Friday, September 21, 2012

Whistler: Moody Nightscapes

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights, 1874
Nocturne, 2012 - sixth grade
Supplies: watercolor paper, liquid watercolor (make sure and grab the gold!), brushes, foam brushes (you know, those rectangle ones), little plastic bowls for paint and water, salt (there are 8 small salt containers in the art cabinet).

Slideshow here... and below, information to go along with it. I put lots of stuff in here so feel free to omit/simplify as needed.

James McNeill Whistler was one of the famous american expatriate artists of the nineteenth century. Born in Massachusetts in 1832, he was raised mostly outside the United States as his father was an engineer who built railroads around the world. The family lived in Russia when he was a boy, and the winters were very cold. He often got sick and had to soak his feet in hot water. Instead of complaining about not being allowed to play, he used the time to draw picture after picture of his feet, until he could do it perfectly. 

He came back to America for college, where he attended the exclusive military academy West Point. Whistler did horribly in all subjects related to science and war, but flourished in his art classes. After being kicked out of West Point at the end of his third year (apparently due to a particular disaster in his chemistry class) he moved to Paris to take art classes, and finally settled in London.

One of his most famous paintings is of his mother, Harmony in Grey and White but commonly known just as Whistler's Mother. (Fun fact: this painting is currently valued at 30 million dollars). It's so famous that it's often parodied (see motorcycle slide)

Whistler loved music, and said this: "Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose… that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony."   

We discussed how when you take music lessons, you start by learning the notes and the scales. These notes work together to either make harmonies (sounds that sound nice to your ear) or dissonance (when the sounds clash together). In the same way Whistler sought to make his art harmonious, arranging his "musical notes" - color, and form, and composition - to make his paintings beautiful. If you look at Whistler's Mother, you can see this harmony (he used mostly greys, whites, and blacks, and the picture is perfectly balanced in its composition). Compare it to the next slide, Woman with a Hat, by Matisse. You can see how this painting is deliberately not harmonious, especially compared to Whistler's. It might be fun to have the kids compare/contrast the two paintings, bringing out the point that different artists use the SAME colors, brushes, paints, even shapes - and yet through the way they choose to use these elements can achieve wildly different paintings.  Just like how musicians use the same notes, keys, etc. and yet can create wildly different sounds depending on how the composer arranges the notes.

This activity focuses on the moody, harmonious landscape paintings he did, called Nocturnes. A nocturne is a musical composition inspired by night. (You might want to play Debussey's Claire de Lune or Chopin's Nocturnes for the kids as they paint...I have a CD you can borrow.) Included in the slides are: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, painted in 1875, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (more fireworks!), Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights and Nocturne in Blue and Green. Whistler had a friend who lived by the water. They had a deal that whenever the night weather was just right for his paintings, he'd knock on their door and their sons would row Whistler out onto the Thames river and he'd paint right there, his canvases laid flat on the floor of the boat.


1. Using pencil, have the kids draw a straight line across their paper to indicate the horizon (the line that separates sky and ground). If they want they can put in some buildings or trees or a bridge (for a good simple example, look at the Blue and Silver Nocturne - the last slide.) Stress to keep the shapes of these things SUPER SIMPLE. Like rectangles or squares or triangles. Any detail really won't be visible once they paint, and they'll run out of time if they worry about windows, doors, etc. at this point. Then have them draw the reflection of these simple shapes right below, mirrored/upsidown.

(this is a good example of SIMPLE)
2. After this step have them use the foam brushes to quickly wet their entire paper (this will help the paint absorb into the paper and spread more easily). Then, have them use the watercolors and paint the night sky/river. Encourage them to choose a color family for their painting (I set out bowls of purple/blue or blue/green, plus the gold) to mimic Whistler's tonalism. Point out how they can play around with how vibrant the colors are by using more/less water, and when their paint is wet, they can add the salt to make an interesting texture/bubbled effect.

3. Whatever is at the horizon will be the darkest part of their painting. Have them wipe any water off their brushes and use the undiluted watercolors, mixing the two colors together (purple + blue, or blue + green) to make a dark color to paint their buildings, etc.

4. Once this dries for a couple of minutes, add the gold lights. You might want to point out in the last slide how the lights at Whistler's horizon are like little gold blobs - and the reflections are right below, like blobs pulled down (this probably won't make sense unless you are looking at the slide :) ). Lights, fireworks, it's all fun.

(note the effect of the salt to the left and right of the hand)
(this student decided to just make a simple gold bridge rather than a reflection. Again, the salt effect in the sky above the bridge)

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