty rough when it was first made. Ask the children: How do you think the sculpture became smooth? Explain that the artist probably used a river stone or bone to polish the figure and make it smooth.
- Tell the children that they will be practicing the art of polishing! Provide each child with a couple of pieces of sandpaper and invite them to feel the texture. What words would they use to describe how the sandpaper looks and feels?
- Have the children rub the two pieces of sandpaper against each other for a couple of minutes. Then ask the children: Does the sandpaper feel any different? How does it feel different? The sandpaper should feel a little smoother after this process. Discuss how the artist might have continued a similar process of sanding the Seated Figure for several days until it became smooth.
- Invite the children to decorate the smoother part of their sandpaper pieces with crayons or paint and display their artistic creations around the classroom!
- Objects with various textures (e.g. cardboard, rock, bubble wrap, feather, etc.)
- Two pieces of sandpaper per child
- Crayons or paint for decorating the sandpaper
- About the Art section on Olmec Seated Figure
- One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
This figure was created by an Olmec [ole-mek] artist. The term Olmec refers to the pre-Columbian culture that flourished on the Gulf Coast of Mexico from 1400–500 BC, and to the style of art found throughout Mesoamerica during this period. Mesoamerica is defined by a group of cultural traits, including agriculture and a diet based on a triad of crops (maize, beans, and squash); the use of a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar; the playing of a sacred ballgame; the construction of monumental public architecture; and a religion that emphasized blood sacrifice. The Olmec was Mesoamerica’s first civilization to embody all or most of these traits.
The artist who crafted this hollow earthenware figure modeled it from pinkish clay and covered it with a smooth white slip (a mixture of clay and water) to give it a skin-like look. The artist then applied red and black pigments to the head and face, possibly after the figure was fired (heated to harden the clay).
What Inspired It?
Figures like this one are called “babies” because of their large head proportions and often short, fleshy limbs. The faces on Olmec figurines are distinctive, with heavy eyelids and thick lips with down-turned corners. Some, like this one, have a jaguar-like mouth. Some scholars think that in Olmec belief, powerful individuals had jaguar alter egos and Olmec shamans (intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds) were able to transform themselves into jaguars. Called were-jaguars (like werewolves), these figures have snarling or crying mouths, are sexless, and suggest possible shamanic transformation of humans into animals. The purpose of these types of figures is unknown. In other Olmec depictions, supernatural baby-like figures are held on the laps or in the arms of sculptured Olmec rulers. The baby-like figures may have had an association with the natural elements such as earth or water.
The figure sits in a relaxed asymmetrical pose with the head slightly cocked.
The limbs are soft, thick, rounded, and don’t reflect any anatomical reality of bones and muscle. The hands and feet are small and elegant.
The head is an elongated oval with narrow eyes, a slender nose, and delicately outlined eyebrows and hairline. Red and black pigment heightens the features, perhaps to indicate the figure is wearing a helmet or other headdress.
The mouth has strongly down-turned corners. This mouth shape has been compared to a jaguar’s snarl.