Grades/Level: Lower Elementary (K–2), Upper Elementary (3–5)
Subjects: Visual Arts, Science
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
2–3 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Staff

For the Classroom

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About Impressionism

Lesson Overview

Students will learn about the Impressionist painters' use of color and how it connected to early-19th-century scientific theories about color. They will explore combinations of primary and secondary colors, experiment creating secondary colors, and create a landscape using complementary colors.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• determine the differences between primary and secondary colors.
• gain familiarity with the vocabulary of color.
• identify pairs of complementary colors.
• experiment with combinations of primary and secondary colors to predict outcomes based on observed patterns.


• Image of Monet's painting Sunrise (Marine)
• Acetate in red, yellow, and bright blue
• Colored art tissue paper torn into long strips
• Liquid starch or white glue thinned with water to the consistency of gravy
• Small paper cups to hold glue or starch
• Paintbrushes
• Wax paper
• Water for rinsing

Lesson Steps

1. Show the students the image of Monet's Sunrise (Marine). Before beginning the activity, cover the title of the painting. Have them look at the image closely and carefully. Ask the students the following questions and list their observations.
• Look at the painting for 30 seconds. Then close your eyes—what was the first thing you noticed about the painting? (Answers will include the sunlight, the sail boats, and the water. Inform students that all of their answers are correct—Claude Monet was interested in creating works of art with all of those things in them.)
• How many people can you find in this painting? What do you think those people are doing?
• What time of day do you think it is in the painting? What do you see that makes you think so?
• What colors do you see in the painting? Refer to "Questions for Teaching" in the Image Bank to introduce the concept of complementary colors.

2. Give students the background information about the painting and the artist. Inform students that Monet painted en plein air, or outdoors, and that this painting was one that the artist painted directly from nature. He thought it was important to capture what he saw while working outdoors—his impression of the scene he painted on his canvas. This painting shows the kind of attention Monet paid to the world around him.

3. Ask students to think about the colors in the painting. As an exercise in cooperative learning, assign each student a piece of colored acetate in red, blue, or yellow. Encourage students to work together in groups to create secondary colors by combining their colored pieces of acetate. Students will discover how red and blue make violet, blue and yellow make green, and yellow and red make orange.

4. Present students with a color wheel for further reference. Explain that colors across from each other on the color wheel are called complements. Show the students how true complements will visually "vibrate," appearing brighter and more intense when placed next to one another. (It will be useful to explain to students about "true" color: many pigments are not pure or "true" color mixtures. They have extra pigments added that will prevent the clear visual effects between the complementary colors.) Point out Monet's use of complementary colors in his painting Sunrise (Marine). Invite students to identify the various places where they can see the artist using complementary colors.

5. Explain to students that they will be experimenting to create secondary colors. Distribute tissue paper squares to students. Encourage students to combine squares and experiment with creating various secondary and complementary color groups. Introduce students to the names of all the colors. Give students color wheels to compare and check their work. This activity would be most successful if students can layer tissue paper squares and hold them up against a window for the brightest effect.

6. Using Monet's Sunrise (Marine) as inspiration, students will create their own landscapes by layering tissue paper into complementary color compositions. (Prior to creating artworks, it may be helpful to discuss or look at different types of landscapes, including local landscapes surrounding their school.) Prepare for the art activity by tearing art tissue into different-sized shapes, including strips long enough to cover the wax paper background horizontally. Higher level students could be encouraged to tear their own tissue into the shapes they need. Distribute pieces of art tissue and white paper backgrounds.

7. Show students how to arrange layers of tissue paper over the wax paper background. The edges of the tissue paper should hang over the edges of the wax paper. Encourage students to use combinations of primary and complementary colors arranged next to each other. Students should experiment to arrange their landscapes—simulating rows of mountains, waves in the ocean, or clouds in the sky. After students have designed their landscapes, distribute the paintbrushes and cups of glue or starch. Have students paint the glue over the surface of the wax paper and drop the tissue paper on top. Students will collage the layers of tissue paper into place. Add glue over the tissue paper composition before adding successive layers of tissue paper. The glue will make the tissue more transparent, demonstrating the variety of secondary and complementary colors created in this activity. After students have completed their landscape, encourage them to paint a final layer of glue over the top of their artwork. Set the landscapes aside and allow them to dry.

8. Hang or arrange finished landscapes and encourage students to describe the various colors they see within their projects. Ask students to identify areas of complementary colors. Show students how layering complementary colors will create grey when placed one over the other. Using Monet's painting Sunrise (Marine) as inspiration, students can create titles for their works based on the type of landscape they have created.

Sunrise (Marine) / Monet
Sunrise (Marine), Claude Monet, March or April 1873


Students will be assessed based on the following:
• their understanding of the use of primary colors to create secondary colors.
• their ability to describe the process of creating secondary colors.
• their ability to layer colors to create secondary and complementary colors.


• Students can continue the experiment with colored squares of tissue paper discussed in lesson steps 3 and 4 to include shades and tints. After students create secondary colors, they can then create shades by layering over their artworks with black tissue paper. They can create tints by layering over their artworks with white tissue paper. This activity would work best if students can hold their experiments up against a window so the light shines through and illuminates the shades or tints.

• Students can create color wheels using the same tissue paper squares, arranging the overlapping colors to create secondary colors and then pasting into place with either liquid starch or glue. Trim the edges of extra wax paper, and students will be able to hang the color wheels in the window to observe a variety of primary, secondary, and complementary colors.

• Students can add details to their completed landscapes by painting over them using complementary colors. Students may also use the silhouetted forms from Monet's Sunrise (Marine) as an inspiration for their painted additions.

• For a second-grade lesson:
Identify the areas of the painting where you see cool and warm colors. Use colored tissue or acetate and allow children to arrange all warm or cool colors in groups. Have students brainstorm to determine what kinds of moods or feelings are associated with particular colors (e.g., "I'm seeing red" or "I'm feeling blue"). Have students create a landscape out of tissue paper choosing either a warm or cool palette. Talk together as a group to explore the moods or feelings inspired by the students' landscapes.

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 1
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.3 Identify the elements of art in objects in nature, in the environment, and in works of art, emphasizing line, color, shape/form, and texture.

2.0 Creative Expression
2.2 Mix secondary colors from primary colors and describe the process.

Grade 2
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.2 Perceive and discuss differences in mood created by warm and cool colors.

2.0 Creative Expression
2.4 Create a painting or drawing, using warm or cool colors expressively.

Grade 3
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.2 Describe how artists use tints and shades in painting.
1.5 Identify and describe elements of art in works of art, emphasizing line, color, shape/form, texture, space, and value.

2.0 Creative Expression
2.2 Mix and apply tempera paints to create tints, shades, and neutral colors.

Grade 4
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.1 Perceive and describe contrast and emphasis in works of art and in the environment.
1.3 Identify pairs of complementary colors (e.g., yellow/violet, red/green, orange/blue) and discuss how artists use them to communicate an idea or mood.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.5 Describe how the individual experiences of an artist may influence the development of specific works of art.

Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 2
Investigation and Experimentation
4.a Make predictions based on observed patterns and not random guessing.
4.b Compare and sort common objects according to two or more physical attributes (e. g., color, shape, texture, size, weight).

Grade 3
Physical Sciences
2.c Students know the color of light striking an object affects the way the object is seen.

Grade 4
Investigation and Experimentation
5.d Predict the outcome of a simple investigation and compare the result with the prediction.