Contemporary Art

Tondo-Inspired Abstract Paintings

By Sunnylee Mowery, posted on Apr 15, 2024

Anyone studying contemporary art will notice that many modern visual artists use adaptation in their work. Adaptation can be a difficult concept for young artists to grasp. It has become so ubiquitous that I knew I needed to find a way for students to understand it so they could apply it in their own work. For my students, I defined adaptation as “taking an idea that already exists and putting your own spin on it.”

Robert L., Oreo Tondo.
Robert L., Oreo Tondo.
Maddison M., Denki Tondo.
Maddison M., Denki Tondo.
Häagen-Dazs Tondo.
Häagen-Dazs Tondo.
Students create expanded palettes from three initial colors. Right: Midge M., grade eight, uses her expanded palette to unify her color scheme.
Students create expanded palettes from three initial colors. Right: Midge M., grade eight, uses her expanded palette to unify her color scheme.

Introducing a Graffiti Artist

Enter the work of artist KAWS. When I first encountered this artist’s unique style, with characters marked with Xs for eyes, I wasn’t immediately certain it had a place in a K–8 art room. But the more I explored KAWS’s work, the more I began to understand the methodology behind his shockingly bold style, which has become a cultural phenomenon.

On the first day of the lesson with my seventh- and eighth-grade artists, I provided a wealth of information about KAWS as well as numerous examples of his work. We talked about how KAWS got his start as a graffiti artist in the mid-1990s by painting over popular advertisements he saw while growing up in Jersey City. After introducing the concept of adaptation, I had students compare and contrast KAWS’s “Bendy,” “Chum,” and “The Kimpson” characters with the original characters from which they were borrowed.

The Form of the Tondo

Following this intro, we focused on the large, round abstract paintings that KAWS cleverly calls “tondos,” a reference to the circular, often biblical, mural designs popularized in fifteenth-century Italy. We looked at ten different examples of tondo paintings by KAWS and noted his use of bright colors and bold, black cartoon lines. By looking closely, we were able to recognize bits and pieces of popular cartoon characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Mickey Mouse. Most importantly, we observed how KAWS zoomed so far in on the images that his designs can stand on their own as simplified abstract compositions.

Choosing a Subject

Now it was time for us to create our own abstract, circular compositions. Students first chose a subject for their composition by brainstorming a list of popular things they like to consume. To guide them, I said, “This could be something you eat, something you enjoy reading, or something you enjoy playing; a character from a show, game, or book that you just can’t get enough of.”

Once students had chosen their subject, I asked them to find a high-resolution photo of it that was large enough to zoom in on without it becoming pixelated. Students saved this image to their computer.

Using Viewfinders

Next, I showed students how to zoom in on their photos by using the circular viewfinders I had made beforehand, which they could move around their screens to look for interesting abstract compositions. After finding just the right spot, students sketched what they saw onto a 10" (25 cm) diameter cardboard cake tray. I bought these trays in bulk online, and their thickness gave a bit of flair to the project while also providing a great surface for acrylic painting.

A Limited Palette

The tondo paintings KAWS creates usually only contain a few colors, so the next class entailed a quick tutorial on how to make an expanded palette from only three initial colors. I showed students how to pour small amounts of paint and use different ratios of these colors to create new ones. Students understood that their final compositions would be limited to the nine original colors they created during this exercise.

During the next three classes, students mixed original colors and added them to their paintings. After the paint had dried, students used jumbo permanent markers to add cartoon-style lines between each color section. This helped to neaten up any messy edges and made the work look crisp.


I enjoyed this lesson on many levels. I felt proud to see my students working in such refined palettes. It was also fun to see how many students had success with finding interesting mini compositions within a larger image. Most of all, it was neat to see what students identified as their most-consumed subject matter. Their responses ranged from KFC to rare European renditions of Winnie-the-Pooh. We learned a lot from observing KAWS’s clever method of adaptation, and I don’t think he’d mind one bit that we borrowed some of his tricks.

Sunnylee Mowery is a K–8 teacher at the Albert M. Greenfield School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

National Standard

Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.



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