Teaching Gainesborough, Master English Painter

As a tutor for Classical Conversations, a service and community for homeschooling families, I’m about to enter a unit on some of the great master painters. (This lesson is for week 15 of cycle 2.) Here we will study a little about Thomas Gainesborough, an English painter who lived in the 18th century, and I’ll walk you through my lesson of a painting project for students, aimed for my class of 9-11 year olds.


     Mr and Mrs. Andrews by Gainesborough, courtesy telegraph.co.uk

This portrait , Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, from the National Gallery in London, is arguably his most-recognized work, and though perhaps overused for this under-recognized painter (as it may be the first or only work many see of his), I still will showcase it because there is so much I love about it. I admit that my own artistic preferences are in one way diametrically opposed to Gainsborough’s: his passion was to paint landscapes and merely did portraits to find success. (And added sweeping landscapes behind portraits to make his work more to his liking.) But I love his work for the portraiture, for his detail and recording of light on the figures (and honestly have paid little attention to the backgrounds…) Yes, I admit that.

But as in all my experiences with CC, I have found myself stretched and coming to develop an appreciation for things I did not have formerly. Another of his works I’d love to show my class is Heneage Lloyd and His Sister, simply because I think they will be interested to see people near their age depicted in Gainsborough’s art. Seeing the two represents well what I’ve noticed in his landscape portraits, generally: nature is muted though the people, or their clothing, can be very bright.

thomas_gainsborough-younger-people Heneage Lloyd and His Sister, of the Fitzwilliam  Museum                                      http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/collections/paintings/3246

I already admitted that landscapes are not my favorite subject matter as a viewer; nor are they in my practice of art. I can lay no claim to expertise in this area, either in medium or subject matter. (Readers who may have followed my drawing unit earlier this year found me in my comfort zone. This is one lesson of the year that challenges me to something I’ve not devoted a great deal of time to in my own development of visual art skills.) Add that to the fact that our local CC calendar gave me two weeks less of Christmas break than I had last year–so my goal to make all art projects before the second semester began came under a time crunch.

And yet, I remind myself–maybe it’s better I didn’t have hours of free time to allow myself to indulge in these projects personally. The goal is to make an example project for the student who has limited class time; it is perhaps unfair/not best practice, to show a work I invested hours into. Without further ado, here is my take on the Gainesborough imitation project for my class of 9-11 year olds.

Discovering Great Artists: Hands-on Art for Children in the Style of Great Masters by MaryAnn F. Kohl and Mary Solga is my springboard for this lesson. (Great ideas for an array of artists/projects, by the way.) My favorite thing about their suggestion is the concept of letting the landscape in the kids’ projects be imaginary–not drawn from life. That is so much more doable for this project. The focus is not how to draw a landscape from life. An imaginary landscape is something I think will make some of my students very happy–they often want to draw from things in their head and not from an example.


  • tempera paints (preferably secondary colors already mixed; the class time just doesn’t allow tie to necessary lessons on color theory and mixing)
  • brushes (with real bristles, not plastic ones, preferred)
  • cup of water per student
  • paper of the proper weight for painting
  • scrap paper, newspaper or paper towels for wiping brushes between colors
  • drawing paper
  • colored pencils

Step 1: Describe goal to students. After giving students background on Gainesborough and showing examples of his work, I will give students the paper for their project. I will explain that, like Gainsborough, they will create a landscape with paint. (Later, they will draw a portrait of a person, on separate paper, to add on top).

Step 2: Explain the 3 parts. As they imagine their landscape, they need to imagine the three parts to it: background, middle ground and foreground. I need to explain how important it is to start painting from the top down. The background–in most cases the sky and perhaps some distant mountains or hills, is always first–for the very practical reason that it is far easier to paint mountains or treetops over top a blue sky than it is to draw mountains or tree tops first, than try to paint blue around every little nook and cranny. I will show my example at this point, pointing out the 3 regions:


Step 3: Sky.  I will demonstrate painting a quick sky. (I say quick, because this is simplest part, and we’ve gotta get onto other things more deserving of our time!) I am excited that the new space I’ll be using this year to teach art will have better acoustics and I will have an easel where I can paint with them, where they can see. And don’t be afraid of big brushes–encourage kids to take the largest ones you have–you get this simple part done faster! Next, have students get their darkest color of the day to paint their landscape’s furthermost back features that stand out against the sky: mountains, trees etc.

If you want to use this lesson as a way to teach a landscape painting skill beyond the above foundational concept (painting top-to-bottom, with three parts), one possible mini lesson could be simple brushwork for trees. (My son has watched all Bob Ross episodes available on Netflix, so I have seen sizable portions of “happy trees” lessons. One thing I may do, though I had not thought this when I made my sample, was to teach the use of this type of brush:


This came up in our staff meeting; another tutor asked me advice/tips on such a goal. You can see in my sample, I have one taller evergreen with branches shooting up. After the sky is completely done, I’d  demonstrate making branches of green (with any kind of brush, really). Then I could show them how to use the above pictured type to dip in a dark brown/black for the tree trunk. The flat, slim line makes it really easy to slice own the center of the tree to give it a spine. Then I can show them (using even the same brush) going back and adding more branches–some overtop that brown trunk line, some not. It’s a quick, simple way to give trees some depth.

Step 4: Middle ground. In my sample, it’s the midline of deciduous trees. I didn’t get carried away with detail.

Step 5: Foreground. First I painted the grass. Here, I tell students, is where detail and brushstrokes count. I painted my grass the lightest green (with lots of yellow) that is in my whole painting. The lightest colors will generally always be closest to the viewer. I painted a little brown path to break up the nearest grass from the farthest grass. Maybe I wanted a curving line because everything else so far is so linear and horizontal.

Next, I will demonstrate painting the grass in the foreground with brushstrokes that mimic the way grass grows: up. Because the brown path is in, I painted the grass growing up in front of it. Last is the big tree. Because it is closest to the viewer, it can also be tall enough to block some of the elements behind it. (Reviewing perspective from the drawing unit.) I chose a cherry tree in blossom to add some brightness. Brushwork here is really simple for kids to mimic: just little dashes of the brush touching the paper, splotch after splotch. (This is good prep for impressionist projects coming up.)

Now, the painting is done. Let it dry during the next step.

Step 6: Portrait. If you have the room, I highly suggest moving the students to another table. Here, I will give them a blank sheet of paper and instructions to draw  a person that will fit somewhere in the landscape. Important: Have them check how big this person can be. For instance, I had to check how much room I had under my cherry tree for my figures.


Simply due to time restraints for this class, there will not be a lot of time for this. Encourage kids to keep it simple, maybe of just one figure. I will show the example in the Discovering Great Artists book. I hope between my adult sample and that young kid sample, they will see there is a range that is possible. (The book’s example is very simple, from an early elementary student.) One time saver is to suggest students simply draw it (delaying the coloring of it until they are home). If time allows, by all means, let them color with colored pencils. Because the painting will not be dry before class is over, allowing us to paste on the figure, so maybe it’s even smarter to have them do the cutting-out at home as well, because the little figures are more easily lost that way.

Finished project:


In sum, this was more fun than I expected.

Another option: I know some tutors have done this project with a photographs children brought to class–already cut out. I’m not going that route because A) getting pictures these days can be difficult when most people have them on their phone but hardly ever printed, and B) kids forgetting or not having them requires a plan B. But if you think that could work for your class, it would allow you to focus exclusively on the landscape.

Future lessons should be on their way. If you are looking for lessons for weeks 13 and 14, check out Inside the Line Lessons. I read her lessons for those weeks before I approached my own, and there was no need for me to reinvent the wheel. Highly recommended.

Other related posts:

How I Talk to My Students about Drawing on Day One

Basics of Drawing: Fine Arts, Week 1 for Classical Conversations

Creating an Encouraging Classroom


About Renee Lannan's blog

I live, write, teach and enjoy life from a place of hope and a belief in miracles from seeing first-hand the depths of redemption
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