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

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence


6, 7, 8



Golden Ratio

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 chose 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 monumentally. 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 work of art?
  • What associations do we have with the color red? How do these associations contribute to a feeling of intensity within the work?
  • 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 in the work of art?
  • 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?

Questions to Ask

  • Observe the shell in Red Hills with White Shell.  Look at the spiral shape found within the shell. Follow the line created by the spiral, starting at the center or bottom.
  • Use math vocabulary such, shape, line, diameter, and radius to describe the shell.
  • Define proportion.  How does that definition relate to the shell?


  • Proportion refers to the size relationship of visual elements to each other and to the whole. In art this principle has been examined for hundreds of years, and one timeless proportional relationship that occurs in art, music, architecture and nature is the Golden mean or Golden ratio, as exemplified below: (PDF coming soon.)



  • Ratio refers to how one measurement relates to another, and the ratio formed of 1:1.618 is called the Golden mean - the ratio of bc to ab is the same as ab to ad. This occurs when a line is drawn in a rectangle, splitting the space into one square and a rectangle.
  • If you divide each smaller rectangle again with the same ratio and join their corners you end up with a logarithmic spiral. This spiral is a motif found frequently throughout nature in shells. (PDF coming soon.)
  • Teacher models: Use a ruler to draw a rectangle with a ratio of 1:1.618 (golden ratio). Using the steps and visual below as a guide, create a spiral that exhibits the golden proportion. Example: (PDF coming soon.)
    • Draw a line inside the rectangle and measure to form a perfect square (the square will be on the left with the rectangle on the right); the remaining rectangle will have the same ratio as the main rectangle.
    • Repeat, drawing a line again in the rectangle you have just formed so that the rectangle is on the bottom and the square is on the top.
    • Continuing to maintain the ratio of 1: 1.618, repeat again in the new rectangle.
    • Repeat, keeping the rectangle portion closest to the center.
    • Repeat again.
    • Draw the spiral.
  • Student Assessment: Students use the golden ratio to create their own spirals, recording measurements. Write the ratios to show proportional relationships.
  • Relate to Fibonacci sequence, using the following ratios:

1/1= 1                

2/1= 2

3/2= 1.5



13/8= 1.625





  • Optional: Research different parts of nature, art, music, and architecture that reflect these proportional relationships, using the golden ratio (hurricanes, shells, the Parthenon, DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, etc.). Visual representations can be found at:

Subject Matter Connection

This lesson addresses the Golden Ratio, along with proportional reasoning which is a skill that all middle school math students must master. This cross-curricular lesson is applicable to science. Students will be challenged to design and implement experimental investigations by making observations, asking well-defined questions, and essentially testing new ideas. It’s important for students to be open to mathematical ideas and concepts that are real world inspired. It encourages students to be open to multiple ideas of the same concept, which is something they should become comfortable with in math: being able to solve a problem in multiple ways.

Resources Available to Order

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.