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Flowing With Frankenthaler

Modern art really appeals to students. Find out how Abstract Expressionists approach their work—and explore how artists, paint, and paper interact!

  • Grade 5
    Grade 6
    Grades 7 and 8
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. Abstract Expressionist movement came of age in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s and is considered the first of the ‘American’ art movements. A young artist of the era, Helen Frankenthaler, invented the "soak-stain" technique in which she poured thinned paint onto canvas, producing color washes that appeared to fuse with the canvas. She pushed paint around with a sponge or brush, balancing the spontaneity of the "spill" with the control of her eye, color choice, and manipulations. Today Frankenthaler is known as a pioneer in the practice of color-field painting in which figure and ground are one and the space, or field, of the picture appears to extend beyond the canvas’ edge.
    2. Organize students into small groups to research Helen’s life, artistic influences and evolving style. Ask groups to view the Frankenthaler YouTube video located at: and discuss the video’s contents. How does Frankenthaler’s use of non-traditional tools assist in creating her art? How does she manipulate color? What might be the reasons why she includes all of the canvas in her vision?
    3. In preparation for the creation of original color-field paintings, challenge groups to thin Crayola Tempera Paint with water to various dilutions of color, perhaps assigning the preparation of one or two colors to each group. Students will want to cover their street clothing with smocks. Cover work space with recycled newspaper. Distribute a variety of paint ‘tools’ to be used and large sheets of white paper to represent painting canvas.
    4. Working in small groups or pairs, students pour paint onto the paper. Encourage them to be aware of how the paint moves on the canvas and where it is absorbed. They may use a sponge or paintbrush, or other available ‘tool’ to control the paint. (Other types of paper may be used to see how they absorb paint in a variety of ways.) Allow time for paint to dry overnight.
    5. With Frankenthaler's work, it is impossible to tell which was the first color poured, or where the painting started. There is no fixed background or foreground. The images seem to float over the surface of the canvas. There appear to be no barriers. Ask students to reflect upon this and describe what they saw happening in their original pieces. In their discussions, students incorporate pertinent information from their research.
  • Standards

    LA: Read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grade level text complexity band independently and proficiently.

    LA: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade level topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    LA: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

    SS: Describe ways in which language, stories, folktales, music, and artistic creations serve as expressions of culture and influence behavior of people living in a particular culture.

    VA: Collaboratively shape an artistic investigation of an aspect of contemporary life using a contemporary practice of art or design.

    VA: Demonstrate willingness to experiment, innovate, and take risks to pursue ideas, forms, and meanings that emerge in the process of art-making or designing.

    VA: Interpret art by analyzing how the interaction of subject matter, characteristics of form and structure, use of media, art-making approaches, and relevant contextual information contributes to understanding messages or ideas and mood conveyed.

  • Adaptations

    Invite students to investigate the organization known as FAPE: The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. What is Helen Frankenthaler’s connection to this organization?

    Helen Frankenthaler was influenced by several abstract impressionists of her time but is not a well-known artist. Why is that so? What factors might have influenced this? Research Frankenthaler's life and what influenced her work. What might have been done differently that could have made her more famous?

    Work in a team to develop descriptive words that illicit visions of Frankenthaler's works of art. Students compose an original poem using as many of these descriptors. Place the poem(s) along side original paintings during an exhibition of student work.

    A team of students work together to make a bulletin board size original Frankenthaler-like art piece. Prior to the painting, students brainstorm their focus and plan. Students Post their work after it dries thoroughly. Students include a summary paragraph of their team process in creating the original work.

    Investigate New York during the height of Abstract Expressionism. Identify several artists from the era and concentrate research on the life of one in particular. What qualities does/did this artist bring to the era? Talk with classmates researching a different artist and find what qualities they share. What stylistic traits make their work distinguishable?


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  • Creativity.
  • Capacity.
  • Collaboration.
  • Change.
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