Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: Color Me Happy: Color, Mood, and Tone

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.

This lesson will introduce students to the ways artists use color to set the tone of a painting or to convey a particular mood to the viewer.

Guiding Questions

How does color affect the impression that a work of art makes on the viewer?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify color schemes in paintings and discuss the ways in which color is used to convey a mood or tone in a work of art
  • Understand the effects of cool vs. warm colors in establishing mood or tone in an art work.

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Red as a Rose

Note that although some colors seem to suggest a distinct mood or meaning such as the blue in Picasso's painting above- those same colors will not always convey the same mood or message.

Note: If you have time you can have the entire class complete investigations of both of the paintings in this activity. If, however, you are pressed for time, you can assign half of the class to work on the Anshutz while the other half works on the van Dongen, bringing the class together at the close of the assignment to compare and contrast their findings.

Have students view:

  • Thomas P. Anshutz's A Rose, from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Working together in the same small groups, have students analyze the use of color in this image.
  • What is the mood or tone of this image?
  • How does the artist's choice of color affect this work?

After discussing the painting, you may wish to share with students some of the information that is provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art about Anshutz's painting and the period in which it was created:

The woman at leisure and the likening of a beautiful woman to a flower are common themes in late-nineteenth-century American painting. They reflect the contemporary definition of a woman's proper sphere: the realm of leisure, beauty, and the aesthetic, harmonious domestic environment."

Ask students the following questions:

  • Do they see aspects of Anshutz's color choice that reflect this sensibility?
  • How does the color scheme reflect the painting's title?

Finally, ask students to focus on the woman's expression. What does she appear to be doing? Students may note that the woman appears to be in serious contemplation, or listening attentively to a conversation. The expression on her face, as well as her body language, conveys a sense of a young woman with an active intellect. Her red dress not only suggests the flowering of youth and beauty—which is confirmed by the painting's title—but also communicates a sense of action and movement. This action comes across in the painting despite the figure's seated position, by being coupled with her facial expression, which conveys a sense of the active intellect that lies behind her eyes. Finally, have students view:

Working in the same small groups, have students discuss the tone and mood of this painting implied through the use of color.

  • What is the mood or tone of this image?
  • How does the artist's choice of color affect this work?

Note that in Van Dongen's painting, the child's red face dominates, and deeply impresses the viewer in its intensity. Compare Saida with A Rose, by Anshutz, also dominated by red tones. Compare how these two paintings set tone and mood. Are they the similar or different? Students should note that while the two images use similar colors that the placement and use of that color conveys a different mood and tone in each. Where the red of Anshutz's Rose gives the impression of beauty, youth, and intelligence, van Dongen's red-faced Saida is somewhat discomforting. This is not a pink-cheeked child, or even a sunburnt girl, but an unnaturally discordant red-toned face that jolts the viewer. Students should work together in each group to explain why the red in each of these images communicates a specific sentiment or mood, and discuss the differences.

Activity 2. Setting the Tone

In this activity, students will investigate how artists often use color to set the tone or the mood of an image. Remind students of the definition of color scheme in the "Preparation Instructions" section in the curriculum overview before introducing this activity.

Note: If you have time you can have the entire class complete investigations of both of the paintings in this activity. If, however, you are pressed for time, you can assign half of the class to work on the Picasso while the other half works on the Matisse, bringing the class together at the close of the assignment to compare and contrast their findings.

Have students view the following image before telling them the name of the painter or the painting's title.

Have them fill in the information about this painting in the chart that is available here. Then ask them to describe the mood or tone of the painting. They should be able to identify the mood as sad or tragic even without knowing the title of the painting. Ask them to describe what aspect of the painting prompted them to identify a mood of sadness.

Students may note such elements in the painting as the figures' positions in the composition- the woman's dropped head and turned back, the man's crossed arms—which imply a sense of resignation and unhappiness. But how does the color scheme Picasso chose affect the message conveyed in this image?

Note that artists often include colors and color schemes in their composition to convey a particular mood or tone to reflect (and sometimes in contradiction to) the subject, contents, or composition of the painting. What kinds of messages do students think colors can convey?

In Picasso's painting, his color scheme supports the idea of tragedy that pervades the figures through the blue tones dominating the painting. Students should note that not only is the sea behind the figures blue, but blue tints seep into the sand beneath their feet, their clothes, their hair, even their skin. How would this painting have changed if, instead of blue, the painting was composed entirely in shades of red and pink? Would it have conveyed the same mood?

Next, have students view

You may wish to divide the class into small groups of three or four students. Have them work together to answer the following questions:

  • What is the mood or tone of this image?
  • What is the color scheme of this painting?
  • How does the color scheme affect the mood or tone of the work?

Students should discuss Matisse's use of bright, warm tones in his composition, which create a cozy and safe atmosphere, despite the riot of overlapping patterns. Matisse uses complimentary colors to structure the room- the red carpets and the left hand wall next to the greens of the back wall-seem to divide the space. However, according to the National Gallery of Art's description of the painting

Despite the wealth of pictorial elements, a curious, calm order of structured harmony prevails. Pianist and Checker Players is suffused with a warm glow made up of complementary tones of yellow and red."

Assessment

Once students have completed the activities in this lesson assign each student one painting from group A and another painting from Group B. They may write two or three paragraphs explaining the ways in which the artists' color choices draw the viewer's attention, create a sense of depth, and convey mood or tone in each of the two paintings. They should also compare and contrast the two images. These images are found in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, or The Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Group A
Group B

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

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

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media