Exploring Skeletons with Printmaking

Although we may look different on the outside, on the inside we all have the same skeletal structure. The challenge of creating a skeleton causes students to take a close look at the anatomy of the human body, the relationship of one body part to another, an at the many joints that allow the body to move.

Max's skeleton drawing
Max (age 8) drew this picture at home. He was inspired by a photo of a skeleton that he saw in a book.

Learning Objectives:
When students create skeletons they develop and practice

  • Awareness of the proportions and mechanics of the human body
  • Understandings about the human  skeleton
  • Hand orientation, placement, and spatial skills
  • Inventive ways to use the line tools to create the bones that they need.


Anatomy is the exploration of an organism to study its structure. Begin by asking what children know about the human skeleton and what they would like to know. Share some interesting facts:

The skeleton is symmetrical.

There are 206 bones in the human skeleton.

There are 27 bones in each hand and 26 bones in each foot. So, more than half of the bones in the human body are in the hands and feet!

Anywhere the body bends or moves, there is a joint.


*A study of anatomy works best when it is part of a classroom investigation. These examples come from a 4th grade class studying the human body during a science unit.

Anatomy Exercises*

body movements

These exercises help children visualize the skeletal structure by allowing them to physically feel and verbally recall body parts as they move one joint at a time. The exercises are a great way to prepare for this difficult challenge. Have children begin by:

  • Standing in their own space an arm’s length apart.
  • Noticing  the proportions of your  body. Notice the length of your arms.
  • Move neck joint from right to left and up and down.
  • Move your shoulder joints around and around and up and down, back and forth.
  • Move elbow joints. Make a muscle.
    Twist from your waist.
  • Bend at your hips. Be aware of your large pelvic bone right in the middle of your body.
  • Move from your hip joint. Keep your leg straight.
  • Try your knee joint.
  • Bend your hip and knee joints and sit down with legs crossed.
  • Wiggle your toes, hands and fingers.

* Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal, Davis  Publications, Worcester, MA. c.1983

Skeleton Challenge

Can you figure out how to recreate a skeleton using the process of line printing? Before trying skeletons with children, I tried it with parents and teachers during an evening workshop. We all had a great time and learned a lot!

experiments on newsprint

Artist and educator, Lindsay Fogg-Willetts experiments on newsprint first before trying her idea again on black paper.

making skeleton pictures  Heidi's skeleton

As we gathered together to revisit our experience, we noticed that there were many different ways to meet this challenge:

  • printing  for basic structure
  • thinking about the joints
  • thinking about proportion
  • using the line tools in inventive ways
  • focusing on one part of the body

Get Started:

Practice Constructing Bones with the Line Tools.

As preparation, the teacher reviews the straight line tools and introduces the small curved line tool.  Students will practice creating bones on scrap paper before beginning work on their skeletons.

Watch a student use the curved line tool to construct the rib cage.

Beginning Strategies

Sharing strategies for beginning skeleton construction helps students to focus and think about different ways to meet this challenge.

Marguerite, age 10, begins with the skull.

Sample discussion questions:

  • What part of the skeleton will you print first? Why?
  • What printing tool will you use for the spine? The ribs? The joints? The pelvis?
  • What problems do you anticipate? How will you solve them?

skeleton display skeleton display too
By students in Bob Hepner’s fourth grade art class at the Smith College Campus School
The teacher calls attention to the large pelvis bone and suggests starting in the middle of the paper. Many students followed his advice.

Beginning with the Pelvis Bone.

Watch Taylor, age 10, as he begins by constructing the pelvis bone.


Watch a Group of Fourth Graders

These  fourth graders practiced first on scrap paper before going onto black paper. You can see the great variety of solutions! Notice the that the teacher offers very small line stamps for adding fingers and toes.


Self Assessment

A great deal of learning takes place when children revisit their work. Fourth graders compare their prints with a photocopy of an actual skeleton before they print again.

Look at your print:

  • What did you know about the human skeleton?
  • What did you learn?
  • Are there any bones that are missing?
  • What will you do differently on your next print?

nio shoulder skeleton
"Mine doesn’t have a shoulder bone.”

Let students know that it is okay – and actually helpful - to make mistakes. That is how we learn and that is why we take time to observe and practice. Repeating this exercise, perhaps on a slightly larger scale, is an invitation to observe more closely and to notice details previously overlooked. The goal is not to make a print with every bone in the body. The goal is to learn about the structure and function of the human skeleton.

Transforming Mistakes

As students looked back at their practice skeletons they laughed and commented on the exaggerated body parts and odd creatures they had created. The teacher picked up on their concerns and embarrassment and encouraged them to transform their skeletons by adding color to them. One suggestion was to find a way to show that their figure possesses imaginary powers.

craypas materials
Oil pastels glow when used over white paint and on dark colors.


  • Placing paper on a newspaper pad
  • Using oil pastels on their sides
  • Blending colors
  • Blending colors with white to lighten

Michaela's craypas skeleton
"This is a weirdo who fell from a rainbow cloud and it started raining and the colors rained on him and then he landed on earth" ~ Michaela, age 10

More Skeletons

Mastedon by Jacob
Mastedon by Jacob (age 10)

A few students wanted to try other skeleton ideas and created these prints.

a sitting skeleton
Seated Skeleton by Marguerite (age 10)

Related Project:

Construct a Skeleton from Found Materials

Skeletons from Found Materials by Bob Hepner’s 4th grade studio art class, Smith College Campus School