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Ellis Wilson: So Much To Paint
More on Ellis:
Kentucky Muse

Ellis Wilson: An Elementary School Art Lesson

This model of an activity in which students explore Ellis Wilson’s use of shape and form in painting human figures was developed by Nancy Currier, an elementary art teacher in Louisville who serves on the Teacher Advisory Board for the Speed Art Museum. Designed for art students in grades 3-5, it will also work well at the middle-school level. Specific Kentucky curriculum goals for this project are listed at the end of the description.

For examples of what Nancy’s students created, see our elementary students’ gallery.

Ellis Wilson and the Figure

Ellis Wilson was born in Mayfield, KY and lived from 1899 to 1977. He was one of the earliest African-American painters to portray the everyday lives of people, and many of these paintings incorporate full-length figures. Included among such works are Funeral Procession, Two Mothers, To Market, and Jamaican Paysans. Using Jamaican Paysans as an example, students will study proportion and movement in the human figure, then paint two-figured “self-portraits.”

Lesson Focus

  • Use of circles and ovals (“balloon people”) as the basis for drawing the human figure. Each student will create a painting with two full-length, frontal figures—the student and a taller relative (for example, Mom or Dad). Emphasis will be put on elements emphasized by Ellis Wilson: flat shapes, lack of facial features, sharp contrasts, and patterned backgrounds.

Skill Development

Students will

  • broaden their knowledge about artists by learning about the life of Ellis Wilson.
  • view and discuss the artwork of Ellis Wilson.
  • represent proportion and movement in the human figure.
  • represent objects (i.e., clothing) with simple shapes.
  • incorporate a pattern into a background setting.
  • experiment with values/shades and tints.


(Teachers will want to adjust this list to their particular lessons.)

  • proportion
  • frontal view
  • colorist
  • contrast
  • pattern
  • value
  • shade
  • tint


  • pencils
  • 8-1/2" X 11" white paper
  • 11" X 17" 20-lb. white paper
  • black crayons
  • tempera paint, including multicultural skin tones
  • brushes
  • reproductions of Ellis Wilson’s artwork (found at
  • 11" X 17" photocopies of standing “balloon person,” approx. 15" tall, one per student
  • 11" X 17" photocopies of standing “balloon person,” approx. 13" tall, one per student

Time Requirement

  • five 35-minute class periods


  • Day 1: The class will learn about Ellis Wilson’s life and view and discuss his artwork, focusing mainly on his figure paintings. Tell students that they will paint their own figure paintings and will learn how to use “balloon people” in order to achieve more accurate proportions. On the chalkboard, demonstrate how to use circles and ovals to draw “balloon people,” and how each shape connects to another at a joint. Various movements of the figure can be demonstrated by varying the placement of the shapes.

  • Day 2: Students will use pencils and 8-1/2" X 11" paper to experiment with the drawing of their “balloon people.” They should try several different poses.

  • Day 3: Demonstrate how to use the “balloon people” to make a clothed figure drawing. Lay an 11" X 17" piece of 20-lb. white paper over an 11" X 17" photocopy of a “balloon person.” Using the “balloon person” as the “skeleton,” trace out the contour of a human figure, stressing the simple shapes used by Ellis Wilson for the clothing.

    Give each student two ready-made “balloon people,” one shorter than the other (representing themselves and a taller relative), and an 11" X 17" piece of paper. (Ready-made photocopies are used here instead of having the students once again draw out their own “balloon people” in order to shift the emphasis from drawing the “balloon people” onto the next step of drawing the clothed figure.) Using pencils, students should trace out the two figures and then fill in the background with a pattern. (Many of Ellis Wilson’s backgrounds are repeated leaf foliage.) Once the drawings are completely finished, students should go over all pencil lines with a black crayon.

  • Day 4: Students will begin to paint their figure drawings. Emphasis should be placed on choosing contrasting colors (tints and shades), striking color combinations (Ellis Wilson was a colorist), simple shapes, and very few details—including the lack of facial features.

  • Day 5: Students will finish painting their figure paintings. Closure of the project includes viewing of all artwork and analyses of the project.

Specific Kentucky Curriculum Goals and Academic Expectations Applied

This model lesson addresses goals 1, 2, and 5, including these specific expectations:

1.13: Students make sense of ideas and communicate with the visual arts.
2.22: Students create works of art and make presentations to convey a point of view.
2.26: Through the arts and humanities, students recognize that although people are different, they share some common experiences and attitudes.
5.2: Students use creative thinking skills to develop or invent novel, constructive ideas or products.

Nancy Currier, Louisville, KY, (502) 485-8253

Classroom Connections

600 Cooper Drive, Lexington, KY 40502 (859) 258-7000 (800) 432-0951