This picture shows the artist, Laura Wheeler Waring, as a young woman. She is in the foreground holding a paintbrush with some oil paints in front of her.
2021 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young Readers list from the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council

Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring by Nancy Churnin; illustrated by Felicia Marshall
Picture Book – Suggest Grades 1 – 4

This is an enjoyable and enlightening book about a young artist seeking to capture the color of brown skin, like hers, in all of its beautiful shades. With perseverance Laura studies art and later earns commissions to paint portraits of famous African Americans. Her portraits are displayed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. 

Suggestions for in-class activities:
This book would be very useful for art teachers (or classroom teachers teaching an art lesson) to read aloud and discuss with their students.  

The color wheel —mixing primary colors to render secondary colors—may help readers understand how colors are formed, perhaps mixing colors to reveal shades of brown for older students.

For young students observe the colors of a friend’s face (or one’s own using a mirror) noting that it’s not just one color. Discuss what colors became apparent upon close observation. Follow up with a simple face sketch and spend more time on coloring or painting it using different colors. Mixing watercolors would be best, but using crayons applied lightly and overlapping will create shading of different colors to achieve the desired effect.

For older students do the above activity with different lighting effects that change the perceptions of color; e.g. classroom lights on/off, flashlight held below the face, outside in sunlight or shade or both. Additional explorations could be done by using background colors to affect facial tones. 

Discussion questions:
Note illustrations of how Laura ages. This indicates her perseverance of developing skills as an artist.

For intermediate students, discuss the difficulties of being a black woman artist with respect to attending art school, having showings, selling art work, and getting commissions. Note time period of story and compare to present day.

Comments by Virginia Lopez, retired educator

Find more information about the book from the author here.
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