Hands-On Art History: All About Paintings

Hands-on Art History: All About Paintings

Learn about some artworks in Mia’s collection, then get hands-on making your own paintings! Developed by Mia’s Learning Innovation staff and curator of  Paintings.

Materials Needed:

  • Types of Paintings vocabulary sheet
  • Paper
  • Pencil or Pen
  • Paint or Markers
  • Your imagination
Before you get started, read about different types of paintings. How many kinds of these paintings have you made before? Scroll below to see some of these types of paintings at the museum and then create your own!

Portrait of a Girl

Portrait of a Girl by Joan Brown (American, 1938–1990), 1971. Enamel and glitter on Masonite. The John R. Van Derlip Fund 2018.21

Who do you think the little girl is? Do you think the dragon is real or imagined? Why do you say that?

This painting is a self-portrait by the artist Joan Brown. Her painting is based on memories from her childhood put together in re-imagined ways. The artist chose to use bold colors in this painting, why do you think that is?

?️Painting Prompt: If you were to make a painting of memories from your childhood what images would you include? What kinds of colors would you use?

Take a minute to think of a memory, sketch a few of the elements in pencil or pen, then fill in with the colors that best represent the scene or your feelings.

The Tea Party

Slyvia Fein, American (born 1919). The Tea Party, 1943. Egg tempera and oil on board. The James Ford Bell Foundation Endowment for Art Acquisition 2017.49.

Let’s look at this painting. What do you think is happening here? Who is the woman, where is she, and what is she doing?

This is a combination of a landscape, self-portrait, and history painting all in one! Do you know the story of Alice in Wonderland? In that story, Alice has a tea party with some of her friends. In this painting, the artist has painted herself as Alice waiting on her friends to arrive. Can you see the details the artist included as “clues” to tell the viewer the story of the tea party?

?️Painting Prompt: If this scene takes place in the middle of a story, what do you imagine might have happened before? Or what might happen next?

Take some time to paint the scene you are imagining. Include some details in the painting that help give some “clues” about the story for your viewer. When you are done, tell someone about the story you painted.


Roger Brown, United States, 1941–97, Skyscraper, 1971, Oil on canvas with artist’s painted frame, Gift of Dennis Adrian in memory of the artist and George Veronda, 2017.21.1, © Estate Roger Brown / SAIC, Courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery

Take a look at this painting. What kind of building do you think this is? Look at all the people in the windows. Who do you think they are, and what could they be doing?

Can you guess what kind of painting this would be called? It might be called a cityscape. Now look at the landscape in the background. Can you see the figures on the top of the hill? What do you think they are doing? And what do you think the relation is between these people and the ones in the building?

Do you think this is a representational style of painting, or that the artist is painting from his imagination, or maybe a little of both?

?️Painting Prompt: Take a look outside your window. What do you see? Would you want to paint what you see realistically, or add some of your own imagination to it? Start with pen or pencil to sketch the idea of what you see before starting to paint. Do you see any people outside?  Imagine what they might be doing and include them in your painting.

Little Red Cap

Gina Litherland. Little Red Cap, 2011. Oil on masonite. Gift of Helen and Sam Zell, 2019.98.

There are so many details in this painting, let’s take a closer look! What kinds of things do you see? Take turns with your partner to name some of these things. Would you say this painting is realistic or abstract?

This painting is telling the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, only in this painting, the artist is showing Red and the Wolf as friends. Why do you think the artist would change the story like that?

?️Painting Prompt: What kind of animal would you want to be friends with? Why? Where would you encounter this animal? Paint a self-portrait with that animal and where you might meet. Don’t forget to include some details from nature to make it more realistic.


Grace Hartigan, American (1922-2008). Billboard, 1957. Oil on canvas. The Julia B. Bigelow Fund 57.35

What is going on in this painting? Because it is abstract, it’s hard to tell, but is there anything you recognize?

The artist Grace Hartigan’s paintings were inspired by the bold images of magazines and billboards. She made a collage of images and then painted them in this bold and bright style. What do you think the different colors and shapes represent?

Imagine you could step into this painting. What kinds of sounds do you hear? What smells do you smell? What do you see that makes you think that? How does it make you feel? Sometimes, even though we can’t really tell what’s happening in a painting, it can still give us the feeling of what the artist felt when they painted it.

?️Painting Prompt: Now it’s your turn to be the artist! Put some paint on your brush and move it around a piece of paper like you think this artist would have. How does it feel? What movements are you making? How fast or slow are you going? If you like painting like this, keep going! You can even put together some images from magazines and paint an abstract collage like this artist did.

Portrait of José Mojica

Macena Barton, American, 1901-1986. Portrait of José Mojica, 1928. Oil on canvas. The Ray and Carol Bergeson Endowment for Art Acquisition, 2018.69.1

Look at all these colors! The artist Macena Barton paints colors around the people in her portraits to represent the color of their aura, or spirit. What color does she paint around the subject, José Mojica? How does this color make you feel? Why?

Look out the window of the painting and describe what you see. Does this place look real or imaginary? What do you see that makes you say that?

Who do you think the person in this painting was? What do you see that makes you say that?

?️Painting Prompt:  If you could paint someone’s portrait, who would it be? How would they be dressed? How would they pose? Where would they be? And why do you think that place would be important to them? What color or colors might you use to show their spirit or personality?

View of Mont Blanc, Seen from La Faucille

Théodore Rosseau, French (1812-1867). View of Mont Blanc, Seen from La Faucille, c.1865. Oil on canvas. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund 2010.62.

How far can you see into the distance of this landscape painting? (Click on the image and zoom in to see even more detail in the background.)

Imagine yourself standing on this mountain’s edge.  What do you feel? Is it windy? Is it cold? What sounds do you hear? Are there birds chirping? What do you see in the painting that makes you say that?

Do you notice how the colors get lighter and hazier as your eye moves further into this painting? This is called “atmospheric perspective”, something artists do to show distance.

?️Painting Prompt: Let’s go outside! Stand someplace where you can see into the distance. How far can you see? What is the weather like? Do you think it’s the same where you are standing as it is in the distance? Remember these details, and then put them into your own landscape painting. Try using some lighter colors in the background of your painting for “atmospheric perspective”.

A “Bear” Chance

Philip R. Goodwin, American (1882-1935). A “Bear” Chance, 1907. Oil on canvas. Gift of the National Biscuit Company, 70.64.

What is going on in this picture? Imagine describing this painting to a friend over the phone, where would you begin? What is the weather like? What season is it? How do you know? What do you think the bear looking for? What sound do you think is he making? Look at all the detail the artist has included—from the bear’s fur to the snow to the realistic trees.

The artist has created an image of both the wild and humans, even though we can’t see actual people in the painting. Look closely. What about this painting looks like the wilderness? And where in this painting could humans be? What do you see that makes you say that?

Companies use pictures to tell us about their products. This painting was made to sell Cream of Wheat, a kind of hot cereal. How is this painting like or unlike pictures used to sell items on television, magazines, and online today?

?️Painting Prompt: Make your own silly advertisement. Look around for something to put in your picture, a cereal box, a toy, etc. and imagine a scene you might paint it in. Try to include some realistic details like this artist did. Now share your painting with someone and see if they can guess what you are “selling”.

Abundant Fruit

Severin Roesen, American (1815-1872). Abundant Fruit, 1858. Oil on canvas. Gift of Don and Diana Lee Lucker 2005.96.

What kinds of fruit can you see in this painting? Take turns with your partner to name some of them.

Would you say this is a representational painting? Artists often paint still life paintings to show off their skills at capturing objects. It almost looks like we could reach in and take one of these grapes! Do you think the painter really had all of this fruit in their studio?

What do you think all of this fruit tastes like? Do you think fruit tasted different 150 years ago? Why or why not?

?️Painting Prompt: What foods would you include in a still life? What are your favorite snacks? Arrange some foods (either in real life, or from your memory) and paint your own still life. Try to use all your skills with color and shapes to make your painting realistic.