Red Hill and White Shell
Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887–1986
Oil on canvas
30 × 36 1/2 in. (76.2 × 92.7 cm)

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications


5, 6, 7, 8



The Geology of a Landscape

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Connecting to the Work of Art

Crossing the line between abstraction and representational art, Georgia O’Keeffe experimented with color and form. Born in Wisconsin, she discovered the Southwestern landscape in 1912 while teaching in Amarillo, Texas. In 1929, the painter bought a ranch in the bare desert of New Mexico. Entranced by the land that surrounded her, she often painted outdoors, sleeping in a tent and wearing gloves to work on cold days.


In Red Hills with White Shell, oil paint floats like translucent watercolors. The red and yellow of the sky and white of the shell are strong, clear colors uninterrupted by black outlines or shadows. Instead, O’Keeffe connects the forms through white highlights, which create a subtler link between the objects than black outlines. The focus of the work, a nautilus shell, is magnified in scale to dominate the composition. The setting—red, arid hills, barren of grass—was visible outside her New Mexican door. In this work, O’Keeffe softened the hills to appear fluid; they appear to melt into the ground, yet still support the large shell. The burst of yellow along the skyline is reflected gently on the shell. The artist, who coveted her grandmother’s collection of seashells as a young girl, collected seashells from her travels around the world and used them as a recurring theme in her paintings.


A large portion of O’Keeffe’s work features organic objects—such as shells, flowers, and animal bones—as central themes. She once said of her work, “Nobody has seen a is so small…we haven’t time—and to see takes time...I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” O’Keeffe painted images in nature that symbolized her emotions. Here, the hill and the shell create an image that is mysterious and monumental, yet intense. The spiral pattern within the shell yields a serene feel, while the sweeping red hills in the background create a charged space. In enlarging the typically miniature shell, O’Keeffe provides her viewers with an intimate and emblematic image of the shell. However, the shell can also be viewed as a study in the spiritual relationship between the human psyche (the shell) and the natural world.


O’Keeffe rarely prepared advance drawings for her paintings, instead choosing to work directly on the canvas. Unlike other 20th century artists, O’Keeffe was more interested in the final product than in the process of creating art. Her distinctive style began with a single subject, such as a shell, which she altered and simplified, resulting in a study of line, shape, form, and color. American art during the first quarter of the 20th century was slowly evolving from the figurative to the abstract. Like a handful of American artists and photographers of the time, O’Keeffe was not directly influenced by European art. Instead, she aspired to create abstract compositions based on her own observation of nature. O’Keeffe’s approach was personal, and her work was a symbol of her own unique American experience.


  • What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
  • Consider the size and shape of the shell in the foreground. How does the artist visually connect the shell to the hills in the background? Think about color, shape, and line.
  • Describe the shape and line within the shell. What other places do we find the spiral shape in nature?
  • How does the large-scale size of the shell allow the viewers to focus on the object itself?
  • Describe the artist’s use of white within the work. How would this image be different if the artist had included black outlines?
  • Notice the lack of a horizon line, the off-kilter depth perception, and the close cropping of the composition. How does this differ from more traditional ideas of landscape painting?
  • Consider the red and yellow background. How would this artwork be different if the background were blue?
  • What other visual cues are juxtaposed in the artwork? For example, how the top of the shell mimics the curvature of the hills and sky while the shell’s rough bottom parallels the unevenness of the ground.


  • Consider the relationship between the enlarged shell and the swelling landscape. Why do you think the artist would choose to place the emphasis on the shell?
  • Explain how the up-close view of the shell, which nearly dwarfs the hills in the background, produces a sense of momentousness. What other words could describe the tone of this painting?
  • We typically associate shells with the ocean. Does the shell’s placement in the desert surprise you? How does this add a mysterious feeling to the painting?
  • What associations do we have with the color red? How do these associations contribute to a feeling of intensity?
  • Compare the lines in the shell to the lines in the hills and the sky. How do the soft, curving lines create a feeling of serenity and calm again a tense backdrop?
  • What do you think the artist is trying to communicate to the audience with the juxtaposition of the serene shell with the dramatic, red hills? How does this add to the feeling of tension?
  • What personal connections can you make with this image? Have you been to the desert or the Southwest? How would it feel to be standing in the middle of this scene?
  • In many of her works, the artist explored how to depict spiritual connections between the human psyche and nature. How is this concept illustrated in Red Hill and White Shell?
  • Are there bigger issues to explore here? For example, how does the artist use recognizable objects to depict abstract ideas?


Red Hill and White Shell can be an excellent bridge between art and science—while it is an artist’s expression, it is also a careful study of nature. You can use this painting to spark intrigue for geological specimens in your students, and to practice careful observation and scientific description.

First, lead the class in careful observation and discussion of Red Hill and White Shell. Focus on the compositional choices that the artist has made to highlight the shell, and scaffold in information about the shell itself (a nautilus shell). What physical characteristics of the shell has O’Keefe chosen to highlight? How do they contrast with those of the surrounding hills?

Then, guide students, individually or in groups, to look at specimens of rocks and shells of differing types. Vary the types of specimens as appropriate to your curriculum. Students should make careful observations of each specimen and classify them, using appropriate scientific language—for example, how can they distinguish an igneous rock from a sedimentary rock? How can they differentiate different types of shell specimens? What physical clues do they use? Direct students to record their observations using appropriate scientific language and relevant vocabulary.

To extend the lesson, students can create technical and artistic drawings of their specimens. After carefully observing the samples, guide them to create one scientific drawing, as a study of the object showing its physical characteristics. Then, they can create another drawing, this time choosing one aspect of the sample to emphasize or exaggerate, just as O’Keefe did in Red Hill and White Shell. How do the two styles of depiction compare and contrast?

Subject Matter Connection

The artist Georgia O´Keeffe spent much of the 1930´s and 1940´s on a ranch in the New Mexico desert. This landscape inspired many of her paintings, such as Red Hills with White Shell. Her work often features natural objects, such as flowers, shells, and even animal bones, as central elements.

O´Keeffe once said, "Nobody has ever seen a flower…really…it is so small…we haven´t time...and to see takes time…I´ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it."

Compare the size of the seashell and the surrounding hills. Describe what you see.

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