Desert landscapes are often considered bare, desolate wastelands that lack any form of life or beauty. Through the many years I’ve lived in Texas, spending much time at my family’s ranch, I believe nothing could be further from the truth. The warm colors and vast skies that dominate this boundless landscape have inspired artists like Burt Harwood, Maxfield Parrish and Georgia O’Keeffe for years.
LOOKING CLOSE. This lesson begins with examining photos and paintings from the American Southwest, including Arizona (1950), by Maxfield Parrish. I have questions ready for my students, such as “What colors dominate the composition?” and “What do you see in the foreground, middle ground and background?” They are given a few minutes to think and write their answers before we begin a discussion.
As students shared their answers and I added to their responses, we began to see how artists can manipulate space on a two-dimensional surface by using atmospheric perspective, diminishing sizes, fading colors and overlapping objects. When asked, “What is the largest thing you see?” students begin to recognize that if an object is closest to the viewer, it will be lower on the page and larger than the other objects. In contrast, farther-away objects are smaller and higher up, toward the horizon line.
We took note of the colors in the paintings, as I emphasized the use of warm and neutral colors, and how they become duller as one moves back in space. This is what’s known as atmospheric perspective: as objects move back in space, their color becomes paler, less detailed and somewhat blurry. Being able to compare photographs and paintings right next to each other is also helpful so students can see these elements working in real life.
CREATING DEPTH. While these images were fresh in their minds, I had students begin making sketches. The landscapes students were to create needed to contain a clear foreground, middle ground and background. Overlapping and scale should be used to create depth, like we saw in the examples. Objects in the foreground should be bright and detailed, while those in the background should be duller and slightly “out of focus.”
Before painting began, we spent a day mixing tints and shades using both warm and neutral colors. I displayed some photos of west Texas and had students try to recreate as many of the colors as they could from the examples.
I like to have students start with the background when doing landscapes. They can create a smooth background easier and then, as they move forward in space, overlapping with the paint will add to this spatial effect. Then, when they begin to paint cacti and plants in the middle and foreground, the lines and details are clearer and the objects appear to be getting closer. The next step is to begin layering colors, deciding on a general light source and adding appropriate highlights and shadows. I give several demonstrations for students so they can see firsthand how to mix and blend paints to create these realistic effects.
OBSERVATIONS. During the course of this project, I noticed how quiet and focused my students were! They were fully engaged in getting the perspective right in their landscapes. Some could be heard offering others advice, such as “That needs to be higher” or “If that’s close to the horizon, the color should be more dull.”
As these sublime landscapes were coming to life, I was mesmerized by the expressiveness of each painting. Students didn’t create a series of bland, empty deserts but instead created a view of the Southwest that was truly their own. It reminded me of what I feel is one of the most important things about being an artist: looking at something often ignored and finding the beauty and sacredness that exists there.
Middle school students will …
• recognize and appreciate the unique characteristics of Southwestern landscapes.
• create a landscape that shows an illusion of space through use of foreground, middle ground and background.
• develop and improve painting techniques.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
• PRESENTING: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• RESPONDING: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• CONNECTING: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• Art and photos of Southwestern landscapes
• 12″ x 18″ white drawing paper
• Pencils, sketch paper
• Tempera, paintbrushes, water bowls
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Matt Mazur is an elementary and middle school art teacher at Dealey Montessori Vanguard and International Academy in Dallas, Texas.
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