Grades/Level: Upper Elementary (3–5)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
Three 45-minute class periods
Author: Leticia Lopez, Fourth Grade Teacher
Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School, Los Angeles Unified School District


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Lesson Plans

Lesson Overview

Students will learn about medieval manuscripts and artistic representations of fantastical creatures. They will create their own fantastical creature using complementary colors and write a paragraph describing it.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • describe and identify complementary colors in manuscript illuminations.
  • imagine and create a fantastical beast using complementary colors.
  • write a descriptive paragraph about their fantastical beast.


• Reproduction of A Dragon, unknown illuminator
• Reproduction of A Siren and a Centaur, unknown illuminator
• Reproduction of A Crocodile and a Hydrus, unknown illuminator
"Medieval Beasts" on the Getty website
Beasts: Factual and Fantastic, book by Elizabeth Morrison, Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007 (optional)
• Color wheel (see The Metropolitan Museum of Art's web page Learn about Color)
• Drawing paper
• Pencils
• Colored pencils
• Oil pastels
• Paper (8½" x 11", ruled)

Lesson Steps

Part 1: Fantastical Beasts and the Middle Ages

1. Lead a discussion comparing life in the Middle Ages to the present day, emphasizing how people believed that illness and disease were punishments, and that evil spirits, demons, and beasts were real and ever present. Explain to the class that all sorts of animals were integrated into medieval life, from farm animals and wild animals for hunting to animals representing family or religious figures and animals as astrological signs. Also, people did not travel far from their village or town, and many imagined the outside world was full of unknown creatures—monsters, dragons, and wild beasts.

2. Show students the reproduction of A Dragon by an unknown illuminator. Have students look silently at the work of art for thirty seconds. Then guide a class discussion by asking the following questions:

  • What do you see in this image?
  • What details do you notice about the creature?
  • What colors do you see?

3. Chart students' responses.

4. Share some background information about illuminated manuscripts and bestiaries. Tell students that illuminated manuscripts are books written by hand and illustrated with rich and vibrant colors (often with gold leaf). These manuscripts are excellent examples of painting in the Middle Ages. Explain that bestiaries are books of beasts—collections of stories about animals with moralistic lessons (like Aesop's fables). The illustrations in bestiaries feature fantastical animals that the artist (or "illuminator") had probably never seen and could have only imagined. Refer to "Medieval Beasts" on the Getty website. You may also want to refer to the book Beasts: Factual and Fantastic by Elizabeth Morrison.

5. Show the class a color wheel and explain the principle of complementary colors. Present students with a color wheel for reference (see the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web page Learn about Color). Explain that colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are known as complements. Show the students how true complements visually "vibrate," appearing brighter and more intense, when placed next to each another. Point out the use of complementary colors in the manuscript illumination A Dragon.

6. Show students other examples of fantastical creatures in illuminated manuscripts, such as the reproduction of A Siren and a Centaur by an unknown illuminator or the reproduction of A Crocodile and a Hydrus by an unknown illuminator. Ask students to look carefully at the work of art, and then have a class discussion. Prompt students by asking the following questions:

  • What do you see in this illumination?
  • What details do you notice about the creatures? (Point out that the creatures are hybrids, creatures with the features of two or more different kinds of animals.)
  • What colors do you see? Did the illuminator use complementary colors?

7. Chart students' responses.

Part 2: My Fantastical Beast

1. Pass out the drawing paper and pencils.

2. Tell students they will create their own fantastical beasts. Have them brainstorm by sketching on paper the details they want to include before they get started. Students may use the charted responses and reproduction images for inspiration.

3. Pass out colored pencils and pastels. Have students create artistic renditions of their imagined beasts. Remind them to incorporate complementary colors into their artwork, as well as the details they brainstormed earlier.

4. Next, read the following English translation of the text that accompanies the image of A Crocodile and a Hydrus:

"The [hy]drus is a worthy enemy of the crocodile and has this characteristic and habit: when it sees a crocodile sleeping on the shore, it enters the crocodile through its open mouth, rolling itself in mud in order to slide more easily down its throat. The crocodile, therefore, instantly swallows the [hy]drus alive. But the
[hy]drus, tearing open the crocodile's intestines, comes out whole and unharmed…."

Circle the strong verbs in the paragraph above. Discuss the verbs with students after reading the translation.

5. Pass out the paper for writing.

6. Tell students to write an original descriptive paragraph of the fantastical beast they have created. Encourage students to use descriptive adjectives and strong verbs to portray the beast (especially its hybrid nature), the beast's powers, and an imagined setting.

7. Ask students to edit and revise their descriptive paragraphs.

8. Have each student present his or her paragraph and work of art to the class.

A Dragon/unknown illuminator
A Dragon, unknown illuminator, about 1270


Students will be assessed on:
• comparison of the present day to the Middle Ages.
• participation in a discussion of illuminated manuscripts and details.
• artwork depicting a fantastical beast.
• use of descriptive adjectives and verbs in their paragraphs.


Expand the lesson by using one or more of these activities:
• Have students assemble artwork and descriptive paragraphs in a class "bestiary."
• Have students write a narrative in which the beast is the main character.

Additional Resources

Learn more about illuminated manuscripts using the following resources on the Getty website:
Making Manuscripts video
"Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts: Lessons and Ideas for Discussion"

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Content Standards for California State Public Schools

Grade 3
5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications
5.2 Write a poem or story inspired by their own works of art.

Grade 4
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.3 Identify pairs of complementary colors (yellow/violet; red/green; orange/blue) and discuss how artists use them to communicate an idea or mood.

English—Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 3
1.0 Writing Strategies
1.1 Create a single paragraph; develop a topic sentence; include simple supporting facts and details.

2.0 Writing Applications
2.2 Write descriptions that use concrete sensory details to present and support unified impressions of people, places, things, or experiences.

Listening and Speaking
2.0 Speaking Applications
2.3 Make descriptive presentations that use concrete sensory details to set forth and support unified impressions of people, places, things, or experiences.