SchoolArts Room

Snow Crystals and Clay

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Jan 12, 2016

Entering into the winter months, my students and I long for the appearance of snow! In Tennessee, the elusive wintry flakes are a rare and always welcome surprise.  Capturing this excitement and mixing it with a little scientific background, my students and I enjoy learning about snow crystals by creating clay relief sculptures and transforming them into mugs ready for some hot chocolate.

Student Work
by Mary Ann McGinley
Student Work
Science/Art Connection
In science class, students discover that all matter is composed of individual atoms. In art class, we then look at snow crystals and learn about their atomic structure. Students learn that dust particles high up in the clouds are coated with hydrogen and oxygen atoms forming water, which then freezes. As the water molecules freeze, they take the form of microscopic hexagons, creating crystals around the dust particle.
Student Work
The crystalline structure grows larger and larger as further water molecules attach to the surface and freeze. This process continues until the snowflake is heavy enough to fall to the ground. Depending on the temperature at which the snow crystals form, they take the shape of rods, needles, plates, or feathery stars.
Drawings are carved into Soft-Kut blocks.
Students next use this information to look at microscopic examples of actual snow crystals. They each do an observational pencil drawing of one they select, capturing the minute details of each individual crystal. Students transfer their pencil drawings onto a Soft-Kut block for carving. (A Soft-Kut block is a linoleum-like block that is much softer and easier for students to carve designs into than linoleum.) The drawing is placed face down onto the block and transferred by rubbing with firm, gentle pressure. Students then use carving tools to create a relief and bring their snow crystals to life.
Working with Clay
Students each roll out half-inch thick clay slabs with a rolling pin, using a pair of wooden slats to maintain the desired thickness. The Soft-Kut block is then pressed into the clay slab, leaving the impression of the snow crystal in relief. Students next use a rectangular template to cut out a slab that will form the cylindrical shape of a mug, centering the impression. Then, students carefully wrap their clay slabs around empty paper-covered soda cans to fit. They score and seal up the seams of the clay where the two sides meet around the can.
Using additional clay, students each attach a bottom and handle to their cylinder of clay, taking care to score and smooth the seams to make them watertight. After drying and a first bisque fire, the mugs are ready for glazing. Students learn about the chemical reactions and color changes glazes go through during the firing process and then select their own color combinations of glaze. We used glazes that contained special crystals for added bursts of color.
Clay slabs are molded around empty cans.
A pattern the size of a flattened out can is used to cut the clay slab.

In this lesson, I always observe a special excitement as students become aware of the vast diversity of the microscopic images of snow crystals. Students also enjoy experimenting with familiar art techniques in new and different ways, such as using linoleum-type block carving for “printing” onto clay instead of paper.
Slabs are rolled out with guides to maintain thickness.
The bottom is added from a circle of clay.

Creating a mug also encourages students to think through the challenges of making a functional sculpture with watertight seams, an ergonomic handle and lip, and a stable base. Finally, students are able to experience the surprises that come with working with complex glazes and discovering their serendipitous effects.






Mary Ann McGinley is an art teacher at Poplar Grove Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee.