Helen Frankenthaler : Helen Frankenthaler

Overview Artist Biography Planning Ahead Materials & Setup Class Discussion Project Directions Reflections Downloads & Resources Docent Forum

Overview

Blue Atmosphere 1963, acrylic on canvas, 23 in. x 29 in. Collection of the Artist

In this lesson, students will:

  • Analyze Frankenthaler’s Blue Atmosphere and learn about Color Field painting;
  • Identify how colors create mood;
  • Describe the balance and flow of the painting;
  • Experiment with different techniques for adding paint to wet paper;
  • Create non-objective watercolor compositions by bleeding colors on wet surfaces.

Lesson Teaching Notes

A document of summary pages on the lesson’s Key Concepts, Vocabulary, Discussion Questions, Artist Points, and Project Directions.

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Materials and Setup

Materials List
  • 9×12 white practice paper (2 ea)
  • 5×6.5 watercolor paper cards (2 ea)
  • 6×9 assorted paper for mounting (2 ea)
  • watercolors
  • watercolor brushes
  • water containers
  • salt
  • glue
  • paper towels and sponges
  • newspaper
Setup Directions
  • Cover work surfaces with newspaper.
  • Set out 9×12 white paper, watercolors, watercolor brushes, water containers, and salt.
  • Have ready 5×6.5 watercolor paper cards, assorted paper for mounting, and glue.
  • Set out paper towels and sponges for wiping spills and fingers.
Variations
  • Use such liquids as starch or milk instead of water. Wet paper using a spray bottle.
  • Blot or lift off some paint with plastic wrap, a sponge, or bubble wrap.
  • Color a resist on some areas using white oil pastel, paraffin, or masking fluid.
  • Blow wet paint through a short straw.
  • Trim and mount the paintings on notepaper as gifts.
  • To simplify project for younger students: Paint with tempera paint on a flat surface and make monoprints from the painted shapes.
  • To extend project for older students: Use a variety of paints, including watercolors, diluted tempera, gouache, and acrylic paint. Create a series of 3 or more paintings and frame together.

Photos of Setup

Class Discussion

How does Frankenthaler express feelings with abstract art?
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Style - Abstract Expressionism

Helen Frankenthaler is an Abstract Expressionist painter. She pours paint on a canvas with no object in mind. Artists who paint in this style try to express strong inner feelings in their art rather than tell recognizable stories. She paints on an unstretched canvas lying on the ground. As she pours paint thinned with turpentine onto the canvas, the colors merge and form random shapes. The diluted paints soak into the canvas rather than build up on its surface. The colors and shapes represent feelings rather than objects.

What part of this painting is the blue atmosphere?
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Style - Non-Objective

This style of painting is called non-objective because there is no recognizable object in the picture. The title, Blue Atmosphere, refers to the cloudy shapes like the atmosphere, or the air around us. The red shape dominates the painting. Is the red the atmosphere, or is the blue the atmosphere surrounding the red? When Frankenthaler is finished, she decides which way to hang it by looking at the format of the painting. Generally, a vertical format is more energetic and a horizontal, or landscape, format is more restful.

What is the mood of Blue Atmosphere?
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Color - Mood/Value

This painting may remind you of a happy mood or quiet contemplation. Some people are reminded of a relaxed mood, as if they were watching clouds, a sunset, or a bank of fog slipping over the top of a mountain. Other people imagine fire and steam rising as if from a volcano. Some people imagine an animal attacking. What do you see? Frankenthaler wants each viewer to experience this work of art in his or her own way. How would this painting feel if it were in other colors?

Different values, or light and dark, in the lower blue shape make it appear rounded. The edges seem to catch the light on one side and be in shadow on the other. Darker values on the upper red shape are like shading, giving the shape a 3-D form.

How did Frankethaler achieve balance and harmony in this work?
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Design - Push Pull/Balance/Harmony

The shapes push and pull against each other and against the edge of the picture, creating tension and movement. Is the large, blue shape on the left pushing against the red? Is the red falling down onto the blue? Is the blue shape below floating up and pushing the red before it, or is the red pouring down and squeezing the blue out of its space?

The composition is mostly red, with blue shapes on the left, and blue-violet shades on the right. But a darker red shape on the right appears heavy, as if pushing the blue shapes away. Balance is similarity of the weight, or feel of parts of the picture. Does the red shape balance the blue? Does the negative, empty space balance the positive areas of color?

Harmony, the relationship between different elements of a painting, results from the colors having similar brightness and visual weight.

Do the colors have form?
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Shape/Form: Organic/Negative/Positive

The natural organic shapes are a result of random spilling and flowing. Most of the color patches have no recognizable shapes.

Negative, or empty white space at the bottom provides a place for the other shapes to move into.

The positive, colorful shapes appear to drift down and into one another. The red color in the middle around the edges to make a new color. Does the negative space press against the shapes or hide them?

Which is in front, the blue or the red?
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Space - Project/Recede

Warm colors, like red, appear to project, or move toward us.

Cool colors, like blue, appear to recede, or move away from the picture. Is the blue atmosphere receding or projecting around the red? Or, since the blue is darker, does it appear to be on top or farther away?

Download Discussion Questions
Download Key Concepts

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Project Directions

Watercolor Stain

Directions

Warm up and Brainstorm

  • Talk about how colors mix and bleed. Experiment with color in water. Load a watercolor brush with one color and squeeze a few drops of it into a cup of clear water. Notice how the color swirls and flows, staying suspended in the water. Add a drop of a second color. Notice how the two colors interact. Do they mix together? Is the process fast or slow? Talk about the way Frankenthaler’s colors act like paint in water.
  • Talk about painting a color study. Imagine an object or a mood and think of colors that represent it. Imagine the pinks and purples of a sunset, or the dark blues and greens of a forest. Think about the lines and shapes in nature. For instance, trees might be rounded or angular, lightning has a zigzag line, and waves form in spirals.
  • Discuss reasons or purposes artists create artwork such as to express opinions about a person, event, or idea; share feelings or emotions; tell a story; or record a moment in time. What other reasons are there? Ask students why they make art. How can we combine some of these ideas and generate an innovative idea for making art? Make a list of ideas with input from the students and post it in the classroom so that they can add to it over time.
  • Discuss how people often have different ideas about, and reactions to, the meaning of a piece of artwork. Talk about how a personal preference is different from a critique or evaluation. Make a list of the interpretations on the board as the class discusses the artwork studied in this lesson. Have each child draw a Venn Diagram in their sketchbook. Where does their interpretation fit in with their classmates ideas? Notice how the comments are different, similar, or overlapping.

Project Directions

  1. Experiment with Abstract Expressionism designs on dry paper. Fold 9×12 large papers into 4 sections. Try different techniques in each section.
  2. Paint abstract version of things like fruit, flowers, thunder and rain.
  3. Load brush with mixed colors, then roll paint.
  4. Paint with double-loaded brush. Load brush with first color on one side and second color on opposite side.
  5. Spatter paint by tapping loaded brush on side of hand. Spatter second color on top of first. For ex., paint one strip of yellow, then mix a bit of red to make part of the strip orange. Add a little red to the end of the orange to make it more red. Note how colors project and recede.
  6. Blend colors.
  7. Experiment on another folded 9×12 paper, but wet this one. Show mood and push and pull of colors.
  8. Bleed colors. Paint jagged and wavy lines of analogous colors.
  9. Tip brush with different color. Let paint drip onto paper, and then tip paper to let colors run.
  10. Spatter paint on wet paper. Use two or three colors. Use contrasting colors or analogous colors.
  11. Sprinkle salt on wet paint. Brush off when paint is dry.
  12. Paint watercolor paper cards. Select favorite technique and paint 5×6 1/2″ watercolor paper cards. Experiment with brushstrokes and mixing techniques. Wet some areas and keep other areas dry. Be careful not to make colors muddy by adding too many. Combine techniques. Leave some areas unpainted. Evaluate compositions. Stop painting before the painting gets too full.
  13. Which end should be top? When satisfied, let painting dry.
  14. Select and mount favorite designs on colored paper.
Tips
  • Allow ample time to experiment before painting final project.
  • Limit colors and leave negative space.
  • Wet paper using sponge or spray bottle.
Variations
  • Use such liquids as starch or milk instead of water. Wet paper using a spray bottle.
  • Blot or lift off some paint with plastic wrap, a sponge, or bubble wrap.
  • Color a resist on some areas using white oil pastel, paraffin, or masking fluid.
  • Blow wet paint through a short straw.
  • Trim and mount the paintings on notepaper as gifts.
  • To simplify project for younger students: Paint with tempera paint on a flat surface and make monoprints from the painted shapes.
  • To extend project for older students: Use a variety of paints, including watercolors, diluted tempera, gouache, and acrylic paint. Create a series of 3 or more paintings and frame together.

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Student Gallery

Reflections

  • Find examples of mood created by color.
  • Look for a balance of organic shapes, colors, and negative space.
  • Find and identify examples of different watercolor techniques.
  • Assess your artwork, using the criteria of this lesson, such as using watercolor techniques on wet paper, balancing non-objective forms, and moving paint without a brush. Describe what changes would improve your artwork.
  • Describe characteristics of representational, abstract, and non-representational artwork.

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