Make: A Reversible Night-in-the-City Art Project for Kids

Create cool city night scenes (and clever illusions!) with this paper art project that encourages kids to play with perception and look at their art projects from every angle…

When I was a kid, I was OBSESSED with the book Round Trip by Ann Jonas. The story was about taking a drive from the country to the city, and it featured beautiful, bold black and white illustrations. You read the book through as you normally would, but at the end, it invited you to flip the book over and start reading it upside-down. MIND BLOWN, as they say. The upside-down story is about the drive back home, and although it is the very same pages, they look completely different because instead of noticing the black portions of the illustrations, your eye is drawn to the white fields – creating a whole different set of imagery.

Our reversible city art projects for kids laying on a white background

The illusion at play in the book (and here in our city night scenes) is called figure-ground reversal. You’ll find it in artwork like this famous illustration by cartoonist William Ely Hill or the work of artist MC Escher. But you might be MOST familiar with it through its use in branding. Companies like FedEx, Hershey’s, Toblerone, Formula 1, have cleverly incorporated this trick of the eye in their logos.

Inspired by the phenomenon (and my memories of that fabulous book) we created this “Night in the City” art project that invties kids to develop a story along with their art that will take observers on a short journey through the city.

Our reversible city art projects for kids laying on a white background

For our own, we start with a late-night stroll down Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame with the dramtic lights of Graumen’s Chinese Theater filling the sky. Turn the art upside down, and we’re driving out of the city up through the Hollywood Hills under a star-filled sky.

There are a wealth of good lessons to be taught through this paper art project – it’s an invitation to observe the role of light in art, encourages consideration of positive and negative space, and incorporates story-telling. But the take-away I most hope it drives home is that GREAT discoveries come from playing with your artwork. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, turn your art upside down for a whole new perspective and maybe some wonderful surprises!

For more art projects that explore cities in perspective, try making a cardboard fold-out city landscape book, or build a city neighborhood using recycled cardboard boxes (and a few special art tricks).

To make your own reversible 2D city art you’ll need:

BASIC SUPPLIES:

  • Cardstock or construction paper in black, white, yellow, or gray (or any colors you prefer!)
  • Scissors

OPTIONAL SUPPLIES:

  • A paper cutter
  • A glue stick

Kids “Night In The City” Reversible Art Project Instructions:

  1. Cut a simple city skyline out of black construction paper

    There are LOTS of ways you could set up this project, but I started by cutting out a simple city skyline from black construction paper.
    A city skyline cut out of black paper sitting next to scissors and construction paper against a white background
    Instead of cutting out one full piece, you could let kids arrange blocks of black paper into a skyline or print and cut out a photo of an existing dark skyline.

  2. Cut small simple shapes out of white or colored construction paper

    To begin telling our story and add some visual interest to our night scenes, we’ll add some elements to the buildings using cut paper. We tried to keep our color palette fairly simple, but you can use as many or as few colors as you’d like.
    Small yellow, white and gray shapes cut of of construction paper laying on a black background
    We cut out lots of small basic shapes – squares, circles, rectangles, triangles, stars, etc. then

  3. Place or glue your skyline onto a white background

    Use a glue stick to glue your skyline onto a full sheet of white paper or cardstock.
    Our city skyline and construction paper pieces sitting on a white background.
    We actually wanted to be able to make lots of different arrangements, so we skipped the glue for this project. If you decide you’d like to do the same, you’ll still want to place your cityscape onto a white paper background so you can easily turn your artwork around as you’re working (and it’s an important piece of the figure reversal illusion!).

  4. Begin creating your nighttime skyline compositions

    Before you start creating arrangements, it might be helpful to take a look at pictures of cityscapes or scenes at night. How can you use simple shapes to represent the lights you see at night? Now you can begin playing with them on and around your skylines. Some mimic lights in the windows of skyscrapers, others look like bright floodlights filling the sky. What can you create?
    Our city night skyline art compositions sitting on a white background with scraps of yellow and gray construction paper.
    Before your glue your elements down, be sure to flip your artwork over. What do you see? Maybe you want to move some things around. Keep playing until you like the artwork you’ve created both right-side up AND upside-down!

When trying this project for the first time (especially with younger kids) less is more. Don’t feel like you have to have piles of scrap shapes, multiple colors, or even a story. The fun is really all in letting kids discover how this works, and maybe instead of finishing a “final” composition, they’ll be more excited to apply the principle to something else they make. Total win!

More Places to Find City Art Inspiration

Cities have inspired lots of artists – From Vermeer and Pissarro to Edward Hopper, Paul Klee, Romare Bearden, and so many others. And some of my personal favorite cityscapes come from artists you’d probably recognize for other themes. Georgia O’Keefe, for instance, is perhaps best known for her flower series’, but her paintings of New York City are incredible to see in person. If you’re familiar with the artist Wayne Thiebaud, it’s probably because you’ve seen his sumptuous depictions of desserts, but his cityscapes are equally amazing! Both artists use unique perspectives in their city art, and the concepts they employ could be a fun follow-up to explore after this project.

For more fun paper art you can play with, be sure to check out our moveable 2-d shape art, Memphis style paper sculptures, fantasy landscape collages, or our deconstructed rainbows – a b&b classic inspired by artist Frank Stella!

Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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