Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

Practicing Art Vocabulary

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.   This Curriculum Connection also includes Chaïm Soutine, The Chicken. Chaïm Soutine

Curriculum Objectives

  • Elements of Art
  • Build the students’ vocabulary



  • This artwork will be used as a bell-ringer or warm-up that forces students to use elements vocabulary. The essential question will be: “Which element of art is most prominent in this work?”
  • Give them a list of the elements of art and the principles of design, and ask them to describe how the different elements are found in each work.
  • Ask students to compare and contrast the elements of the two works of art.
  • For further discussion, hold a conversation about the analysis of the works of art. Ask students to use their observations about the elements of art and principles of design to justify their interpretations of the meaning of the works of art.

Students need to learn the elements of art on every middle school level. This can be difficult to teach because learning vocabulary words can be very static, but it is necessary to build the students’ vocabulary. Students struggle with the elements because they find them boring and have a hard time identifying with them. This activity will force them to communicate their ideas about elements using artwork, without focusing on a “correct” answer.

  • How would you describe the various lines in this painting? Consider their thickness and color.
  • How does the artist use lines to create depth?
  • How do the lines show movement and gesture within the painting?
  • Notice the limited color palette. How would this work be different if more or brighter colors were included?
  • Compare and contrast the right and the left sides of the painting.
  • How does the artist create juxtaposition between the sides through his use of lines and movement?
  • While there is a clear dissonance between the sides, how does the artist create a sense of harmony within the work?
  • How would this work be different if it were smaller? Would it have the same overwhelming affect on the viewers?

  • How does the artist add drama to the composition without communicating violence or competition?
  • Why do you think the artist selected the title Black on White?
  • Notice how the artist does not cover up the drips and rough texture. Despite these details, do you think there is a sense of intention and design within the work? Why would the artist leave those “mistakes” on the canvas?
  • Without depicting recognizable objects, how does the artist communicate deep, emotional truths of the human experience?
  • Although there are no recognizable forms on this side of the work, do any of the forms resemble objects found in nature? How do these associations help the viewer to connect to the painting?
  • Compared with the careful and contemplative left, the right side of the painting seems chaotic and destructive and is bursting with active energy. How does the artist connect the two sides to craft a greater message?
  • Do you agree that the two sides balance and complement each other instead of opposing one another? Justify your answer.
  • How could this work be representative of the dualities of life and death, love and loss, and failure and triumph that human beings experience throughout full and complex existences?

The first thing viewers may notice about this painting by artist Robert Motherwell, a prime example of the expressive properties of raw paint on canvas, is that is has no “obvious” subject matter. Instead, the artist features bold and sweeping splashes of paint on the canvas to express deep, emotional truths of the human experience.


Here, Motherwell used a limited palette of colors, earthy tones enlivened with the dramatic use of black. The thick, black brushstrokes range from feathery and drip-like to solid and heavy. This parallels a balance between other contradictory elements in the painting such as intellect/emotion, shape/line, sweeping gesture/measured rhythms—all very characteristic of Abstract Expressionist works. The black stroke is reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting where the brushstroke can express poetic and lyrical rhythm. Additional rhythm is created from the spaces between the brushstrokes and color structure.


While the panoramic format is typically associated with landscape, the large-scale size allows the viewer to be engulfed in the work. The size and gestural brushwork are symbolic of the artist’s exploration of inner turmoil and anxiety. The shapes on the left side of the work are much more controlled than those on the right. Although there are some points of overlap among the shapes on the left, Motherwell attempted uniformity in creating their contours and edges. While some of the lines may appear to be bulky, they interact with one another with finesse. The fine, rounded intricacies of the red form lend it an organic gracefulness. Compared to the careful and contemplative left, the right side of the painting seems chaotic and destructive and is bursting with active energy.


Despite this strong contrast, the two moods exist in harmony. The clash between the legs of the large, central “x” adds drama without communicating violence or competition. Instead, the two sides exist in a yin-yang relationship on the canvas, balancing and complementing each other. The canvas could represent the dualities of life and death, love and loss, and failure and triumph that human beings experience.


Motherwell belonged to a group of artists known as the Abstract Expressionists, who strove to uncover their most personal feelings directly through making art. The movement exploded onto the art scene after WWII with its characteristic energetic application of paint (dripping, smearing, slathering, and flinging). Although at first glance it seems that a kindergartner could have painted this work, Motherwell and his peers cultivated the interplay of skill and unplanned occurrences to determine the painting’s final outcome.

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