National Library of Australia

Teachers notes: James Barker Emery’s Sketches of Australian Fishes

Visual Arts

A student:

  • explores ideas and feelings through making a variety of art works.
  • selects and uses several art elements, skills and techniques that are appropriate for the medium being used, e.g. develops a design, a stencil and prints this logo onto a windcheater for a school group.
  • responds to the key features of visual art works, e.g. compares how colours, shapes and lines are organised and arranged in certain art works.
  • discusses visual arts from several cultures and uses them as stimulus to create art works, e.g. Asian kites, Japanese calligraphy, traditional and urban Aboriginal art works and their teachings.


The colour, movement and reflected light of fish are all magnified in water.

Place a glass bowl containing water and live goldfish on top of an overhead projector. Turn off the lights and marvel at the colour and magnification of the fish projected on the wall. (Don’t leave the fish on the overhead for too long as they will overheat.)


  • What feelings and mood do the projections create?
  • What shapes are there? What colours and patterns do they have?
  • What shape are fish scales, fins and tails? What texture are they?

Look at some books of fish.

  • Brainstorm a vocabulary list of fish and marine animals.
  • Look at Aboriginal art. What is X-ray vision? Why is it important in Aboriginal art?


  • Cut out some simple fish shapes using sponges. Load the sponges with paint and print on to paper. Repeat your stencils in a pattern to create printed fish wrapping paper.
  • Draw fish using wax crayons. Cover the drawings with a light wash of ink to make a resist print.
  • Cover a whole page with waxy crayon. Place a wash of ink over the crayon, wait for it to dry. Using match sticks, scratch through the ink layer to the wax layer to make a sgraffito drawing.
  • Cover different shaped balloons with papier-maché. Invent new species of fish by mixing up a variety of marine species forms and shapes. Paint your fish in bright tropical colours and patterns. Add plastic and streamers to create impressive tail fins.
  • Write a detailed scientific description of your fish species. Include a name, the location it is found and describe where it fits into the food chain. Print out labels for your fish and install in an exhibition.
  • Part fill balloons with Plaster of Paris. Before the plaster sets, tie a knot in the balloon. Using string and rubber bands, tie the balloon up to create unusual shapes and leave to harden. Once dry, paint and add fins, heads and tails using cardboard.