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Turtle textures – exploring pattern

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By Jane Bower a specialist primary teacher in art and drama.

The natural world can provide a stunning source of patterns, textures and shapes that make great starting points for art activities.


  • Record from first-hand observation, experience and imagination.
  • Investigate the possibilities of a range of materials and processes.
  • Explore shape, form and texture.

NC/QCA links: Art 1a, b; 2a-c; 3a, b; 4a-c.

Unit 1C (What is sculpture?); Unit 2B (Mother nature, designer).

The natural world can provide a stunning source of patterns, textures and shapes that make great starting points for art activities. In the following session (suitable for all year groups), children are asked to make clay turtles – using their sculpting skills to create patterned shells and textured skin.

You will need

Pictures or photographs of turtles or tortoises; aboriginal paintings of turtles (optional); buff school clay (available cheaply from school catalogues); unscented hand cream; clay cutter; clay mats; wooden rollers (30cm length of broom handle); wooden guides (30cm length of dowel, approximately 7mm depth); clay sculpting tools or objects to make marks in clay; old paintbrushes; cocktail sticks; jug; bucket.

Introducing the theme

Look together at images of turtles and tortoises. What patterns can the children see on the shell? Which part of the turtle stays under the shell and which parts can come out from underneath it? Are there patterns on its legs, head and tail? What shape is its shell? If you have postcards available showing aboriginal paintings of turtles, invite the children to compare these interpretations with the photographs. What is the same/different? How has the artist chosen to show the shapes and patterns on the shell? (Rather than going for realism, the patterns tend to be more decorative.)

Top tip

Use canvas mats rather than hessian or boards. Hessian goes mouldy and prints on to the work; boards warp and the clay-work is hard to remove.

Getting started

  • Provide each child with a clay mat. Let the group pass round a container of hand cream and rub a small dot into their hands. Cut each child two lumps of clay, about the size of a small orange, which they should wedge (knock into balls firmly with the heel of the hand, turning the clay after each knock, to burst any air bubbles which could cause the work to explode in the kiln).
  • The children place one ball of clay on the mat between the two wooden guides (see Figure 1). Place the guides to allow room for the clay to expand when rolled.

Figure 1

  • The children use the rollers to gradually roll the ball of clay flat until the roller rests on the guides. Teach them to roll away from the body – not to and fro – to encourage any remaining air bubbles to be forced out in one direction. (The principle is exactly the opposite of making pastry, where the cook tries to incorporate air into the dough.) The rolled ball of clay should end up in a natural oval shape. Discourage fingering the smooth surface!

Shell shapes

Use fingers, tools and cocktail sticks to mark and print patterns on to the oval to make the shell of the turtle.

Demonstrate ideas first, showing the class why it is important not to press too deeply and how it is possible to fit many different, intricate patterns into the oval. Look together at following different approaches:

  • Create rings of different markings, starting from the outside and moving towards the middle.
  • Mark out a set of hexagons with a different shape or design in each.
  • Make a mark on top of or inside another to create an intricate pattern. The children can use their second ball of clay to try out other ideas – how many different marks can they make with a fingernail, a cocktail stick or the end of a spoon? Who can fit the most patterns on their shell?

Skin deep

  • When the shells are complete, ask each child to twist a small piece of clay off the second ball (depending on the size of their shell, it will need to be between the size of a marble and a walnut). Roll the piece into a ball and place it underneath the clay oval. Next, press the clay oval sides down around the ball, so the entire piece becomes dome-shaped.

Making a slip pot

slip pot

Roll a lump of clay into a rough ball and push the thumb into it to make a shallow hole. Let each child dip an old paintbrush into a jug containing a few centimetres of water, and stir their drop of water into the hole in the clay until the mixture becomes creamy but not stiff. This liquid clay is called slip and this can be used like glue to join the different clay pieces together.

  • Twist off six other pieces (all marblesized) from the second ball and form them into a head, tail and four legs. These can be textured using the sculpting tools and techniques the children practised earlier. Keep any remaining clay to make a slip pot, or let each group of children combine their spare clay to make one slip pot to share (see Making a slip pot).
  • Explain to the children how they use their slip as ‘glue’ to attach the ball, legs and head to the turtle’s shell. All surfaces to be joined should be ‘cross-hatched’ with a cocktail stick. Poke the slip into the roughened surfaces with the paintbrush and push the two pieces together to eliminate air.
  • Slip balls can be rolled up and stored for re-use: the damp slip inside them will keep it moist. Paintbrushes, tools and hands should be washed in a bucket of water – not the sink, as the clay silt will quickly block the waste-pipe. The water in the bucket should then be poured away in the garden or on the grass so that the clay is recycled.
turtle shells