Description of the Unit –
Students will explore the work and approaches to painting innovated by Helen Frankenthaler, and use very simple soak-stain techniques to apply watercolor onto paper to create equally vibrant washes.
Activity statement –
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was one of a handful of artists that pioneered an American modern art movement known as Color Field painting. Works that experimented with painting mediums to express the luminosity and magic of color characterized Color Field painting. Frankenthaler invented a couple of different soak-stain techniques—one involved thinning oil paint with turpentine to create canvas-filling washes of vibrant color that behaved similarly to watercolor washes and that “deny any hint of three-dimensional illusionism.” The second involved watering down acrylic paint and pouring the mixture onto canvas in huge stains and blobs. Her colors softly radiate across the canvas in purely abstract form, and it is this, her very approach to painting, that resonates so strongly with children as young as five years old. They are also drawn to the fact that she liked to paint with her canvasses spread out on the floor.
Her accessibility as a painter makes a great introduction to liquid watercolor painting for kindergarten-aged students. Here they can simply play with the paint, observing how it behaves if they add the paint to wet versus dry paper. I have them add the paint with droppers at first, just to watch t spread, then allow them to continue with brushes for more types of experimentation. I stop short of teaching them the four basic watercolor techniques (dry-on-dry, dry-on-wet, wet-on-dry and wet-on-wet), as that will be taught and reviewed in alter grades.
I also find this a great opportunity to introduce students to the concept of abstract art. We discuss what abstract art is, and compare it to representational art like landscapes and portraits, which they understand. I let them call out images they think they might see within Frankenthaler’s paintings, but reiterate that there is no actual intention of painting anything realistic or recognizable.
Ultimately the students’ own work comes out just as exciting and vivid as Frankenthaler’s own work, and it is always a huge treat for me as an art teacher to see what they do during this unit. They end up loving the sheer play with color and medium this offers them. A great site to read more about Helen Frankenthaler: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/frankenthaler-helen/
- What color field painting is in very basic terms
- How Frankenthaler experimented with painting mediums (this will partly be achieved by experimenting with watercolor themselves)
- Who Helen Frankenthaler was, and how she approached painting
Be able to:
- Define in simple terms the concept of abstract art
- Create several experimental watercolor washes
Resources and materials –
- Examples of Helen Frankenthaler’s work
- Heavyweight white paper
- Liquid watercolor paint
- What do you notice about Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings?
- What do you think about the colors in her paintings?
- Do you see any kind of image in her paintings?
- What do you imagine it would be like to paint on the ground?
- Why do you think she waters down her paint? What will that do?
- Understand what abstract art is?
- Experiment with liquid watercolor to create their own washes?
- Student questions
- Group discussions
- Oral responses to essential questions
- At least one finished piece
- Elaboration and risk-taking—and PLAY