Students will identify and describe details in William R. Leigh’s painting Greased Lightning, then choose appropriate vocabulary words to write Mad Lib stories about what may (or may not!) be happening in the painting.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 55 minute lesson
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- point out and discuss artistic and visual elements in a painting;
- identify the parts of speech and choose words accordingly; and
- reach more deeply into their vocabulary to describe a painting.
- Show the students Leigh’s painting Greased Lightning. Call on students to identify any details that stand out to them. What is their favorite part of the painting? What are the most noticeable colors, textures, objects?
- Encourage the students to look even closer at the painting. What might have happened to make the horse act this way? Why might the horse have bucked the rider off? How would you feel if you were the rider? Encourage them to imagine lots of possibilities.
- As a class, brainstorm a list of all the words that the students associate with the painting. For example: the West, horse, dust, bucking, scared, exciting, throwing, hat, etc. Write their words on the board.
- List the parts of speech on the board and review them. For younger students, this would be a good lesson to begin introducing the parts of speech. Organize their association words into correct parts of speech categories.
- Divide the students into partners and distribute the Mad Lib sheets included in this lesson. Using words that are associated with the painting and that fit the part of speech needed, they should fill in the Mad Lib sheets, creating stories that are unique, unusual, and fun. For younger students, fill in the Mad Lib sheets as a class.
- When everyone is finished, gather the class together again. Invite the students to share their Mad Lib stories aloud. Be prepared for some silly stories!
- Compare the Mad Lib stories to the painting. Could any of the stories actually explain what might be happening in the painting? Or are they just plain silly and fun? What elements could be accurate? Inaccurate? What visual clues could prove or disprove their stories?
- Pencils/pens and paper
- Mad Lib story sheets
- About the Art section on Greased Lightning
- One color copy of the painting for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Even before he had seen the West, artist William R. Leigh [LEE] believed it was the only real America. Born in West Virginia, he did not travel to the western United States until he was 40 years old. With his upper-class family on the verge of bankruptcy, Leigh struggled to find funding to study art and managed to get training at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore and the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. He returned to the U.S. in 1896 and set up a studio in New York, where he worked as an illustrator for two American magazines—Scribner’s and Collier’s.
About 10 years later, Leigh finally made his way west. To fund his trip he made an agreement with the advertising manager of the Santa Fe Railroad to paint the land and the people of the West, specifically the Laguna Pueblo near the four corners region, in exchange for a ride. Camping alone in the Grand Canyon, Leigh had an epiphany about the subject matter he needed to pursue. Over the next 20 years, he made dozens of trips west, bringing hundreds of drawings and painted studies back to his New York studio, where he used them in dramatic compositions. Leigh painted Greased Lightning when he was 80 years old.
What Inspired It?
“I find in the West the truly typical and distinctively American motifs, a grandeur in Natural surroundings, a dramatic simplicity in life which can be found nowhere else. In that life, in those surroundings…, marvelously varied and abundant—the horse plays a major role,” wrote Leigh in his 1933 book The Western Pony.
Growing up on a plantation sparked Leigh’s interest in animals, horses in particular, and his studies in Germany allowed him to master realist techniques. This, paired with the vivid colors of the American West and his flair for the dramatic, allowed him to create a unique style. Leigh was an advocate for distinctly American art and opposed the abstract style of modernism.
In this painting, the shapes of the horse and rider fit around each other almost like puzzle pieces and things fling out from the churning center in all directions: flying legs, stirrups, reins and, of course, the suspended, upside-down cowboy, hat, and gun. Leigh once described an action filled scene such as this one, in which a rider is bucked from his horse: “A real zestful bucker bawls while bucking. His bawl is a strident scream expressive of utter exasperation—fury of the most savage and reckless sort. The bucker will also bite or kick his rider [who], when he sees he will not be able to stay on his horse, tries to fall as deliberately as may be.”
The horse is the central figure in this painting, portrayed as willful and independent. Notice that its face is every bit as expressive as that of the rider.
Leigh was an excellent draftsman, thanks to his rigorous academic training. He could seemingly draw anything, including this awkward pose that most artists probably wouldn’t attempt (or want to).
Leigh was drawn to the bright and intense colors he found in the West, though his colors became increasingly theatrical. Don’t miss the pink-tinged mountains in the background (in spite of bright sunlight in the foreground) and the bright green eye of the horse.
The shadows on the ground are also bright in color. It is interesting to compare how they match up to the horse and rider above them.
The mountains in the background and the brush and rocks in the foreground were probably taken from site studies Leigh made out west.