Beyond First Impressions

Lesson Plan


Students will examine the visual tools used in the painting Road to Santa Fe and how those tools help the painter tell a particular story. They will then use the painting to explore storytelling and use brainstorming strategies to enrich the content and voice of stories they will write. Multiple drafts and peer-editing will help teach students how working and reworking a piece, much like painters do when planning a painting, will strengthen their finished product.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • identify at least three visual elements that help the artist tell a story;
  • explain the use of color, shading, and lines in Road to Santa Fe;
  • brainstorm with fellow classmates in small groups;
  • use peer-editing to help refine and strengthen their syntax; and
  • use the painting, real-world experiences, and their imaginations to write a vivid story.


  1. Warm-up: Divide students into six groups and give each group one of the magazine pictures. Tell them they are to write a one-paragraph story based on what they see. Have younger students tell each other stories aloud. Repeat the activity with one more picture. Have the groups share their favorite stories with the class.
  2. Share the painting Road to Santa Fe with the students and begin brainstorming different ideas of what might be happening in the painting. What story is the painter trying to tell? How does he use color, lighting, and angles to tell it? After they think they’ve come up with the “right” answer, have them come up with at least two other story possibilities. You might want to weave in information from the About the Art section as the discussion progresses.
  3. After spending some time brainstorming as a group, allow students to work individually on stories. Their stories should be based on the painting and one of the ideas they liked from the group brainstorm. Encourage them to adopt different perspectives, perhaps telling the story from the viewpoint of one of the donkeys, the road, the house, a cactus, the sky, etc., and write short, quick paragraphs using these perspectives. Shifting away from the simple human perspective opens up possibilities. Have younger students tell each other stories in pairs.
  4. After they finish these quick drafts, have them pair up and edit each other’s stories.
  5. Have students select their favorite paragraph from their peer's pieces and write a longer piece. Share the final pieces in larger groups.


  • Six large pictures from magazines, preferably travel magazines, taped or glued onto cardstock
  • Lined paper and pencil or pen for each student
  • About the Art section on Road to Santa Fe
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Road to Santa Fe

Road to Santa Fe


Theodore Van Soelen, United States

Who Made It?

Theodore Van Soelen, known as Soely to his New Mexico pals, was born in Minnesota in 1890. He received traditional, academic-style art training in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and also traveled through Europe. In 1922 he moved west for health reasons—the arid climate was recommended for his tuberculosis. He worked for the railroad, at a trading post, and as a cowboy before settling his family and building a home and studio in Tesuque [teh-SOO-kay], New Mexico, just outside Santa Fe. He also worked as a portrait painter, illustrator, muralist, and lithographer (print-maker). By the 1930s the demand for his paintings was large enough in the East to permit him to establish a second studio in Connecticut, although his affiliations remained in New Mexico.

What Inspired It?

In The Road to Santa Fe, Van Soelen shows a moment in the life of his neighbors, on the road to Santa Fe from Tesuque to sell their wood. He believed that artists should live and work with their subjects, so his neighbors often appeared in his work. They're placed in shadow, are relatively small in the composition, and the woman and child are featureless; the picture is less about them as individuals than about the setting, activities, and mood of their lifestyle. Van Soelen felt that art should be based on discipline and observation. Though he was devoted to the realist tradition, he was also perfectly willing to transport a mountain from one side of a painting to another in order to achieve a more harmonious composition.


New Mexico Hills
New Mexico Hills

The Road to Santa Fe shows a hillside probably near Van Soelen’s home in Tesuque. He brings out the texture, colors, and shapes of the landscape.


The background is darker, the middle ground has bright sun, and the foreground is in shadow. This is the type of scene Van Soelen’s son said he especially liked—sunny with deep blue hills. The way the light falls also creates balance in the composition.

Framing Device
Framing Device

The shaded objects in the foreground—the tree branches, the fence, the donkeys, and the various plants on the ground—frame the right side of the painting.

The Cross
The Cross

The cross is tilted and its arms extend along the diagonal line of the sloping ground, causing it to blend in a bit with the road.

Repeated Diagonal
Repeated Diagonal

The sun is shining in just the right direction to cast shadows along the same diagonal as the road and the cross.

Repeated Shapes
Repeated Shapes

The donkeys all have the same profile, the cross shape is echoed in the nearby cactus shapes, and there are similar fence slats at both sides of the painting.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.