Great balls of fire

This summer celebrate the Sun with a brilliant mix of art and science, says Ray Oliver

Our nearest star, the Sun, has featured in the work of astronomers and alchemists, of magicians, mystics and artists for thousands of years. Modern astronomers disappointingly describe the Sun as a middle-aged star, but for children, it is still a powerful inspiration.

Most are surprised to discover that the Sun, like the rest of us, has a fixed lifetime divided into stages and ending in death. In the distant future the Sun will swell and expand to become a red giant as it nears the end of its life.

Stories about the Sun, combined with practical activities, will offer pupils a wide range of inspiration for art and design.

Early ideas about the Sun

The Greeks observed the regular path of the Sun across the sky. They explained it in terms of the divine Helios, whose giant statue once stood in Rhodes and was one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Each day Helios drove his golden chariot across the sky, reaching the zenith at midday. Helios then drove on, always descending, until at sunset he vanished into the western ocean.

A remarkably similar idea inspired artists working in other places in the Bronze Age. The Trundholm chariot from Denmark shows a horse pulling the gilded disc of the Sun across the sky. And there are images of the Sun in stone and gold from the Aztecs and Incas of South America and ancient Egyptian artists.

In many cases, these had a scientific purpose, to predict solar eclipses. Scientific method depends on observation, so recording images can serve a scientific as well as artistic purpose.


You can use the story of Helios with his golden chariot pulled by white horses as the starting point. Employ a variety of reflecting materials such as cooking foil, sweet wrappers, old CDs or aluminised crisp packets to make a display. Choose a dramatic moment such as the emergence of the chariot from the sea at dawn.

The light from the Sun produces shadows. As it appears to move across the sky, the shadows change size, direction and intensity. By setting up objects that cast clear shadows, children can make composite pictures recording the changing patterns of shadows throughout the day.

Use a range of objects that will give contrasting shadow shapes. For example, cutlery, scissors, balls, and geometric shapes cut from card can be rotated to produce different effects. Try marking out the edges of the shadows with a glue stick and then sprinkle sand on top to give a more permanent image. Use colour filters or cellophane wrappers to add colour to the shadows. Arrange an object on a sunny window sill so it throws a shadow on the wall of the room. Observe the changes as the sunlight changes direction.


Telling time by the movement of shadows is an ancient art. Shadow boards were used in Egypt and Roman sundials have been found at Pompeii.

Designing and decorating a sundial makes an ideal group project. Divide the tasks into three stages: decorating the face of the sundial using a solar theme of light and energy; producing the lettering and numbers, possibly in 3-D; making the gnomon, the angled centrepiece that throws the shadow on the dial.

For a less ambitious alternative, draw a series of concentric circles on a large card or board. Place a triangle vertically at the centre to act as the gnomon. Each hour, mark the position of the shadow in overlapping colours or layers of paper or foil. See how the pattern develops.

Bringing the Sun into focus

Curved surfaces, as in the lens of the eye or camera, focus light. Children can use transparent containers filled with water to act as a simple lens. Optical effects include magnification and distortion of images (at the beginning of the 19th century, lace makers used water-filled glass spheres to focus more light on the fabric. Both sunlight and candle flames were used).

Provide a choice of curved transparent containers to function as a lens. Use the images produced as a basis for drawing or painting. Try including the following: large plastic fizzy drinks bottles filled with water, jamjars with and without water, large glass marbles, bubble-wrap plastic and a round vase containing water. Alternatives include jelly from a curved mould and an ice disc from a saucepan lid left in the freezer.

Colours from the Sun

There are many ways in which children can generate colours from sunlight. When a film of oil spreads on water it creates a pattern of colours. Prisms, cut-glass and plastic blocks will all give colour spectra in bright sunlight. The addition of a mirror will reflect these colours on to other objects or surfaces.

Try removing the lenses from a pair of polarising sunglasses. Hold one still and slowly rotate the other on top. The lenses look alternately light and dark as they rotate. Hold some sticky tape in between the lenses and look through them at the daylight. A play of colours will be seen. This also works using a projector as the light source. Many clear plastic rulers reveal coloured stress patterns when treated in the same way. Ask the children to reproduce similar colour effects in their own work. If you can black out the windows, leaving just a narrow beam of sunlight, the effects are enhanced.

Extension ideas

Investigate the shadow patterns made by a swinging pendulum or by a child on a swing.

Look at Bruegel's painting, "The Fall of Icarus" (1555-8) as he flew too near the Sun and read Auden's poem that describes the painting, "Musee des Beaux Arts".

Make shadow puppets to act out the story of Helios and his chariot.

Use a magnifying glass to focus the Sun and burn patterns on paper.

Use a south-facing window and record the apparent movement of the Sun each hour by sticking little Suns to the glass.


Helios - the son of the Titan Hyperion. Helios was the personification of the Sun

Zenith - the highest point

Solstice - longest and shortest days

Equinox - when day and night are equal lengths

Solar eclipse - the passage of the moon between the Sun and the Earth causing temporary darkness

Gnomon - the shadow stick or vertical piece of a sundial that throws the shadow

Relevant to Art and design at key stage 2:

4b Materials and processes used in art, craft and design and how these can be matched to ideas and intentions.

4c The roles and purposes of artists, craftspeople and designers in different times and cultures.


Eyewitness: Light by David Burnie, Dorling Kindersley, pound;10.97Times Pendulum: from sundials to atomic clocks by Jo Ellen Barnett, Harvest Books, pound;9.99

The Chemistry of Art by Justin Dillon, Royal Society of Chemistry, pound;19.95 Ray Oliver is a freelance writer and is a former teacher

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