Lesson: Art and Authors

  • Grades: K–8
  • Subjects: English Language Arts

Students will interpret and discuss mood, body language, etc. of a piece/portrait based on their observations. Students will then discuss how authors create characters similar to artists. Teachers will then pick a character from a book the class is reading and have students do a compare and contrast of the person in the painting they are observing and the character in their book/story they are/have read in the form of a graphic organizer, such as a Venn diagram.


  • Students will explain their own ideas and understanding in discussion and in writing.
  • Students will make inferences about mood, body language, etc., based on their observations.
  • Students will compare and contrast a character in a painting with a character in a book/story they are reading or have read.

Vocabulary: non-verbal communication, portrait


Painting of a bearded man with hands folded and resting on his knee
Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait, c. 1885, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Acquired through the generosity of the Sarah Mellon Scaife Family © Public Domain
  1. Begin by asking students, “How do you know what your parents are thinking without them saying it (nonverbal communication: use of visual cues such as body language, touch, etc.)?” Have them give specific details. If there is time, have students give examples of non-verbal communication and have the rest of the class interpret what their mood is: mad, happy, excited, etc.

    Find a painting with a person present—preferably a piece/portrait where one could do interpretations of mood, body language, etc. Generally, paintings where the artist knows the sitter are considered portraits, otherwise one would refer to the person(s) as figure(s) or character(s). Some examples include A Munich Boy (ca. 1873–77) by Joseph Frank Currier, Henry Rushbury (1927) by Gerald L. Brockhurst, or Self-Portrait (ca. 1885) by Paul Cezanne.

    Have a short discussion which could include:

    • Describe this person/character’s physical appearance.
    • How old do you think they are? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • Are they from the past or present? What do you see that makes you say that?

    The teacher can generate a list of answers.

  2. Discuss the subsequent questions, following up with “What do you see that makes you say that?” after each one:

    • What is this person(s) mood?
    • What is he/she/they thinking about?
    • What is the setting?

  3. Artists create characters by providing details; this is similar to the way an author creates characters in text. Refer to a text students are currently reading in their class. Discuss how authors create characters: setting, conflict, plot, mood, tone, etc.

    Hand out a Venn diagram with the name of a character in a current book you are reading or have read recently in class and the name of the next portrait students will be observing. Have them find similarities and differences in each. Perhaps include vocabulary words like mood, tone, theme, etc. Have students share out their answers.