de Youngsters Studio: Ex-Votos, A Mexican Tradition of Special Narrative Paintings

By Raphael Noz, Senior Teaching Artist

July 10, 2020

Do you know that in Mexico there is a long tradition of thank you or gratitude paintings?

These are called ex-votos, and they could be made by anyone who had an important story to tell about being kept safe during something dangerous that happened to them. The artist Frida Kahlo collected them, and they influenced her own work. 

The paintings, made on metal, often say something to the effect of “I almost was badly injured, but I wasn’t and so I am saying thank you with this painting.” Can you think of a time that you were safe during a dangerous moment? Who might you be grateful to?

If you went to Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City, you’d see a stairwell full of the ex-votos that she collected. The exhibition Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving at the de Young has a few for you to see up close when the museum reopens. These works tell a story with images and words, and we can see their influence on Kahlo in some of her works that also use images and words. 


  • Utility knife
  • A rigid surface to paint on, such as thick cardboard or sheet metal
  • Paintbrush
  • White paint
  • Pencil 
  • Eraser
  • Ruler
  • Sketch paper (the same size as your rigid surface)
  • Paints, oil pastels, and/or colored pencils
  • A copied photograph to paste on to your picture (optional)

Questions to Consider

  • What story do you want or need to tell? While choosing the rigid surface on which to make your picture, think about which story you will choose to depict. Something that you can imagine drawing is a good start. It’s also OK if you decide on a different story as you work. 
  • Where will you add the narrative part, the words? While most ex-votos have the words at the bottom, you could find an empty space on your drawing and decide to add them there.
  • Will you draw the whole ex-voto or add photos as well? Some people who have trouble drawing may choose to paste a picture on a part of their ex-voto. For instance, you can copy a picture of a loved one, then paste it on your ex-voto if you have trouble painting it realistically.

It is important to work from memory. So that means putting down the phone or other reference picture and seeing what you can draw using just your memory as much as you can. 


  1. Cut your rigid surface. It should be no bigger than 15 x 20 in. — have an adult help you.
  2. Paint your surface white. This will help your picture be visible. 
  3. Draw lines on your cardboard where you will write your story. While many ex-votos have the story written at the bottom, you can add your words in any blank space you like.
  4. Trace the shape of your cardboard onto sketch paper. Copy the size and shape of your cardboard onto your sketch paper. Include the lines where you will write the words. This way your practice sketch will be the same size as your final piece.  
  5. Draw your picture from memory first. Sketch the general shapes onto your sketch paper without looking at photos on a phone or computer first. Looking at a picture can be distracting by giving too many unimportant visual details. After your initial memory sketch, you can get more details from a picture if you need to. Once you are satisfied with your composition, draw it again on your painted surface. 
  6. Paint your picture. You can also use colored pencils or whatever you’re comfortable with. It’s your picture! One way is to do general shapes in paint, then fill in details and outline with something sharp like colored pencils.
  7. Write your story or dedication. Will you draw lines to help you write straight? Will you write at the bottom or somewhere else in your picture? Ex-votos have traditionally included the person’s name, the date, and the town where they were made. Remember, you don’t have to tell all the details; sometimes just saying thank you is enough. Just be sure to say what you have to say in your own words. That’s the power of an ex-voto!
  8. Finally, place your ex-voto in a special spot. You can make holes in the top corners and put a string through to hang it on the wall. Or maybe you’ll give your ex-voto to the person who is part of your story.


Often the emotions, memories, and images find a peaceful resting place when a picture like an ex-voto is made of an important event. How did you decide which story to show? What part was easiest or most challenging about making your ex-voto? Now that you are done with it, will you give it to someone important or keep it yourself?


Giving your ex-voto as a gift or putting it in a special place is a great way of sharing your story with those important to you. Of course, we would love to see what you make too, so please tag us on any social platform using the hashtag #deyoungsters or email

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