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Ellis Wilson: So Much To Paint
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Kentucky Muse

Ellis Wilson: A High School Art Lesson

This model of an activity in which students create an original painting in response to the documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint, along with the accompanying questions and writing prompts, was developed by Patrick Robertson, an art teacher at Central High School in Louisville who serves on the Teacher Advisory Board for the Speed Art Museum. Created for art students in grades 9-12, it is designed to meet specific Kentucky curriculum goals.

Robertson has also provided some sample artworks created by his students. Check out our student gallery to see some of the products of this activity.


  • Students will use the principles of design and the elements of art to create a painting that reflects the style and themes of Ellis Wilson.
  • Students will understand and reflect on how art can create social commentary.


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

  • space
  • value
  • shape (organic vs. geometric)
  • foreground, middle ground, and background
  • Harlem Renaissance
  • repetition
  • contrast
  • emphasis
  • unity
  • Works Progress Administration (WPA)
  • color scheme


  • paint (tempera or acrylic)
  • paper
  • brushes
  • Internet access
  • VCR
  • paper to cover tables
  • copies of lesson additions

Time Frame

  • 2 weeks of 55-minute periods (adjust to your needs)


  • Day 1: Students will watch the documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint. After the film, the teacher should ask for feedback from the students. Before the end of the period, the students should be given an open-ended question that directly relates to the life and times of Ellis Wilson. This question also can be given as a homework assignment if the teacher-led discussion continues until the end of the period.

  • Day 2: If possible, have the students read their open responses to the rest of the class. If a computer lab is available, have the students explore the KET Ellis Wilson web site at and answer the list of questions provided. Students should be given a homework assignment of completing preliminary sketches for their “Ellis Wilson-style” painting. Some elements of Wilson’s style that you may have students explore: crowded compositions that use warm colors (Shore Leave, Burr Bench, Lumberjacks); the absence of a horizon line, especially in his early works (Woman Sweeping, End of the Day, South Carolina Mules); and a point of view that has the viewer looking down on the subject (Catch).

  • Day 3: Look over your students’ homework and decide whether they are ready to start the project. If your art class is general, you may want to include some extra time for smaller reminder lessons on composition, brush usage, and clean-up procedures. Pass out the paper (11" X 14" or 18" X 24"). Students should draw out their composition before painting. Don’t give them too many colors to use at once. Limiting their palette will help slow them down and cause them to work harder on craftsmanship.

  • Day 4 to the end of the project: Obviously, some classes will take longer than others. To ensure decent work, you may have to factor in the normal classroom disruptions, along with absenteeism. It is suggested that at the beginning of each class the teacher review Wilson’s style or focus on one of his paintings.

Related Lesson Ideas

  • Compare and contrast Wilson with other artists; for example, Jacob Lawrence.
  • Perform a four-step art criticism on a Wilson painting.
  • Write a story to go with a Wilson painting.
  • Explore the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Work with the music teacher to listen to some music of the Harlem Renaissance. Play music while the students are painting.
  • Find Mayfield, KY and the other Wilson-related locations on a map—or have students draw an “Ellis Wilson map.”
  • Reflect on the Chicago race riots of the early 1900s. Explore the treatment of African Americans during Wilson’s lifetime.
  • Research the WPA and its arts project. What other influential artists worked for the WPA?

Many other lessons can be created by exploring the KET web site and hyperlink connections.

Specific Kentucky Curriculum Goals and Academic Expectations Applied

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

1.1: Students use reference tools such as dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, and computer reference programs and research tools such as interviews and surveys to find the information they need to meet specific demands, explore interests, or solve specific problems.

1.2: Students make sense of the variety of materials they read.

1.3: Students make sense of the various things they observe.

1.11: Students write using appropriate forms, conventions, and styles to communicate ideas and information to different audiences for different purposes.

1.13: Students make sense of and communicate ideas with the visual arts.

2.22: Students create works of art and make presentations to convey a point of view.

2.23: Students analyze their own and others’ artistic products and performances using accepted standards.

2.24: Students have knowledge of major works of art, music, and literature and appreciate creativity and the contributions of the arts and humanities.

2.25: In the products they make and the performances they present, students show that they understand how time, place, and society influence the arts and humanities such as languages, literature, and history.

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.

Content Area Standards Accomplished in This Lesson:

  • art elements and principles
  • (art form 2-D) shape, texture, space, value, line, color, perspective, contrast, emphasis, unity, repetition

Cooperative Skills Practiced

  • following classroom rules
  • sharing material
  • working together
  • completing tasks on time
  • class discussion
  • peer evaluation and/or critiques

Patrick Robertson, Central High School, 1130 W. Chestnut St., Louisville, KY 40203, (502) 485-8226

Classroom Connections

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