Hans Hofmann, Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist Lesson Plan One: Color in 3-D: A Nature Design Project
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Lesson Plan One:
Color in 3-D: A Nature Design Project

“Every light is a shade, compared to the higher lights, till you come to the sun; and every shade is a light, compared to the deeper shades, till you come to the night.” - John Ruskin, 1879

Grades: 6-12, Middle/High School

Time Frame: 3-4 class periods, approx. 45 minutes each


The student will create a two-dimensional design that uses two aspects of Hans Hofmann's art, the three-dimensional, (push and pull) of color and the Cubist’s fracture of the picture plane.

The student will learn about color temperature and use warm and cool colors to create advancing and receding shapes.

The student will learn various ways of blending oil pastels to create visual effects.


Oaktag (tagboard)
18” Rulers
12” x 18” or larger white drawing paper
Oil Pastels (Cray-Pas) Box of 12 or more colors
Newspaper to cover tables
Paper towels, large Q-tips or smudging sticks (tortillons)
Leaves from outside or pictures of leaves
Picture books on nature topics, i.e., butterflies, fish, birds, reptiles

Curriculum Sequence:

This lesson comes after the student has an understanding of the basic vocabulary of color and the color wheel. Previous lessons may focus on the difference between color in light and colored pigments, the three qualities of color, (hue, value and intensity), color harmonies such as analogous and complementary, the symbolic interpretation of color in different cultures, the psychological affects of color, and the interactive behavior of colored shapes and forms.


Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) was one of the most respected and influential art teachers of the twentieth century, as well as a prolific master painter who came into his own late in his career. A contemporary of Matisse and Picasso during his early years in Paris, Hofmann became the first artist/teacher to bring the concepts of European modernism over to the United States, and in doing so, helped launch Abstract Expressionism: the first internationally recognized American art movement.

The documentary Hans Hofmann: Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist explores the life, work, and teachings of this often-overlooked figure through interviews with his former students, as well as modern masters like Frank Stella, who never studied with Hofmann, yet credits him as a major influence.

Hans Hofmann was influenced by two styles of painting, the Cubists’ style and that of a group of painters known as the Fauves, or “wild beasts.” From the Cubists, Hofmann developed an understanding of the shifting planes of objects in space. From the Fauves, he learned to abandon the traditional practices regarding color in painting. In the past, color was part of the realistic, visual representation of form. Whereas other artists had used color as the description of an object, the Fauves let color become the subject of their paintings. Color shapes, rather than line, were the unifying elements in a painting.

Another German émigré, artist/teacher Josef Albers,* greatly influenced Hofmann. Albers was fascinated by the way that color can trick our eyes into seeing things that aren’t really there. Throughout his teaching career, he immersed his students in the principles of design and the investigation of color and its behavior. He taught that interpretation of any color depends on its environment. Knowing how colors interact allows the artist to create vibrations and subtle movements in space. An area with a particular color can come forward or recede, (push and pull), depending on the colors that surround it.

*For a short biography of Albers go to:

For an explanation of color contrast go to:

For the Josef Albers, “The Interaction of Color” CD-Rom, (Yale Univ. Press) with interactive exercises, call 1-800-YUP-READ.

Activities: Warm-ups

If using the Hans Hofmann: Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist video as a part of the lesson, refer students to the section of the documentary where Hofmann’s former students are describing Push and Pull (about 3/4 through the tape):

SELINA TRIEFF: One of the statements that I really love that he did make was that in nature light creates color, and in painting, color creates light.

HAYNES OWNBY: He put on colors. He would get in some red, and you could see that thing come up and up and up and up in the light, the luminosity…

ROBERT HENRY: If you want to create the illusion of space, overlapping will do it to a much greater extent than perspective will, and here’s a painting in which he takes this little blue rectangle and he overlaps it in front of the green, which could be overlapped in front of the yellow. But you can see his absolute mastery of color in the density of that blue and the way it reacts to the green and the yellow around it.

BETTY BISHOP: I think if you look at some of the paintings of the squares, the different yellows, the subtleties—I mean it’s funny because I don’t think people think of Hofmann as subtle, because he sort of comes off with a bang. But if you look, you see that all these, it isn’t just one yellow, it’s many yellows and very sensitive.

JAMES GAHAGAN: The key to push and pull, or creating this internal tension in and out, has to do with a word called plasticity. A lot of people actually used to think it meant plastic and they got confused, you know, like a plastic spoon, a plastic dish or something like that. But plasticity just simply means that it’s malleable, flexible. The very space that you’re trying to create the illusion, the experience of—it’s like putty and you have to feel that way towards it and about it. Push/pull. Push/pull. Push/pull. Push/pull. All of that is…you just have to imagine that you’re shaping the space itself.Through comparison and contrast of different colors, one begins to understand how colors interact and how this may be applied in art making. Colors shift relative to their backgrounds: green looks more yellow on a blue background, but more blue on a yellow background. Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) visually advance, while cool colors (blue and green) recede.

Introduce students to these concepts using the “Push & Pull Puzzle” on the Hofmann PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/hanshofmann/push_and_pull_001.html. (You will need the Flash 5 Plug-in). Have students first fill in the painting using only cool tones. Then have them change just a few squares to red. Notice how the red squares seem to jump forward, while the cool tones recede. Try experimenting with the opposite approach, filling the whole painting with warm colors, then changing a few squares to blue or green. Experiment with different combinations and notice the effect. Which color advances the most in space? Which ones recede the most?

Students may also experiment with this theory by doing these exercises with construction paper, solid colored magazine paper or paint:

Make a “color ladder” using one color from dark to light. How does a color’s value influence its position in space? How does the warmth or coolness of a color affect its depth?

Use one color, i.e. red, and change its background color until one observes a shift in hue, value, intensity or depth. How does color intensity influence a color’s space?


Using a leaf gathered from outside or a shape based on a natural object, the student draws this shape slightly larger on oaktag (tagboard) and cuts it out. If school rules prohibit students from going outside, the teacher can have a collection of leaf shapes for students to chose from.

The student will then trace about 5-7 of their shapes for 12”x18” paper and from 8-12 shapes for 18”x24” paper using pencil. Some of the shapes should go off the edge of the paper. Shapes should not overlap one another.

Using a ruler, the student divides the paper using intersecting lines that travel from one edge of the paper to another. Curved lines may also be used but students should be encouraged to keep it simple and not create new shapes that are too small to color with craypas.

At this point, it would be a good idea for the teacher to demonstrate the process of coloring the shapes and talk about the rules to be followed:

  1. With tables covered with newspaper, the students divide the box of craypas (oil pastels) into two piles, warm colors and cool colors. Some of the colors in the box may be omitted, such as brown or gray and black and white. Students may debate about the brown and decide to use it in the warm pile. The teacher should have a list of the warm and cool colors for students to refer to and for students who may be colorblind.

  2. The student will make the leaf shapes either warm or cool. The background will be the opposite of the leaves.

  3. Each shape will have at least three colors blended into it, unless the shape is too small.

  4. To blend colors, students may use their fingers, a tightly folded piece of paper towel, Q-tips or ready-made smudging tools such as tortillons. Older students may use turpentine to dissolve the craypas and create more gradual blending of colors.

  5. The teacher may want to make another rule, for example, colors may only be blended from light to dark or dark to light.

  6. All of the white paper must be covered with color.

  7. As students are working, the teacher may point out the importance of accuracy in coloring the shapes. Consistency in coloring the leaf shapes and the background shapes opposite colors will affect the success of the push and pull illusion.

    When the project is completed, have the students view each other’s work through 3-D glasses*. The effect will create a buzz of excitement.

* 3-D glasses available from Sax Arts and Crafts, 1-800-558-6696.

Students discuss how they may use the concept of color temperature, warm and cool, and push and pull, in other works of art and in their everyday lives. How would an understanding of these concepts help them in designing architectural spaces, stage and window design, fashion and textile design, signage and advertising design?


The students will be able to see how successful they were at creating the illusion of push and pull with warm and cool colors. Other criteria for assessing student success are:

How well did the student follow the rules?

Did the student show an understanding of warm and cool colors?

Can the student explain the color concept that was illustrated?

Does the use of the materials enhance or detract from the visual effect of the push and pull of color shapes?


Students may use the concept of the push and pull of color to design a poster or billboard advertising an important event or to promote a social issue.

Students may use these concepts to design a stage set for an up-coming school play.

Students may create an acrylic or oil painting using Hofmann’s geometric shapes and explore the “plasticity” of the push and pull of color shapes.

National Standards:

Students create artworks that use organizational principles and functions to solve specific visual arts problems and evaluate their effectiveness.

Students apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their artworks.

Students will intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.

About the Author

Peggy Reeves is an artist and has worked as an art educator for the last 27 years. She has a Master of Science in Education from Queens College. Presently, she is the Supervisor of Art for the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield, Massachusetts.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” -Henry Adams, 1907
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