Students will look at William R. Leigh’s painting Greased Lightning and imagine stories that explain what might have startled the horse, then they will have the chance to act out their imagined stories.
Intended Age GroupEarly childhood (ages 3-5)
Length of LessonOne 25 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- use their imaginations to create stories;
- act out their own stories; and
- make predictions about emotions based on their own feelings.
1. Warm-up: Ask the students what their favorite animals are. Using animals from that list, invite them to move and act in a way that they think a calm animal would act. Now have them move and act in a way that an excited animal might act. Have them show you how they act when they as students are calm and excited. Now focus on horses. Have the students first act like a calm horse, then like an excited horse. Consider playing country western music for the students move to.
2. Show the students Leigh’s painting Greased Lightning. What might have happened in this painting to make the horse act like this? Encourage the students to think of as many stories as they can as to what may have excited, startled, or angered the horse. Record their ideas on the board.
3. When you have compiled a good list, ask for volunteers to come to the front of the room, two at a time, and act out one of the scenarios of what might have happened in Greased Lightning. Have a cowboy hat for the students to use as a prop.
4. When all of the students have had a chance to act, lead a brainstorm on how the horse might have been feeling when he was startled. How did they feel when they were acting as the horse? Did they pretend to be panicked? Scared? Excited? How did they move their bodies to show these feelings? Did the way they moved look like the way the horse in the painting is moving?
- Cowboy hat
- 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
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- 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.