Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

In Depth with the Full Spectrum

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Winslow Homer, The Milk Maid, 1878 (detail). A study in complementary  colors.

Winslow Homer, The Milk Maid, 1878 (detail). A study in complementary colors.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

In this lesson students will be introduced to the basics of the color wheel, as well as the ways in which artists use color to guide the viewer's attention through a painting's composition.

Guiding Questions

How do artists use color to create effects of perception and to guide the viewer's eye through an artwork?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the ways in which color is used to create a sense of depth in a two dimensional space
  • Identify the ways in which the artist uses color to draw the viewer's attention to points within the composition
  • Discuss the effect of color on the tone and mood of an artwork

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the curriculum unit overview and this lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Note: All diagrams, line drawings, and questions for this lesson are available for students to download directly through the Student LaunchPad for each activity. You should read through the Student LaunchPad in preparation for teaching this lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Whole Spectrum

This short exercise introduces students to hue, primary, secondary, and complementary colors.

While most of the images that students will be viewing in this lesson are paintings, it is useful to begin this lesson with a series of variations on one print. Jacques Villon's print, according to the National Gallery label, is a "color softground etching, etching, and aquatint printed from multiple plates with watercolor additions and graphite notations." As a print, it was possible for Villon to create variations on the same image with the same woman appearing in each print.

Have students view the series of print variations by Jacques Villon, which are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art. Students can access direct links to these images from the Student Launchpad. They can also make use of this color wheel.

Have students view the following series of print variations, available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The National Gallery of Art.

Jacques Villon's La Parisienne

Have students complete this chart as they view each of the images and consider the differences in these images. Although they will certainly note the changes in the color scheme—that the woman's black dress in one image and pink in another, or background color changes—ask them to think about how this affects the image. In this first activity they will see some of the important ways color affects images. Ask students to think about the following questions:

  • How do the changes in color across this group of images affect the perception of depth in the image? Which images seem to have more or less depth than others?
  • How do the changes in color affect the mood or tone of the image? Which prints appear more upbeat, or more somber, than others? Why?

Students may note the following:

  • that Variation A gives the perception of a deeper space than Variation C, although they initially may not yet be able to explain why. Variation B is more upbeat than Variation A because of the difference in color:
  • Variation A is dominated by the dark grey background, while the eye is immediately drawn to the vibrant red of the chair in Variation B.

Next, review the definitions of the following terms: hue, primary, secondary, and complementary colors given in the "Preparing to Teach this Lesson" section of this lesson. Then, you may have students complete a short online quiz about the terms, also available in .pdf format. Knowing elementary color definitions and understanding the basic color relationships will be helpful for students in the following activities.

Activity 2. Drawing the Eye: Saturation

Many choices artists make in color use are designed to draw the viewer's attention to particular details, objects, or figures in an image. In the following activity students will investigate the use of color in two paintings to see how the artists use color to grab their attention.

Begin by having students view the following image:

You may direct students to the Student LaunchPad which has a direct link to the image. Ask students to contemplate where their eye is drawn to first on the canvas. Students will most likely mention the red apples at the center of the painting's composition. Why do they think that their eye is drawn to this point in the composition first?

Note that when looking at a painting or a photograph, one's eye is usually drawn to the lightest points within a composition, as well as the points with the brightest or most vibrant color. Introduce the definition of saturation from the "Preparing to Teach this Lesson" section. Ask students which colors are more vibrant or saturated. They might note that the vibrancy of the red in the apples is highlighted by the surrounding colors, including the dark olive background, and the ochre table and pears. The red of the apples stand out sharply against the muted colors that surround it. In addition, our eye tends also to be drawn towards warmer colors, such as red and orange.

How can an artist draw the viewer's attention to a particular point in the composition without using muted tones as Chardin did in the first image? Have students view the following image, which is

In this image, unlike in the Chardin, significant portions of the canvas are covered with a variety of vibrant colors. Ask students to think about the following questions as they view the painting:

  • Where are their eyes drawn to in Johnson's painting?
  • Why do they think their eye alights on these points in the composition?

The church towers in the foreground will surely draw their attention. Have students map the use of color in the foreground church and immediately surrounding it. Using the color wheels from the previous activity ask students to identify the relationships between the colors that are used in this section of the painting. They should discover numerous points where complementary colors are placed either next to each other or in close proximity: the green roof and the red church's walls; the orange tower and nearby blue sky. In each of these cases Johnson's decision to place contrasting colors near each other draws attention to these points in the painting.

Finally, have students view:

Have students write a paragraph identifying the ways in which Homer uses color to draw one's eye to the central figure of the milk maid. Students should note:

  • Homer's use of red in the rooster's feathers and cock's comb and repeated in a more muted tone in the maid's dress and collar.
  • Homer set his figures in a sea of green—the grass and the trees—which are complementary colors, and thus highlights the red against this background.
Activity 3. Running Hot and Cold

Warm and cool colors in a painting can create different atmospheric effects, including the illusion of depth. In the following activity students will analyze the effect of warm and cool colors in a number of paintings.

Begin by asking students to identify the warm and cool colors using the color wheels from the first activity. They should identify red, orange, and yellow as warm colors and blue, green, and violet as cool colors. Then have students view the following painting:

You may direct students to the Student LaunchPad which has a direct link to the image. Ask students to identify the warm and cool colors in this composition. They should recognize that the bulk of the cool colors are found in the top half of the canvas while the warmer colors are in the bottom half of the canvas. Students should note that the cooler colored water, sky, and parliament building are all placed in the distance or background within the composition, while the warmer colored water and the red-highlighted boats are placed in the foreground. Ask students to consider the following questions as they are looking at Derain's painting:

  • Why do you think the artist placed the warm and cool colors in particular areas?
  • Where are most of the warm or cool colors clustered together in the imaginary space of the painting? (i.e. are warm or cool colors all or mostly found in the foreground, middle ground, or background?)
  • Does the placement of these warm and cool colors have an impact on whether or not objects or buildings appear closer or farther away?

Note that our eye gravitates towards colors at the warmer end of the spectrum. Warmer tones also appear to move forward, particularly when placed in contrast to cooler colors. While the canvas remains a two-dimensional space, warm and cool colors, when arranged in particular ways, can create the illusion of depth within the space. Not only do warm colors appear to move forward, but cool colors appear to move toward the background, particularly when warm and cool colors are placed next to each other. Students should also note that the less saturated colors appear to fall back as well, resembling the atmospheric perspective that we perceive when we are looking at things far away. For example, when we look at mountains in the distance the color of the trees on the mountains appear hazy and less green than those that are close to us.

Next, divide students into groups of three or four and assign half of the groups to work on the painting by Titian while the other half of the groups work on the Cassatt. Have the students working on the Titian painting view the following painting, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art:

Groups should then work together to discuss the following questions:

  • What do students notice about the distribution of warm and cool colors in this painting? Do warm and cool colors cluster together, or are they evenly distributed across the composition?
  • How does Titian use color to help create a sense of depth in this image?
  • Why do you think that Titian clothed Saint John in red? What effect does that color choice have on the viewer?

The red of Saint John's robe in this image draws the viewer's eye to his form, as does his active pose. But the color also creates the sense that Saint John is close to the viewer—perhaps even within reach. Titian may have chosen this color to create the illusion of depth—achieved partly by the contrast of Saint John's red robe with the blue sky. The red color also creates a sense of closeness between the viewer and Saint John, suggesting a feeling of identification between the two figures.

While half of the class works on the Titian piece, the remaining groups should view the following image, which is also available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art:

Working in their groups, have students answer the following questions about Cassatt's painting:

  • How has Cassatt distributed warm and cool colors in this painting? Do warm and cool color cluster together, or are they evenly distributed across the composition?
  • How does she use color to help create a sense of depth in this image?
  • Why do you think Cassatt chose to depict the boat as bright yellow? What kind of effect does that color choice have on the viewer?

The vibrancy and warmth of the boat's yellow color draw the craft and its passengers closer to the viewer. The yellow color works in conjunction with the curve of the boat's prow, appearing almost like a set of arms which pull the woman and her baby towards the viewer. Students should pay particular attention to how Cassatt creates a distinct and sharp contrast between the water's deep blue beyond the lip of the yellow boat.

Once all the groups have finished answering the questions the class should regroup and discuss their findings. Students should be sure to compare and contrast their findings with the findings of the groups who worked on the other painting.

Assessment

Have students choose one of the following paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Students should write a brief explanation of the ways in which the artist has used color in the painting they have chosen to grab the viewer's attention, guide the viewer's through the composition, and assist in creating a sense of depth within the painting.

Extending The Lesson

  • If you have time and materials in your classroom, you can extend the lesson by having each student choose one of the images in the lesson to recreate as its opposite. For example, if students were to choose Pablo Picasso's The Tragedy, they should first use the color wheels from the first activity to determine what the contrasting colors of the Picasso composition would be—in this case, various shades of orange. They should then draw and tint the image in those contrasting tones. When they have finished each student should discuss the ways in which these changes have impacted the image. Does it have the same sense of depth as it did in the original? Does it have the same mood? Are one's eyes drawn to the same points?

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media