Welcome to The Helpful Art Teacher, an interdisciplinary website linking visual arts to math, social studies, science and language arts.

Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

Please click on my page to see my personal artwork and artist statement: http://thehelpfulartteacher.blogspot.com/p/the-art-of-rachel-wintembe.html

Please contact me at thehelpfulartteacher@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Food Art Sculptures: Innovative Dessert Designs

Before reading this post, click here for a complete list of art supplies that you can use to create your own fantastic dessert sculptures (and links for ordering them).

Our food art unit started two months ago when my students learned the geometry inherent in drawing cake slices, doughnuts and ice cream. Using my You Tube tutorials they were able to create a backdrop of paintings for a classroom bakery art instillation.

Initially my middle school students created flat looking paintings with no sense of three-dimensional form.

They were dissatisfied with their attempts and requested instruction to improve their work. 

At the beginning of the semester I  had asked them to write down the things they wanted to learn in art class. Student after student wrote; "I want to learn how to make my drawings look more realistic." Or "I want to learn how to make my drawings look three-dimensional." 

I decided to give my classes a pretest to see what they already knew about how to draw realistically and realized this was indeed an area of need.

Student artwork, prior to instruction

As you can see from the photograph above, their paintings initially looked very flat. I asked students to write their names on the back of their paintings instead of the front and deliberately hung up artwork from another age group in each class so that we could focus on improving the work without worrying about anyone feeling singled out.

I drew a sample ice cream cone on the board and we compared my work to theirs. I asked the class to identify specific techniques that I used to make my artwork look more three dimensional and wrote down their ideas on the board.  Walking around the room and tilting a roll of masking tape, I demonstrated that a circle, seen from the side, will appear elliptical. This is called foreshortening. 

 After listening to my students and determining their academic needs, I developed the You Tube tutorials below:

The doughnuts in this backdrop were painted with tempera paint. Shadows were added using a soft pencil and blended with a transparent watercolor wash.

Once our drawings and paintings were done, my 5th graders began creating doughnut and ice cream cone sculptures, my 6th graders constructed unique ice cream sundaes and my 7th and 8th graders began to design unique cake slices. 

Early finishers got to experiment with cookie designs. Once everyone was done with their sculptures we spent an additional two days on cookie making while students worked in small groups to plan their imaginary bakery businesses.

 Each student was able to work at their own pace and explore the wonderful world of fake food art. 

For complex multi-step lessons, I often create tutorials on my iPhone and edit them up using the iMovie app. This allows early finishers to work ahead, new student to catch up and anyone with questions to review what they missed. You can see the process videos I created for this project on my You Tube Channel

Once we were done with the project, I created several videos that showed the sculpture process from start to finish. Here is the  finished cake slice tutorial:

and here is the ice cream and doughnut tutorial:

We used this pattern to create our cake armatures from cereal box cardboard

After taping together the cardboard, we wrapped the assembled cake slice in tinfoil and covered it with a layer of plaster craft bandages. We then began to add our "icing".

After some experimentation, I developed the perfect icing recipe. A friend of mine suggested sculpting with joint compound (Spackle). However we found that it took too long to dry and tended to crack when applied too thickly. Below is my 'perfect cake icing recipe'. 
We used joint compound, mixed with white latex semi-gloss primer (found in the house paint section of Home Depot or here) and wood glue. 

Warning: plaster dust is toxic to breathe. We were able to completely avoid all dust by doing a damp sponge clean up after each class, covering our tables with newspaper (and throwing it away at the end of each class) and damp mopping our floor at the end of each day. Handling plaster can also dry the skin. My students used plastic putty knives to spread the frosting (available in packs of five in varying sizes at most dollar stores). I also had disposable gloves available (although most students disliked using them). I never sand plaster with middle school students. 


 Cover with latex semi-gloss white primer (normal white acrylic paint works well too) 

 Add a few squirts of white wood glue.

Stir completely. The mixture above is too thick. Notice it's dry appearance. 

If the mixture is too thick, add more latex paint.

The final mixture should be smooth and creamy like real frosting. When sculpted it should hold it's shape. The above mixture is just right. Notice it's glossy appearance and whipped peaks.

We sculpted details using Crayola Model Magic and attached them using low temperature hot glue once the the frosting was dry. 

Initially, we piped frosting by squeezing it out of the snipped corner of a zip lock bag. Later we discovered that we could create more interesting designs by inserting frosting tips through the hole in the bag first.

Here is what our cakes looked like at the end of day 2:

The center cake, pictured above, before being painted. Pictured below, after being painted. Grade 8.

Cakes by 7th graders on display in our classroom

Cake by a 7th grade girl

For our culminating activity students will create posters to pitch their imaginary bakery business and new products to investors in a mock episode of 'shark tank'. As students completed their sculptures, I showed the class the video below so they could plan ahead for their sales pitches and posters, while creating some delicious looking cookies:

Shark Tank Worksheet

Here are some photographs of their finished artwork:

Below are the sample tie dye cookies I created in the video:

Before my students started on their posters, I showed them a clip from the TV show 'Shark Tank' in which a real baker pitches her business. I skipped through, just showing them the highlights, before asking them to turn to each other and use colorful language to describe and 'sell' their creations:

A note about our classroom culture over the course of the semester: Many students got into the habit of watching my You Tube videos at home and arrived at class brimming with ideas. They knew where all the supplies were, so when they entered the classroom they grabbed what they needed and got right to work. 

I teach in a predominantly Hispanic community where creating delicious and beautiful food is an integral part of the local culture. We discussed how desserts, particularly cakes, are used to mark important occasions, from marriages to birthdays. It was something everyone could relate to. Who doesn't love being given complete freedom to mix paint and concoct unique flavors? 

About halfway through the drawing and painting process, I did introduce my students to the art of Wayne Thiebaud, mainly because I wanted to expose them to his use of color and light. As I clicked through the slides, I asked the class to  discuss with each other as they were painting, the hue of his shadows (often cool colors instead of gray) and how sparingly he used black. I also pointed out his impasto textures and visible brush strokes designed to emphasize form and volume. 

It was a casual "Here is one artist who paints food, let's look at the techniques he uses." mini lesson.  I often deliberately avoid flooding the class in the beginning of a unit with too many 'famous artist" images because I want them to draw on their own experiences first. 

The  technique of briefly showing students something new and suggesting a discussion topic to explore further during independent studio time inspires idea sharing and transforms the student's role from passive learner to artist ("How would you use this technique in your own art?" Instead of "Let's all copy the same way.")

When the class finally does see the art others have created, after starting their own projects, they are more likely to view the work with the mindset of harnessing information for their own purposes rather than simply copying. 

This teaching method trains the mind to view art like artists do. The approach now becomes "Here's a technique I can use to make my OWN message come across more clearly." It gets kids away from the habit of copying and instead inspires the higher order thinking skills of observing, interpreting and creating. 

While drawing what we see is a necessary first step in the creative process (what artist doesn't have fond childhood memories of copying cartoons?), I wanted my students to train themselves to use observation as a jumping off point to becoming inventors and innovators. 

My students were fascinated by the idea of creating fake food that was so convincing that it looked 'good enough to eat'. Both the doughnuts and cakes fooled people into thinking they were real. The ice cream sundaes on the other hand had a fun, cartoon quality (they reminded everyone of 'The Flintstones'). We all got hungry looking at them and imagining how the flavors would taste. The kids couldn't wait to bring them home. 

Special thanks to the following educators:

Nicki Newton who first suggested I try sculpting with joint compound 

Rita Belliveau Martin and Christina Sessums for giving me the idea of using both tempera and acrylic paint to create matte and glossy finishes in different parts of a sculpture. 

Esther  Kamenetsky for doing ice cream sundaes with the kids at Camp Horizons at the table next to me for many years. 

Eric Gibbons for teaching me to cover cardboard armatures with tin foil to prevent distortion and collapse. 


  1. What an amazing and ambitious project! Thanks for all the detailed instructions.

  2. What's up, just wanted to say, I enjoyed this blog
    post. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

  3. I'm a new art teacher and I just wanted to thank you for your awesome blog. Your posts are so inspirational and give just the right amount of information!!

  4. I am so glad I found your site! This is so cool and reminds me of the fair. I can't wait to teach art.

  5. Thank you, so much for sharing! I really want to do this project, and I appreciate how detailed you are. You are an amazing art teacher!! I am hoping mine will turn out this good. I'm a little nervous working with the icing..is there an alternative to this? I don't have much experience in that area.
    Thank you so much!!

    1. The icing is hands down the best part. It’s the “icing on the cake”. It is seriously easy and inexpensive to make and the results are fabulous. I suggest you mix up some ahead of time and then play around with it at home before using it with your students. I got everything in the hardware section of Walmart for just a few bucks. I did a lot of experiments before I hit on this exact mix. It dries overnight, doesn’t crack and has the look of real frosting. It also holds its shape and accepts paint well. The cakes we made a year ago still look fabulous enough to eat. If you try this mixture you won’t want to use anything else. Warning: don’t use it with kids who might eat it and avoid the dust by following my hygiene tips above. Offer gloves to kids concerned about dry skin and your kids will create great stuff. None of these kids picked art. They were just thrown in the class. If my middle schoolers could do it then yours can too.