Variations of Heredity Traits in Visual Art

11 Min Read  •  Video Series

Teaching with Creativity is back for season two!  Today, I’ll be your host and walk you through some great ideas for connecting heredity traits and visual art.  This is such a STEAMy lesson idea and I think you’ll really enjoy it.

Our 2nd season is full of new ideas, interviews and strategies for you to try.  It’s also being hosted by myself, Laura Wixon and Amanda Koonlaba.  So you’ll get to hear a variety of voices from the EdCloset team.  Enjoy!


Hello and welcome to Season Two of our show, Teaching with Creativity.

I’m Mary Dagani, your host for today’s show.  I am a content specialist here at– your digital learning hub for arts integration and STEAM.   

I’m so glad you can be here today!  Have you ever had one of those moments when you are trying to make a perfect fit between a content standard and an arts standard when suddenly – bam – out of nowhere  an idea hits you??

Well, today I’d like to share a lesson that jumped out at me while preparing for an arts integration session for recent STEM conference here in California.  I think this would be loads of fun for you to try with your students.

In my daily journeys as a traveling STEAM Teacher, I recently completed a series of lessons with my 3rd grade students which focused on Inherited Traits.  This whole series of lessons was based on The Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectation LS3-1.  Which states:

Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.

The DCI (Disciplinary Core Ideas) supporting this Expectation are:

  • Inheritance of Traits – Many characteristics of organisms are inherited from their parents
  • Variations of Traits – Different organisms vary in how they look and function because they have different inherited information

Of all the activities that I use to demonstrate how we inherit traits, my favorite is to have the students share actual pictures of them and their families.  We look for shared traits and traits that appear dominant within the family.  This is also where we discuss the recessive and dominant inherited traits as well.

I, personally, use pics of my sisters and I as we were growing up.  You see, I am the youngest of 8 children and I looked a lot like my mom growing up – with light brown, naturally curly hair, and darker features

Whereas my big brothers and sisters all look like my dad – very straight, blond hair with big blue eyes – definitely a Polish family!

As a matter of fact, they often insisted that I was the “adopted one”.  But like many siblings, as we grew, the traits we inherited from our parents and the variations became evident and looked even more similar. 

Why do I share this, because I have discovered by sharing a personal story and pictures of myself growing up, it brings a certain realness to my teaching and we connect over similar stories –

And when we cover the 2nd DCI, and focus on the variations of traits, I can’t resist sharing a picture of my “girls”:

The kids get a kick out of this picture:

heredity traits in visual art

For those of you who are listening to this via podcast, the picture shows my 3 dogs – all boxers.  The older dog is on the upper left and the 2 younger dog are in the middle and the upper right. I let the students know that 2 of these dogs are biologically related.  We have had some thought provoking discussions over just this one photo.

I love sharing this photo as a demonstration of variations for many reasons:

  1. It builds that connection between me and my students – students love to know more about their teacher, personally, and will constantly ask, “How your girls are doing?”.
  2. Also, as a teacher, I know this picture really ties into the NGSS Performance Expectation I shared with you earlier, which states:

-Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.

Since all of my dogs are boxers, and got their traits from their parents, they also carry the traits if the breed as well. I have found that most 3rd graders have never even considered these connections and it opens up a whole new world to them.

  1. But my favorite reason for sharing this picture?  These pictures have sparked some great conversations in class regarding the similarities and differences in traits of not only people, but other living organisms such as our pets and plants.

Come to think of it, this whole experience of sharing real photos for our science lesson, turned into a Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) session.  If you would like to know more about VTS, I’ve included links to 2 articles here at

Oh, before I go on, my students always think that the dog in the upper left is related to the dog in the right.  They think it is the mom and baby.  But actually the two younger dogs are sisters/litter mates and the older Boxer on the left is not related at all to the other two. It is a very good example of similar traits of organisms.  My students really get a kick out of this!

There are lots of great hands on activities that your students can do to build an understanding of variations of traits, but building a strong foundation with the use of realia is extra important when working with abstract scientific concepts.

Just think about how your second language learners or students with special needs will be able to develop a better understanding when the content is more meaningful and personal.

So, how does this all relate to a STEAM lesson?? And how did this all end up in a great “A-ha” moment?

When we were talking about the actual photos, we wereverging on Visual Thinking Strategies for our science lesson.  It made me think of visual arts and how they create art.

Let’s turn to the National Core Arts Standards and look for an elegant fit.  Well, after some searching, and some help from friends at (wink-wink, you know who you are!), I settled on the following standard:

VA: Cr3.1.3a

Elaborate visual information by adding details in an artwork to enhance emerging meaning

At first glance, one might not see a connection between the science and art. 

So, how do the two connect?  Let me explain…

Just like we are related to our families and we resemble each other via the variations of dominant and recessive traits, visual artists create a relationships in their work as well. 

How do they do this, you ask? 

They use variations of the Principles of Design

BTW, I’ve included a link in the show notes to anchor charts for the pinciples of design and the elements of each of the arts (dance, music, theatre, visual art).

The Principles of Art are:

  • Balance
  • Movement
  • Repetition
  • Gradation
  • Proportion
  • Emphasis/Contrast
  • Variety

Visual artists vary these traits to create what are called: Dominate, Sub-dominate, and Subordinate features.  Have you ever noticed that when you look at art, your eyes are sometimes drawn to a certain feature in the artwork?  This is how artists and designers draw the viewer’s eye to a focal point in the work.

When I started to search for examples of these traits, I was amazed to discover that this technique doesn’t only exists in paintings.  It lives in sculpture, photography, architecture, fashion design, home decor, etc….the examples are endless!

What is it we are looking for?

I’ve included a few links to examples to these features.  (For those of you listening via Podcast, I’ll try to describe the features the best that I can. ) They include:


Jan Van Eyck’s – Arnolfini “Wedding” Portrait (use of color)

Claude Monet’s – Haystacks (size/proportion)

Piet Mondrian – Ohne Titel -3 works (color/shape/proportion)


Frank Lloyd Wright’s – Falling Water & Moore-Dugal Residence

(the form/shapes are repeated and vary by size in the structure)

Fashion Design:

Triton, Fall/Winter Star Wars Inspired Collection 2014

(notice what elements are related in each outfit – how is color, shape, and proportion used?)

Necklace Google Image

(notice on the shapes)


Family Group – I love this piece for many reasons: notice the dominant form in the back, the subdominant forms seated below, and the subordinate form in the arms of the woman on the right – and altogether, there is harmony & movement as your eye moves from top to bottom of the sculpture)

Untitled Image – (notice the how the shapes are related, but are slightly different – Which one is your eye drawn to?. The one in the middle?

How do we define these focal points?

Here are the terms used by artists and designers:

Dominant – dominance is when a designer emphasizes one or more elements by varying a characteristic of the design such as proportion, contrast, balance to draw your attention to a focal point – just like a dominant or strong trait can be inherited from a parent, such as eye/hair color, a dominate trait in a design is the strongest element of the work.

The Sub-dominant feature resembles the dominant feature, but is a slightly different. You can definitely tell that the two are related – kind of like a little brother or sister – it looks the same only slightly smaller.

And lastly, there are what we call subordinate features in design – these are the forms that add interest to the design by adding a 3rd or tertiary element – think of them as a cousin to the first 2 – they don’t exactly look like brothers/sisters, but there is a family resemblance.

Why do artists use these techniques?  You may not realize it, but as humans are very visual and it’s natural for our brains to organize and try to make sense of the world by making looking for and creating connections.

All of these relationships in design create what is called visual Literacy – it’s the what, how, and why ”artists” make meaning.

Encourage your students to keep on the look-out for examples of dominance, sub-dominance, and subordinate features in the world around them.  Trust me, they are all around us!

How do we create using the design process?

The design process is a series of steps that every artist, inventor, designer, scientist, writer, etc…. goes through when they are building or creating something new. The process is cyclical. There are many variations on the steps to this process. The terms I usually use with my students are:

  1. Identify a need – what is your purpose?
  2. Imagine the possible solutions – all of them, no matter how outrageous
  3. Plan – sketch out your ideas including materials
  4. Create – build your prototype
  5. Evaluate – ask yourself:  Did my idea work?  How can I improve the design?  Is there a way I can make it better?

(Cycle back through the process until your design is complete.)

When I first started using this process with my kids, there was a bit of frustration.  They either wanted to build and be done with it, or they wanted me to give them the answers.  Hold on tight, they will eventually come around and start to understand that it is a process, not a one-time event.

I have included a link for you to a placemat available on

Finally, I’ve come to the actual art lesson that I shared with my students:

After building knowledge based on the NGSS Science standard: LS-3-1, and Art Standard: VA: Cr3.1.3a

Use the Design process, give the students some colored modeling clay

  1. Working with a partner, the students design a sculpture demonstrating at least the first 2 concepts (dominance and sub-dominance) we learned about.  Continue to design until your traits and variations reflect a relationship between the forms.  (My intent was for the students to have 2 separate forms that resemble each other.  However, as you can see, some of them put the 2 together into 1 work.)
  1. Display the final product –I know now that, depending on how I want to present their sculptures, or how I want to assess their understanding, I have to be more specific with the outcome.
  1. Conduct a museum walk/walk-about, walk-n-talk, or create a display in your classroom and place the sculptures around the display and have the students find the matching dominant/subdominant features and explain/give evidence  (verbally or written) why they belong together.

This Lesson is a very fun way to build connections between visual art and Science through the design process.

Come to think of it, this lesson can be differentiated on many different levels. Give it a try and let us know how you and your students did.

I’d like to share some examples from my recent workshop.  Those of you listening to this via podcast won’t be able to see these, but I would encourage you to view the end of this vodcast on our YouTube Channel when you get a chance.

Speaking of which…

Don’t forget to subscribe to our channel, share this with someone you think would benefit, and leave a comment below.  The best discussions and insights come from you!

And remember: you deserve to thrive as an educator.  Let your creativity shine through.  Thanks so much for watching – I’ll catch you next time on The Teaching with Creativity Show.

Bye for now!!