Tom Higgins

About Me

Tom Higgins

I retired as Principal of Breaffy National School, Castlebar, Co. Mayo in 1998. This project arises from my experience of teaching art and art appreciation in the Primary School, now known as looking and responding to art.

Prev Next

Looking and Responding to Art

Almost all great art, from the Renaissance to the modern age had to do with the portrayal of humanity in so many moods and situations. Even landscape painting can be seen as a revelation of the state of mind of the artist. Recognising that the ‘world’ includes also the world of people, the revised primary curriculum on the visual arts refers to the centrality of visual arts education as follows.


Art is a unique way of knowing and understanding the world. Purposeful visual arts activities expand children's ways of exploring, expressing and coming to terms with the world they inhabit in a structured and enjoyable way.

Through art we gain a deep knowledge and understanding of the world and of the human person in particular. This helps us to understand and value ourselves, to see the wonder in nature and in ourselves, and to empathise with others in their joys and sorrows. Practical art lessons will further deepen understanding. The works of famous artists can be used in reproduction for discussion purposes and as inspiration for the children's practical work as they try to express their feelings through the use of line, colour, shape, texture and tone.

Direct copying of art works should be avoided except as an occasional exercise. Imparting snatches of art history and some details of the lives of the artists has its place in the classroom. Of greater importance for primary school children is the creation of visual awareness through discussion of the paintings and in learning to find meaning in them. There is a misconception that art appreciation has to do solely with 'getting to like' works of art. On the contrary, appreciation has to do with learning to understand the message or meaning communicated to us by the artist and then relating that meaning to our own life experiences. Also crucial is the development of visual awareness. The study of paintings is an excellent way to develop awareness of the visual world, to empathise with people in their human predicament, and to develop a feeling for what is aesthetically pleasing, whether in the landscape or in buildings, or in design generally.

The aims of art education then, may be summarised as follows: personal fulfilment, creative growth, perceptual and emotional growth and appreciation of the artistic heritage.

It may be worthwhile drawing attention to a number of barriers to emotional expression.

  • The pre-school child had no opportunities for drawing.
  • He/she may have been using colouring books or adults drawing for him/her.
  • Over protection of the child in the home may result in a lack of self-confidence. The result of the above may be stereotyped drawing and painting and a lack of confidence to try something different. Art can promote emotional growth by allowing the child to express feelings of fear, anger, sadness, joy and other feelings.


The key that unlocks the meaning of artworks is found in the art elements of colour, line, tone, shape, form and texture. In discussions with children we should be concerned with getting them to see beyond the objects in the picture, to the art elements and beyond them, to the meaning and the message the artist is communicating to us.

Research conducted in the United States has shown (see The Joyous Vision, A Source Book for Art Appreciation, by Hurwitz and Madeja, published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977) - and this is borne out by experience - that when children are asked to respond verbally to artworks their reactions can be divided into three basic categories.

  1. Description of the Subject Matter - "it is a house", "it shows a village with snow". This is merely a literal response and stops short of getting to the real subject of the work. Experience shows that this is the type of response from most children who will not be familiar with art appreciation discussions.
  2. Description of the Formal Elements -"the lines are all wavy", "the sky is a kind of blue", "it looks very messy". In this type of response, which is common enough, we are getting closer to meaning. But responses like these show that even when they try to go beyond the mere literal interpretation, the language of the children is not equal to the task. Our aim in the discussions is to provide the older children with the vocabulary in relation to colour, line, tone, shape and texture, so that instead of describing the sky as having a kind of blue, the child in a senior class will be able to say that this is a pure or muted blue, or that blue is a cold colour and that it can be used descriptively or symbolically. In the latter case it can symbolise either peace or sadness, depending on the context. The next step is the realisation that muted colours can express quiet, tranquil moods, pure strong colours express strong feelings and that contrasting colours express drama and conflict.
  3. Speculation regarding the meaning or intention of the work. Children may respond by stating that "the people look sad, happy, excited, frightened", "it would make you feel scary", "everything is quiet, I mean there are no strong colours". The last phrase shows the progression from consideration of the art elements to interpretation and meaning. What mood or feeling is the artist trying to communicate? Is the mood celebratory or sombre, happy, sad, angry, fearful, lonely, despairing, joyful, apprehensive, exciting, lively, energetic, quiet, tranquil, peaceful? Is there a portrayal of wonder and awe in the face of nature? Is the artist concerned with social comment? What is the mood in Impressionist paintings? Are the daylight scenes painted in a bright even tone? Does this indicate a happy, celebratory mood, especially if the sun is shining or if the people are enjoying themselves? This is where we are aiming. Experience shows that even young children can begin to grapple with this approach.


Start by asking the children to describe what they see in the painting (category 1). Draw attention to details. Where is this happening; is it summer or autumn, in town or country? Are there any people, houses? Can you describe the houses? Lead on from this to consideration of the art elements and the meaning of the work. The aim should be to guide the discussions along so that the ideas will come from the children.

Questions can be asked of the class which will establish whether line, shape, colour, texture or tone is the most important element in the picture. As a rule, one or two elements will dominate.


Pre-Impressionist artists were more concerned with muted, harmonious and closely related colours (described as restful colours) and there was more emphasis on line. However, the artist may be more concerned with colour than any other element, as were the Impressionists. For them, shape and line were secondary elements and there was less emphasis on drawing (line).

Colours can be warm or cold, dark or light, pure or muted, descriptive or symbolic. Reds, oranges, yellows, yellow-purples, browns and warm greens - i.e. a green with more yellow than blue in the mixture - are classed as warm colours. Cold colours are blues, cool greens, blue-purples and black. Colours can be (a) descriptive, as with the Impressionists, (b) symbolic or expressive, as with the Expressionists. For example, an Expressionist artist might use blue to express sadness or red to express violence or anger.

Colours can be restful or disturbing. Closely related colours (warm colours, for example) can be calm and restful, as are muted colours. Such colours are said to be in harmony. Contrasting or clashing colours (red and green, for example) can have an unsettling or disturbing effect. Orange and blue are also contrasting colours as are yellow and purple.

The clue to the mood or meaning of a painting often lies in the quality of its colours, that is, whether they are pure or muted, warm or cool, dark or light, descriptive or symbolic.

Questions can be asked as to whether the dominant colour is pure or muted, warm or cold, light or dark? Are the contrasts mainly of colour or tone? Is the artist using colour symbolically or descriptively? To what extent is there a clash of colours or are the colours in harmony? Clashing colours such as red and green, orange and blue, express states of inner conflict. Cold colours such as blue, can express sadness or peace, depending on the context. Dark colours denote a sombre mood, or even death. Red can symbolise violence or anger. Yellow can mean life, warmth - the colour of the sun. Are the colours pure or muted? Muted colours denote quiet, tranquil moods. Pure, strong colours express strong feelings. Is the artist using colour descriptively (Impressionism), or expressively (Expressionism)? When colour is used for expressive purposes it is often arbitrary or distorted, to the extent that we can no longer accept that the colour belongs to this object. Such use of colour is also said to be symbolic.

Please note that not all of the above will necessarily come into play any in one discussion.


Are the lines vertical, horizontal, diagonal, soft or hard, heavy or light? Horizontal lines indicate peace and tranquillity. Used together, vertical and horizontal lines express stability.

Diagonal lines denote rapid movement. Wandering, wavy lines express a state of restlessness or anxiety, as in the later works of Van Gough who was more concerned with expressing mental states than describing what he saw in nature. Jumpy zigzag lines can denote anger or restlessness. Soft lines are a sign of peace and tranquillity. Hard, sharp lines point to harshness, bleakness, dissonance.

The Impressionists used line descriptively. Their motto was 'paint what you see'. The Expressionists distorted line for expressive effect, in the works of Van Gough, for example who used long, wavy lines to express disturbed mental states.


Is the texture rough or smooth? Smooth textures can denote a quiet and restful mood. Rough textures can indicate liveliness or excitement. Distortion of textures can express alienation. Textures in pre-Impressionist paintings tend to be smooth and soft, giving their paintings that 'finished' look, while in the works of the Impressionists, textures are more varied. To create rough textures, the Impressionists employed short dabs of the brush and broken colours.

Shape and Form.

Is there distortion of any of the elements? If form is distorted, does this express a feeling of dehumanisation and alienation, as seen in some of Munch's paintings. Distortion of any of the elements usually expresses isolation and alienation.


In a particular painting, is tone the dominant element, more important than colour? Tone is the element which characterises a painting as either light, medium or dark overall. Are the tones even or contrasted? Impressionist paintings tend to be even in tone and with lots of colour contrasts; those of the pre-Impressionists are often monochrome, with tonal contrasts.

The value of this approach is that it stimulates observation and awareness. It opens the eyes of the children to the details of the artwork. It involves seeing at a deeper level, leading to understanding and appreciation.

Unity and Diversity.

In discussing works of art, there are two elements we should always look for – unity and diversity. Every work of art is a balance between these two elements. Take a painting where warm colours are dominant. This gives unity and harmony to the work. Diversity may be found in smaller areas of contrasting colours. See Impression Sunrise or Starry Night for a balance between orange and blue, with blue dominating. Unity and diversity is also established through tone, shape, texture and line. In discussing paintings, it is sometimes worthwhile to compare or contrast two similar or contrasting paintings.


Classical Art.

  1. Clarity, certainty.
  2. Structure, stability, permanence, order.
  3. Emphasis on tone and tonal contrasts, colour less important.
  4. Perfect finish, refinement – depiction of an ideal world.
  5. Construction based on drawing, emphasis on drawing.
  6. Harmony, peace, tranquillity.
  7. Painted in the studio.

Meaning: glorification of nobility and of past heroes, celebration of an ideal world. Contemporary life excluded as subject matter.

Pre-Impressionist Painting, 1850-1870.

  1. Dark toned, sharp tonal contrasts.
  2. Contrast of tones rather than colours.
  3. Good colour harmony, sometimes monochrome, colours muted.
  4. Smooth textures, painted with soft brushes, highly finished look.
  5. Clear line, emphasis on accurate drawing.
  6. Painted in the studio from sketches made outdoors.
  7. Subjects: landscapes and figures in the landscape.

The work of these artists is a celebration of order and tranquillity in nature. Their aim was to portray an idealistic view of the world.

Impressionist Painting, 1870 - 1890, Paris.

  1. Bright and evenly toned, colour contrasts.
  2. Pure, strong colours. Colour is used descriptively.
  3. Emphasis on colour rather than tone.
  4. Soft line, emphasis on colour rather than on line.
  5. Varied texture to describe different objects, visible, choppy brushstrokes to produce effects of light.
  6. Done quickly outdoors, and with an 'unfinished' look.
  7. Subjects: landscapes and people enjoying themselves outdoors, realistic

Expressionist Painting, post 1890s - France, Germany.

  1. Contrasts of tone, strong colour contrasts.
  2. Pure strong colours. Colour is expressive and symbolic, not descriptive as with the Impressionists.
  3. Emphasis on distortion of line and texture, and the use of arbitrary colour for emotional effect. (art elements used to express feelings).
  4. Hard (sharp), prominent, moving line, expressive of disturbed mental states, as in the works of Van Gough.
  5. Rapid painting from nature (Van Gough); painting from memory (Edvard Munch).
  6. Subjects: landscapes and people. A sharply individualized style.

Expressionist artists did not see themselves as members of society. Their art is an expression of their sense of isolation and alienation from a hostile world. There is no longer any harmony between man and nature. This disharmony is expressed through distortion of the art elements (line, shape, colour texture and tone). While the Impressionists painted what they saw, the Expressionists painted how they felt.

For loooking and Responding lessons it might be helpful if the teacher made four charts somewhat in the lines of the following and have either one, or two of them displayed in the classroom for easy reference during the lesson.



Colour can be warm or cold, dark or light, pure or muted, descriptive or symbolic/expressive.

  • Muted colour - Pre-Impressionists (before 1870).
  • Descriptive colour - Impressionists (1870-1890).
  • Expressive colour - Expressionists (1890-1910).
  • Warm colours: reds, oranges, yellows, yellow purples, browns, warm greens.
  • Cold Colours: blues, cool greens, blue purples, black.
  • Calm restful colours: harmonious, closely related colours.
  • Disturbing colours: clashing or highly contrasting colours (eg. red and green, yellow and purple, orange and blue).


Line can be hard (harshness, bleakness) or soft (gentleness calm), heavy or light, vertical or horizontal (stability and peace), curved or straight (movement, restlessness).


Tone can be bright, medium or dark (closely related tones to denote peace, calm; contrasting tones for a jumpy, dramatic effect); dark tones can have a sombre effect.


Texture can be rough (liveliness or excitement) or smooth (quiet restful mood).

Look for harmony and contrasts of colour, line, tone and texture in a painting.



  1. Dark tones
  2. Tonal Contrasts, colours closely related.
  3. Muted colours
  4. Emphasis on tones, not colours
  5. Clear line, accurate drawing
  6. Smooth textures, perfect finish
  7. Painted indoors from sketches and drawings done outdoors
  8. Subjects: landscapes and people in the landscape
  9. Aim: to celebrate the beauty, calm, peace and tranquillity in nature.



  1. Bright even tones
  2. Colour Contrasts
  3. Pure colours
  4. Emphasis on colour, not tones
  5. Soft line
  6. Varied textures
  7. Dabs of broken colour, creating rough textures
  8. Colour and textures used descriptively
  9. Painted outdoors - 'unfinished'
  10. Aim: to celebrate nature, life and leisure.


EXPRESSIONIST ART – (post 1890s – France, Germany.)

  1. Contrasts of tones, strong colour contrasts.
  2. Pure strong colours. Colour is expressive and symbolic, not descriptive as with the Impressionists.
  3. Emphasis on distortion of line and texture, and the use of arbitrary colour.
  4. Hard (sharp), prominent, moving line, expressive of disturbed mental states, as in the works of Van Gough, Munch.
  5. Rapid painting from nature (Van Gough); painting from memory (Edvard Munch).
  6. Subjects:landscapeandpeople.
  7. Aim: expression of strong feelings.