Georgia O’Keeffe Background Information for Teachers and Parents

Grade Levels: K-3

Teach children about influential and notable artists and their work. Encourage them to observe artwork closely and discuss the ideas or feelings the work communicates. This movie will explore the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe. We recommend looking up examples of her work on the Internet and sharing some with children before and after viewing the movie.

Georgia O’Keeffe was born near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in1887. She enjoyed art as a child and took art classes. Later, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was trained in the mimetic tradition and learned to paint things as they look in real life. You may want to share her painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot to help children understand the concept of realism. O’Keeffe became increasingly frustrated because she wanted to paint according to how she felt, not just what she saw. As a result, she stopped painting for herself and only worked as a commercial artist.

Later she was inspired by teachers to paint how she felt and to communicate her thoughts and ideas through art. She began exploring lines, color, and shading. Explain to children that shading is when you add shadows or darken areas of pictures to make parts appear closer or farther away. You may want to draw a circle and then shade part of the shape to create a sphere. How does the shape change? You may want to explore other examples. How does a picture of a tree change if you add a shadow? Help children understand that shading brings pictures to life and adds depth to a composition.

O’Keeffe was inspired by nature. She is best known for her paintings of flowers. She created large close-ups of small flowers to help people see a common and familiar object in new, refreshing way. She zoomed in on little details, particularly the centers of flowers, to create arresting compositions. In some of her works, the flowers are hardly recognizable and very abstract. Some of O’Keeffe’s works depict subjects from different perspectives. For example, in The Lawrence Tree the point-of-view is from the bottom of a tree, looking up and through the branches at the sky. Shading helps draw attention away from the sky and call attention to the shapes and lines of the tree itself. In Sky Above the Clouds, the point-of-view is above the cloud line looking down. Encourage children to pay attention to the point-of-view when observing different works of art.

O’Keeffe was also inspired by the places where she lived. After she moved to New York City, she painted several cityscapes. Some of her paintings show the skyline at night, while others show stark angles and shadows. Help children understand that O’Keeffe communicates her feelings about the place through her paintings. After she began spending time in New Mexico, O’Keeffe started painting desert and mountain landscapes, employing unique palettes. We recommend looking at a few of her landscapes together and analyzing how the colors communicate feelings. Help children understand that some of O’Keeffe’s work are more abstract and the subject does not look like it does in real life. The painting From the Lake features wavy lines and shades of blue and gray. While the work may not look like a lake, it hints at water and waves.

The artist is also known for her paintings of animal skulls against desert landscapes. Share a few examples, including Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses and Horse’s Skull on Blue. What feelings or messages do the paintings share? While skulls might remind us of death, the bright colors or pastels question that notion. The paintings do not seem scary or sad, but rather seem joyous or peaceful. Together with children, discuss other techniques O’Keeffe uses to accomplish this effect.

Encourage children to employ some of O’Keeffe’s techniques and ideas in their own work. Have them experiment with colors to see how they can communicate various moods and explore different perspectives. Teach them how to take what they have learned from studying the works of famous artists and apply the techniques to their own artwork!