Exploring Painting and Painters

Introduction | Background Knowledge | Activities | Extensions | Standards


About 70 million people visited an art museum in 2021 as the world began to come out of isolation from the global COVID-19 pandemic. The most visited art museum is the Louvre in Paris, where 2.8 million people lined up to see masterpieces like Van Gogh's Mona Lisa or Di Vinci's The Virgin on the Rocks. The most visited art museum in the United States is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Visitors can admire a Van Gogh self-portrait or Monet's Water Lilies, among works by other well-known painters.

While we can stand in awe of paintings by the masters, painting is something anyone can do. The youngest children can create art with finger paint, and many older people have the opportunity to take up painting at local community centers or craft stores.

Paint is a medium that is accessible to all but it can be truly breathtaking when handled by a master.

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Background Knowledge

The earliest known paintings can be dated to about 45,000 years ago. A painting of a wild pig was found in a cave in Indonesia. These prehistoric paintings are thought to be a record of human life and experiences as human language began to develop. The artists used dirt or charcoal mixed with spit or animal fat to create their images. They likely used their fingers as well as twigs or feathers.

The purpose of painting has not changed much in 45,000 years. Artists still paint to record life, emotions, and experiences. The mediums and techniques, however, have evolved.

Scholars of Art History begin their study with the Romanesque Era (1000-1300). The purpose of painting during this time was to share information - usually the messages of Christianity. Most works were simple and easy to read and understand, so the Biblical message was clear. Tempera paint was the preferred medium.

The Gothic Era (1100-1500) came out of the Romanesque Era. Christian values were still the focus of the paintings, but artists began to enjoy the freedom of thought. Human faces became detailed. Pieces became larger as the surface area in churches became larger than before. Schools of art began to emerge across Europe. Most paintings were still done in tempera paint.

One of the most well-known eras in Art History is the Renaissance Era (1420-1520). Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are two of the best-known artists of this era. Renaissance means rebirth or revival, and the period was considered a cultural rebirth. Art focused on the natural and realistic, and perspective shifted from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, with scenes becoming more complex and human bodies looking more realistic. In addition, the painting medium began shifting from tempera paints to oils.

The Baroque Era (1590-1760) saw a continued focus on humanism rather than religion. Artists painted royal leaders in positions of power and excellence. However, religion was not abandoned completely, as many paintings depicted kings or princes ascending into the heavens or sitting with the angels. Art became a way to show wealth. Opposites - light and dark, good and evil - were featured and overemphasized. Rembrandt and Vermeer were famous painters of this era.

Classicism (1770-1840) and Romanticism (1790-1850) were two contrasting eras that coexisted. Classicism was characterized by strictness and seriousness. Paintings returned to two dimensions. Romanticism, on the other hand, was less strict and can be referred to as "sentimental." Emotions took precedence over nature.

The Impressionist Movement (1850-1895) is known as the first of the "modern" art movements. Impressionism moved away from continuous brush strokes and blocks of color toward individual dots of paint. In addition, artists began painting outside and painted for painting's sake. Master painters Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Mary Cassatt were among the Impressionist artists.

Art Nouveau (1890-1910) ushered in soft lines and florals. Symmetry is a prominent feature. In addition, the paintings have political undertones often overlooked in favor of the art itself. Gustav Klimt is one of the most well-known painters from the Art Nouveau period.

Master painter Pablo Picasso was a leader of the Cubism movement (1906-1914). In Cubism, scenes were broken down into basic geometric shapes. The perspective encouraged viewers to see the subject from every angle at the same time. It was a departure from the unspoken rules of painting from other eras.

Surrealism (1920-1930) transcended the real and tangible, presented many uncomfortable ideas, and often represented the painter's dreams. Salvador Dali is a well-known Surrealist.

The first art movement to originate outside of Europe, the Abstract-Expressionism movement, focused on color and action. Paintbrushes gave way to painting poured paint with one's fingers. Jackson Pollack was a pioneer of Abstract-Expressionism.

From soup cans to toilets, the Pop Art Movement (1955-1969) showed the world that anything could be art. Pop Art boasts clean lines and blocks of color. Andy Warhol is an American leader of the Pop Art Movement.

Tempera paint and oils were prominent mediums early in the art history timeline. However, as art and time evolved, five mediums have emerged as favorites among artists.

  • Acrylic paints are good for beginning painters. The artist does not need special tools to use the paint, and it is easy to clean up. Most dry quickly, but some dry slowly. Acrylic can mimic other paint mediums. Available as thick or thin, acrylics can look and feel like watercolors if it is thin or oils if it is thick.
  • Watercolors are water-based. Water is added to the pigment. Because of the water, watercolors take a long time to dry and need special paper for more serious painters. Watercolors bleed into one another, creating a blended effect but making it difficult to paint clean lines. Colors have to be layered from light to dark.
  • Oil paint is the medium of many of the great painters throughout history. Oils are slow-drying, which allows for layering. The colors are vivid and long-lasting. Oil paints never completely dry, so great care must be taken when transporting, storing, and displaying finished paintings.
  • Gouache paints fall somewhere between watercolors and acrylics. The water content of the paintbrush allows the painter to alter the shade of the color. Gouache is a paint to use if the finished painting will be made digital. Older layers of paint will react to new layers as water is added, which could make the image darker than expected.
  • Ink allows for details to be highlighted in the painting. This medium was widely used in Egyptian and Asian art.

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the PAINTING resources from TeachersFirst


Books to read as an overview of painting as an art form or as an introduction to famous artists:

American Painters

European Painters

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian Renaissance artist known for multiple mediums. His most famous painting is the Mona Lisa.
  • Michelangelo (1475-1564) was an Italian Renaissance artist. He is best known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
    • Read
    • Paint like Michelangelo! Think of an event from Social Studies that the students could paint. Tape paper under their desks and encourage them to lay on their backs and paint above them.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a Dutch painter, working in the Dutch Golden Age. He is known for his portraits and self-portraits and Biblical scenes.
  • Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch Baroque painter. He specialized in scenes from inside homes of the middle-class.
  • Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was a French painter who began the shift from Realism to Impressionism.
  • Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French Impressionist painter. He is best known for his paintings of ballet dancers.
    • Read
    • Degas often painted dancers. Partner with physical education and have students paint other examples of motion. Paint soccer players or swimmers or basketball players or karate. Any sport or movement would be appropriate for this activity.
    • Degas's work would be excellent story starters.
    • Pair ballet and art with this lesson from the J. Paul Getty Museum.
  • Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was a French PostImpressionist painter. His work bridged the Impressionism movement and the Cubism movement.
  • Claude Monet (1840 - 1926) was a French Impressionist painter best known for his paintings of nature.
    • Read
    • Use Monet's paintings and a study of prepositional phrases to write poems about the paintings with this lesson from the J. Paul Getty Museum.
    • Recreate the playground at your school in Impressionist style with this lesson from The Kimball Art Center.
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a French Impressionist painter. He is best known for his paintings of people enjoying leisure activities.
  • Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a French Impressionist painter. He is best known for his paintings of Tahiti and Tahitian people.
  • Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter. His works include landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, and self-portraits.
  • George Seurat (1859-1891) was a French post-Impressionist painter. He is best known for pointillism and chromoluminarism.
  • Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian painter during the symbolist movement.
  • Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian Expressionist painter.
    • Read
    • CNN connected The Scream to the explosion of Krakatoa. Discuss other events that could cause the sky to change colors. Recreate the iconic painting with a different sky; report on an actual event that caused the sky to change color or write a fictional story to explain the sky.
    • Learn how The Scream became a famous painting.
  • Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was a Spanish artist known for pioneering the Cubism Movement.
  • Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was a Spanish Surrealist painter.

International Painters

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Scavenger Hunt at the National Gallery of Art

  • Visit the National Gallery of Art (TeachersFirst review) and virtually search the paintings for selected items, such as paintings with cherries, a dragon, etc. being specific with other criteria such as the date created if available and the medium used. Students can work individually or as a team to find particular paintings from the clues. Many images can be downloaded, or students can identify the artist and the name of the painting.


  • Many artists painted self-portraits. After viewing and analyzing some, encourage students to paint their self-portraits in various styles. Display the finished self-portraits side-by-side for comparison and contrast.

Which Artist is This?

  • After studying multiple artists from multiple eras, encourage students to paint like different artists. What would the water lilies look like if Frida Kahlo painted them? How would the Campbell's Soup can that made Andy Warhol famous look to Cassatt? Students can compare and contrast the artists and styles by using Canva (TeachersFirst review) to create a Venn Diagram.

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  • AASL National School Library Standards
    • Inquire Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners display curiosity and initiative by: 1. Formulating questions about a personal interest or a curricular topic. 2. Recalling prior and background knowledge as context for new meaning
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    • Include Shared Foundation, Share Domain - Learners exhibit empathy with and tolerance for diverse ideas by: 1. Engaging in informed conversation and active debate. 2. Contributing to discussions in which multiple viewpoints on a topic are expressed.
    • Include Shared Foundation, Grow Domain - Learners demonstrate empathy and equity in knowledge building within the global learning community by: 1. Seeking interactions with a range of learners.
    • Collaborate Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners identify collaborative opportunities by: 1. Demonstrating their desire to broaden and deepen understandings. 2. Developing new understandings through engagement in a learning group. 3. Deciding to solve problems informed by group interaction.
    • Collaborate Shared Foundation, Create Domain - s Learners participate in personal, social, and intellectual networks by: 1. Using a variety of communication tools and resources. 2. Establishing connections with other learners to build on their own prior knowledge and create new knowledge.
    • Collaborate Shared Foundation, Grow Domain - Learners actively participate with others in learning situations by: 2. Recognizing learning as a social responsibility.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners develop and satisfy personal curiosity by: 1. Reading widely and deeply in multiple formats and writing and creating for a variety of purposes.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Create Domain - Learners construct new knowledge by: 1. Problem solving through cycles of design, implementation, and reflection.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Share Domain - Learners engage with the learning community by: 3. Collaboratively identifying innovative solutions to a challenge or problem. Explore Shared Foundation, Grow Domain - Learners develop through experience and reflection by: 1. Iteratively responding to challenges. 2. Recognizing capabilities and skills that can be developed, improved, and expanded. 3. Open-mindedly accepting feedback for positive and constructive growth. 1. ISTE for Students: Empowered Learner 1c. Students use technology to seek feedback that informs and improves their practice and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.
  • ISTE Standards for Students
    • Knowledge Constructor - 3d. Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories, and pursuing answers and solutions.
    • Empowered Learner - 1b. Students build networks and customize their learning environments in ways that support the learning process.
    • Innovative Designer - 4d. Students exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance, and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.
    • Global Collaborator - 7c. Students contribute constructively to project teams, assuming various roles and responsibilities to work effectively toward a common goal.

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