The Tree of Life

By Rachel Wintemberg, posted on Sep 1, 2018

Gustav Klimt filled his artwork with mysterious imagery and mythological references. He did not explain his pictures, instead leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the story. We do know that Klimt was inspired by Egyptian art. I have long been fascinated with the “Tree of Life” at the center of Klimt’s Stoclet Frieze, a series of three mosaics created by the Austrian painter.

Kiara, grade seven, at work.

Art History: The Cycle of Life
In ancient Egypt, as in many cultures, a tree was used to symbolize the power of nature and the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. Art historians hypothesize that the swirling lines of Klimt’s branches represent the Nile River, destroying everything in its wake in the annual flood while depositing rich soil upon the banks.

The Egyptian god most often associated with this cycle of life is Osiris, who was cruelly murdered by his son, Set, and then resurrected by his wife, the goddess Isis. Osiris’s other son, Horus, is represented in Klimt’s work both as a falcon and an “all-seeing eye.” Horus’s real eye was gouged out by his evil brother Set, as the sons battled for power in the wake of their father’s death. Isis magically restored the eye, imbuing it with magical properties. Rather than keep it, Horus offered it to his father in the hope of bringing him back to life. The eye is symbolic of wisdom, loyalty, restoration, and sacrifice.

Starting with Line
I was eager to teach my new students about the expressive possibilities of the art element of line, and the Tree of Life proved to be an ideal inspiration. Many of my new middle-school students had little faith in their creative abilities.

I knew I needed to start by teaching them how to use line, pattern, color, and space so they could become confident artists. Wanting to avoid having students merely copy Klimt’s artwork, I elected not to show it to them until after their creations were complete.

I asked students to begin by drawing a tree with a trunk, roots, and branches that filled the page. All the branches and roots had to go off the edge of the page. We used toy cars to test if the lines were wide enough, imagining that the roots and branches were roads and the trunk was a highway.

Adding Color with Pattern
Next, I gave each student a color theory worksheet and color wheel. I briefly reviewed primary colors, secondary colors, warm colors, cool colors, tints, and complementary colors. This review took less than ten minutes because I allowed students to keep the reference sheets for the duration of the project.

Using a Lines and Patterns worksheet packet I made as a reference (see Web Link), students used oil pastels to fill each negative space on the page with patterns, using the following criteria:

  • Pick one negative space in your drawing and color the design within using two complementary colors, no mixing.
  • In another space, use one warm color and one cool color, no mixing.
  • Fill another space with all three primary colors, no mixing.

Other color schemes featured on the worksheet include any secondary color and its tint (see how many values you can create by gradually adding more white), any primary color and its tint (can you create a value scale and use it in your design?), any two primary colors and the secondary colors that are created from mixing them, warm colors only and  cool colors only. In the last space, I gave students free choice of color but told them to create tests on a piece of scrap paper first.

Adding Contrast with Ink
Once the drawings were finished, students used square shading brushes to draw a line of India ink along the edge of the oil pastel, rotating the paper while painting to  minimize drips. If a student did drip on the oil pastel, we allowed it to dry and then chipped it off. Next, they painted every white space that did not have oil pastel with black India ink, filling in the tree. One student decided to leave the inside of her tree white after painting the lines, creating a beautiful sense of contrast.

Discuss and Reflect
Once our creations were done, I showed students Klimt’s artwork and asked them to discuss and write four reflection questions:

  1. Why did Mrs. Wintemberg have you do this assignment?
  2. What did she want you to learn? How is your picture similar to Gustav Klimt’s picture?
  3. Klimt’s picture is mysterious. It uses many symbols. What are some symbols you can find in his artwork?
  4. Make up a story to explain what is going on in his picture.

We proudly displayed the artwork, together with student reflections, in the hallway and at district art exhibits.

Rachel Wintemberg teaches art to grades five to eight at Samuel E. Shull School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and is a contributing editor for SchoolArts.

Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.


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