I originally published this Van Gogh project experience on June 1, 2010, when Katie was two-and-a-half and Eric was still growing in my womb. I am hoping to move some of our best learning experiences over to this blog. We spent months talking about Van Gogh and looking at his work, and our studies culminated in this project. My friend Susan reports seeing similar techniques in the Usborne art book—not sure of its title, but I probably should get a copy because it sounds like something we’d enjoy in this house. We love painting with acrylics (paint clothes required!), and we had fun thickening the paints with cornstarch to give our Van Gogh painting some texture.

Van Gogh Project

“Looking at the stars always makes me dream.”

~ Vincent van Gogh

Katie and I have been studying the artwork of Vincent van Gogh for the past couple of weeks. She has been captivated by his “Bedroom at Arles” after seeing it in one of her Touch-the-Art books, and was also very familiar with “Starry Night.”

We checked some books out from the Temecula library and have spent considerable time pondering his work, mostly from his later period. We looked at several of his paintings from his time in Arles, and reflected on his life there.

Also inspiring are van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Cypresses” and some of his other landscapes. She also loves his portraits, especially his self-portraits. Although I didn’t tell her how it came about (I think she is too young for that detail), she was fascinated that his ear was hurt and that he painted himself wearing a bandage.

As we looked at his work, we tried to note the essential characteristics of a van Gogh painting. Allowing for exceptions, we noted:

1) He mostly uses cool colors, such as blues and greens, with yellow being his primary warm color. Every once in awhile, such as in “Bedroom at Arles,” he throws in a red. Katie knows what cool and warm colors are from her art class earlier this year, and studying van Gogh is a good way to help cement that knowledge. We talked about how the cool colors make us feel, and she told me the other day that she prefers warm colors, actually (which I would have guessed). “I like warm colors better.” Her favorite color right now is red.

2) His paint is very thickly applied. You can see the brush marks and sometimes ridges of paint in his paintings.

3) His background textures are “swirly” (for lack of a better word!) You can probably picture “Starry Night”—think about all the circular motion you see in that painting. That is fairly typical, as it turns out, in his later work.

We decided to do a mimicry project based on some of van Gogh’s landscapes. (A portrait probably would have been too difficult for Mommy to draw, and although I would have loved to capture Katie’s “Bedroom at Temecula,” I wasn’t sure that would lend itself to large scale “swirlies” and thick paint application. The “Bedroom at Temecula” project might be a further study of van Gogh when Katie is older and can add another layer to her skill set and knowledge).

So a landscape it was.

We needed thick paints, and I had read somewhere that you can thicken acrylics with glue. That is probably true, but I wanted to make them really thick so I used cornstarch. That turned out to be successful. We achieved the ridgey paint marks and they were fun to use.

To test her knowledge, I put out all of our paints and had Katie choose the colors she thought van Gogh would choose. She correctly identified blue, green, yellow, and white, and then she begged to have a mix of red and dark pink for herself. We mixed those colors up with the cornstarch in separate bowls.

Then we prepared our canvas. We made a few marks to give us an outline when we painted. She helped draw the horizon, and we talked about where we wanted some clouds. She wanted a tree, and we briefly sketched one in.

Outside, we worked together to fill in the painting. She worked extensively on the grass, and was keen to do a mix of green and yellow. She also mixed the green and white herself to make a paler green. I didn’t prompt this—she likes to mix paint, and I waited for her to discover it. Then she got to put on her red and pink flowers. That was totally her idea. I think she was happier with the painting once she made it more exuberant with the warmer colors.

I did do a bit of fill-in work with the sky, but quite a bit of it is hers, and you can see that she did the clouds herself. We worked on getting the “swirly” motion into the painting. You can see it a little better close up, but for the most part it is there.

Here is our van Gogh landscape painting:

As I reflect on the lesson plan, however, I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t as solid as the Cassatt lesson. The stages and steps worked and there was evidence of learning…but as a teacher you know darn well when a lesson plan has that extra element of spark and magic and when it doesn’t. The Cassatt lesson plan connected with Katie on every level: she still talks about it. This van Gogh lesson plan was coherent, but I am dissatisfied with it on the deep level. It could be because Katie was not as big a fan of his work as she was of Mary Cassatt’s body of work. She doesn’t connect to his use of color, for one thing.

Also, some of the lesson did not meet my standards of “discovery.” I love leading Katie through discovery, and for the record, I think that is how students really learn and ought to learn…versus feeding them answers or leaving no surprises. The thrill of discovering something for yourself is the reward and motivation of learning. Anyway, I was dissatisfied with how I taught the elements of van Gogh’s texture. When it came time to identify his essential elements, I had to give her choices: does he paint with straight lines or swirly lines? Giving her an either/or is not good teaching—and I should know that by now. She learned, but it was not totally through her own discovery. With Cassatt, Katie knew so much about pastels that she was able to come up with that medium entirely on her own as we examined Cassatt’s work—that is discovery.

What I should have done was taught her more about different textures PRIOR to the lesson. Just a lesson on texture… straight lines, swirly lines, dots, etc. She of course knows different shapes, but I should have taught her some vocabulary prior to looking at the paintings, and THEN had her identify what she saw in van Gogh’s work. Instead, I tried to look at the work while teaching her the tools to look at the work. I am not sure, in this case, that that was the best practice I could have done.

I will have to make these revisions for Little Eric’s turn. 🙂

Overall, though, the learning took place (just not in as solid and authentic a way as I should have guided), and we had fun doing the project. I am thinking my next step in her art education needs to be returning to fundamentals. Maybe I should do a series of lessons on textures and the color wheel and focus on developing some vocabulary. That might be a good step before delving into another artist. She does seem to be interested in Roy Lichtenstein’s “dots” right now, though… and of course, ever since encountering him in art class, Katie has been fascinated with Andy Warhol. She loves the tomato soup can picture—probably because she recognizes it from using it in our kitchen. I saved an empty one, in case I could figure out a way to use it with her. I am waiting for inspiration to strike on that one…