3rd Grade – Clay Aquarium Relief Sculpture

3rd Grade – Clay Aquarium Relief Sculpture

Description of the Unit – Students will create a kind of relief sculpture, an aquarium out of clay that will include sea creatures in a variety of organic and geometric shapes. Students will paint their aquariums, using bright, bold colors for emphasis.

Activity statement – One of the criteria in the California Visual Art’s Standards for 3rd grade is that students “create an imaginative clay sculpture based on an organic form”, (2.5, Creative Expression). By looking at the diverse shapes of sea creatures, from eels to starfish, students can create a lively high relief sculpture that incorporates both geometric and organic shapes.

Examples of marine life to illustrate organic and geometric shapes: a jellyfish, starfish, and an anemone
Examples of marine life to illustrate organic and geometric shapes. Images © Anita Sagastegui

We will study relief sculpture from different places and periods around the world, discussing the term ‘relief’ in art to help students understand the difference between a free-standing sculpture and their aquariums, which are relief sculptures. We’ll briefly touch on the types of relief sculpture, (bas– or low relief, high relief, and intaglio, or sunken, relief). We will look at these types of relief more in depth in 6th grade.

Examples of relief sculpture including bas- or low relief, high relief, and intaglio, or sunken, relief
Examples of relief sculpture

To draw attention to the various elements within their aquariums, students will choose bright, bold, contrasting colors. This unit will develop students’ fine motor skills as they work to manipulate the clay into given shapes, as well as use fine-tipped brushes to do detailed painting.

Goals – Students should…


  • The difference between an organic and geometric shape


  • What colors are contrasting colors
  • How to define relief sculpture

Be able to:

  • Recognize organic shapes vs. geometric shapes
  • Manipulate clay into a variety of intentional shapes

Objectives – Students will:

  • Distinguish between organic and geometric shapes
  • Create a high-relief clay aquarium, incorporating sea creatures in a variety of organic and geometric shapes
  • Paint their sea creatures in bright, contrasting color

Resources and materials –

  • Examples of relief sculpture
  • Model magic
  • Mats
  • Acrylic paint in various bright colors
  • Brushes
  • Palettes
  • Cups
  • Sealant or gloss to seal and brighten paint
  • (Hot glue for the little pieces that will inevitably fall off a few students’ aquariums)

Questions –

  • What are some qualities, or characteristics, of organic shapes?
  • What are some qualities, or characteristics, of geometric shapes?
  • Show me techniques you might use to create an organic shape in clay. A geometric one?
  • (While viewing a variety of relief sculpture examples): What do you notice about these sculptures?
  • How do you think they were made? How are they different from other sculptures you have seen?
  • What makes a pair of colors contrasting colors? Can you name a pair of contrasting colors?
  • What sea creatures might you like to include in your aquarium? What color might they be?
  • What other elements would you find in an aquarium?

Evaluation – Did students:

  • Understand the difference between organic and geometric?
  • Attempt deliberate shapes in their sculpture?
  • Use color thoughtfully?


  • Student questions
  • Group discussions
  • Oral responses to essential questions
  • At least one finished aquarium
3rd grade student's work in progress: a clay aquarium sculpted but not yet painted
3rd grade student’s work in progress
3rd grade students' completed clay aquarium relief sculptures, including paint
3rd grade students’ completed clay aquarium relief sculptures

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