O’Keefe painted an incredibly wide variety of subjects. She is best known for her large paintings of flowers, but she also painted landscapes, bones, and abstract images. Many of her biographies focus on the sexual interpretations of her paintings, but there’s so much more to be learned from O’Keefe. For example, in our art project for Classical Conversation’s Cycle 3, week 15, we’ll be exploring tones (a tone is a color mixed with either white or black) by painting a large rose.
In my “Painting in Tones Like Georgia O’Keeffe” lesson plan I give a general biography of O’Keeffe and her role as the Mother of American Modernism. Here, however, I want to expand on one line in the lesson plan that might help you understand O’Keeffe and maybe warn you if you decide to read some of her biographies yourself. In the lesson plan I say “O’Keeffe was a feminist and savvy business owner, actively managing her public image ….” It’s a short sentence summarizing a larger struggle in her life that doesn’t seem appropriate to bring up in a homeschool classroom. However, it’s fascinating and you’ll run into it in almost every biography of O’Keeffe, so I’ll elaborate here.
O’Keeffe enjoyed painting items from nature. One of her favorite things to paint was flowers and she often painted them zoomed in so close it feels like you’re looking at the flowers under a magnifying glass. Many people who saw her work thought the flowers often looked yonic in nature. (Yonic is the female version of phallic.) Even today, years after the Freud fad days are over, people often think many of her flowers have a strong sexual inspiration.
Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and gallery owner, showcased O’Keeffe’s art, describing it as the “visual manifestation of a sexually liberated woman.” Many people surmise that Stieglitz and the sexual interpretations are what initially propelled O’Keeffe’s career, but she didn’t like it and fought against it. Of course it didn’t help that Stieglitz, who later became her husband, took a bunch of nude photos of her posing in front of her art and showed them in his art galleries… nothing like a naked woman in front of a painting to make people think it’s a little sexual… but I digress.
Strangely, O’Keeffe seemed surprised that she had a feminized reputation. However, she didn’t let it stop her. Instead, she self-corrected and started doing interviews, developing a different public image. O’Keeffe was a business woman in addition to an incredibly talented artist. As an entrepreneur and very amateur artist, I find this combination far more fascinating than whether or not her early inspiration was sexual in nature. It’s a pity so many of the articles about her focus on the wrong thing.
The Art Project: Painting in Tones
Georgia O’Keeffe used so many great art techniques that we could easily do five or six separate art lessons revolving around her! I decided to continue exploring color theory with this project by focusing on understanding tones. “Tone” is very similar to “Value.” While they are technically different, most artists use them interchangeably. In this art project, we’ll be adding black or white to our paint to create different tones and then using those tones to create shadows and highlights on our image of a large rose! Here’s a video I created for you to show you how easy this is:
Here’s a few tips to make this more successful:
- Have some paper towels handy so students can dab the paper if it’ gets too wet. It will pick up pigment too, but that’s better than having it run all over.
- Be sure your watercolor set has a white tube or purchase a white seperately. It used to be that watercolor painters didn’t use white, but now it’s very common.
- In the video and with my Purple Rose example, I used this watercolor paint and brush set that I purchased from amazon for around $5.
I’d like to give a special thanks to the generous people over at the O’Keeffe Museum for their time in reviewing my use of O’Keeffe’s art and allowing me to include some of her art work here and in my O’Keeffe lesson plan! Their flexibility has seriously made me love O’Keeffe even more!