Rainbow Fish

This Kindergarten project is based on the book The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister which is one of my favorites. It has the most delightful story about a selfish little fish who is covered in beautiful shiny scales. When asked to share one of his wonderful scales he refuses and then he wonders why none of the other fish like him. However with some coaxing from the wise octopus he finally shares his scales and discovers the joy of giving, so that he ends up "the happiest fish in the sea." The kids love the story, and it is well-known to most of them, almost all have heard it many times before I read it to them in class.

My goal with my kindergartners is to maintain art confidence and expose them to different art mediums. We talk about the basics like primary colors and line, but ultimately I want them to think art is fun and I want them to take home projects that make mom and dad say "Wow! You made that?!" so that their hearts grow to love art and their minds resist the silly notion of "I can't." Of course, that goal is the foundation of all my art classes, no matter what age.

Fish on canvas.

The how-to illustrations here use pictures I took as I went through the process with my girls at home. I liked the kindergarten fish so much that I thought they would make lovely original art for my bathroom. Making them in a classroom follows the nearly the exact same process.

We used canvas and primed it blue, but blending the color on canvas is significantly more abrasive than on paper, so I don't suggest that for little fingers. We used a toothbrush to blend the background colors because our fingers were getting a bit raw by the end.


18" x 20" blue construction/art paper
8 1/2" x 11" copy paper (excellent use for paper from the recycle bin)
pencil/blue colored pencil
white glue
colored pastels

These fish are the biggest art project I do with kindergartners, which makes them all the more magnificent! However filling that large paper space is always an issue, so to overcome that problem with this project I walk them through how to draw a fish using regular copy paper as a pattern.

Fold paper and cut an oval for the fish's body shape.
We start by folding the copy paper in half and then into quarters.

We open the paper back up and make a giant 'X' on the outside across the middle fold area. This is a trick I use with all the students since not cutting the fold edge seems to be a difficult concept for most kids of all ages.

Refold the paper and hold it across the the marked areas to protect the fold, cut off the loose corners just to make the paper an oval. Even a bumpy oval works fine for a fish shape, but I do encourage the kids to open up the body and look at it, if something seems a bit too lumpy or square simply have them cut to smooth it out; most of them have an easy time with this concept. Trace the body shape by placing the paper in the middle of the large blue paper.

Cut the fins from the body and trace.
Fish need fins. The back fin is cut by folding the body shape in half and cutting a big 'C' that simply cuts the fold off so that two back fin shapes are created. Students accomplish this much easier if they draw it first and almost all ask if they have done it correctly (which causes a ruckus, but that is part of art too) so few mess it up. If a student cuts theirs funny, have them ask a student next to them to borrow their extra fin to trace, this project is about sharing after all!

The top fins and lower fins are traced from pieces they find on their desk, or they can cut the folded paper remnants one more time right next to the fold, and trace them to get the look of the fins they want. I show them the book images of the Rainbow fish again at this point to remind them of the objective.

The Rainbow Fish has a lovely little fish face, so we copy Mark Pfister's illustrations and draw a line from the top fin to the bottom fin to make a face area, then I show the kids how to add scales, give them ideas for other lines to add but always reinforce the fact that these must be large areas. Drawing big is a challenge for little hands, so I show them with my fingers the size of a half-dollar, don't make any areas smaller than 'this'. Of course they all do, but I remind them repeatedly because their lines all need to be traced with glue for the next steps. Smaller lines fill in with glue, even on my example below the circles I made for the back fin filled in, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter.

This is a two-day project, once the kids have the decorative parts filled in on their fish they are done for the day. Reading the book, cutting and tracing the fish generally takes the full 45-minute class period. After the students leave I find a few parent helpers, older students, (or take these home with me) and apply the glue to their lines. The glue takes 12-24 hours to dry and your hand can get exhausted from squeezing the glue bottle that long, so pace yourself. For student work I fill in one scale with glitter glue, which delights kindergartners and ties our artwork forever to this wonderful book.

The next class period is the fun part: coloring. Students need paint shirts. We are lucky to have some very good quality pastels at the school. I insist that every scale has to be a new color, that no two scales touching each other should be the same, but I also show them how to color three shapes apart from each other with one pastel, then apply a second color over it to blend, since coloring one scale or area at a time can take forever! I also tell them that every scale has to be blended, two colors in each scale, simply for the fun of learning what colors do when put on top of one another. They actually love that part, always lots of oohs and aahhs, and "look at mine" followed by "hey, what colors did you use to make that color?" I love that.

Blending colors is great fun!

Remind students: 

  • Try not to touch the scales they have already colored to reduce finger prints. 
  • It takes only one finger to blend pastels, not an entire hand (or both!)
  •  Students also need to hold the paper only on the edges. 
  • Keep their sleeves rolled up past elbows. 
  • Color should be pushed all the way to the glue lines until no paper shows.

These are big so some kids get tired and may need a bit of prodding to finish the background. Having an extra parent or helper in the room may be  beneficial in keeping kids motivated and on task. Blending a color over the background gets rid of all the finger prints that will undoubtedly appear even with the best intentions. Apply a fixative (I use an extra-hold aresole hairspray) to set the pastels.

Before and after, the glue lines make coloring easy and really cool looking!
Kindergarten student examples: