Students will examine how Russell used the foreground and background of his painting In the Enemy’s Country to demonstrate camouflage. They will then use fruit and found objects to gain first-hand experience with how to disguise an everyday object as something else.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 55 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- differentiate between foreground and background in Russell’s painting;
- understand the concept of camouflage; and
- work in a group and use their imaginations to turn an everyday object into something else.
- Show students In the Enemy’s Country and ask what they see. What do they think is happening in this painting?
- Introduce students to the vocabulary terms foreground and background. Have them focus on the land and look at the foreground and background. Where do they see the most details and where do they see fewer details on the land? For example, in the foreground you can see detailed vegetation, but in the background you can only make out grassy clumps.
- Ask students to describe the figures in the foreground. What are they wearing? What do you think they are doing? Now use these same questions to contrast what is going on in the background. Do the figures in the background look like people?
- Introduce the term camouflage. What could the people be camouflaging themselves and their horses as? Bring in some background information about the painting from the About the Art section. The painting shows a group of Kootenai Indians crossing into another tribe’s territory to hunt buffalo. The men walk beside their horses and place buffalo hides, fur side up, on the horses’ backs. When viewed from a distance, the group looks like a small band of buffalo, which kept them from being bothered.
- Divide students into groups of three or four. Give each group a different piece of fruit and an assortment of materials such as markers, found objects, and glue. Tell them to imagine that their piece of fruit needs to escape from the cafeteria by disguising itself as an animal.
- Groups should first look at the shape of their piece of fruit and brainstorm all of the possible animals it could be disguised as. Give students time to find pictures of animals, either in books already pulled from the library or on the Internet. Have them find materials that mimic the colors and textures of their animal and begin assembling their camouflaged animal.
- Assorted pieces of fruit of various shapes (e.g. banana, orange, apple, pear)
- Assorted found materials (e.g. fabric, bottle caps, wire, yarn)
- Student access to images of various animals, either from books or the Internet
- About the Art section on In the Enemy’s Country (included with the lesson) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- 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
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, Charles M. Russell was a restless kid and an unimpressive student. He later said the only reason he learned to read was to devour novels about Buffalo Bill Cody, a colorful figure from the American Old West. Hoping that a good dose of hardworking reality in the untamed West would cure him of his romantic fantasies, Russell’s parents finally let him move to Montana at age 16—where rather than being cured, his passion grew. There he worked first as a sheepherder, followed by 11 years as a night-wrangler of horses (a job that gave him plenty of time to sketch during the day).
Beginning in 1893, Russell devoted more time to art and, after marrying three years later, became much more disciplined. His wife Nancy pried him away from his drinking buddies, encouraged him to paint, and ambitiously marketed his work. Russell was essentially selftaught, having participated in only a few sessions with professional illustrators. His skill and vision developed throughout his life as he looked at other artists’ work and, when visiting New York to promote sales, discussed technique with artists he met. If he was struggling with a painting, Russell would put down his palette and go outside to twirl his lasso.
What Inspired It?
Russell tried to keep himself separate from modernization as it crept into Montana, and he lamented the loss of the heroic Old West. His primary interest in art was the celebration of what he called “The West That Has Passed.” The scene in this painting is imaginary, inspired by a nostalgic vision set well before Russell’s time. To make the image look and feel real, Russell relied on his personal experience and observations from his early years in Montana. He also made annual trips to Indian reservations in Montana to brush up on his techniques and refresh his imagery.
Russell’s paintings often bear evidence of a story—hints about what might have happened before or what might follow. When this painting was first exhibited, it was described as a group of Kootenai Indians crossing into another tribe’s territory to hunt buffalo. Because they have entered a hostile area, the Kootenai must travel carefully to avoid conflict. The men walk beside their horses and place buffalo hides, fur side up, on the horses’ backs. When viewed from a distance, the group looks like a small band of buffalo, which kept them from being bothered.
The central figure is bestowed with greater detail, more intense color, and even a halo effect formed by the cloud behind his head.
The clouds in this painting echo the figures. They are brightest and most defined over the men in the lead, and they thin out as they trail off to the right, just like the figures do. This creates a sense of harmony and reinforces the hierarchy within the group.
Look at the figures near the back of the line—the further away they are, the more they look like buffalo.
Russell painted a variety of prairie grass clumps, scrubby brush, and exposed earth with clods of dirt and stones. When you stand about ten feet away from the painting, the vegetation looks incredibly descriptive. But when you move closer it seems to dissolve into wild brushstrokes. Giving the foreground special attention is a technique Russell developed to keep the entire surface of his paintings interesting.
Interesting colors emerge in shadows as a result of reflected light. Notice how the horse’s ankles are green, and the face and neck of the horse on the left have blue spots.
The green vegetation suggests that it’s spring or early summer on the plains. Buffalo will be fat so it’s worth the risk to cross into another tribe’s territory to hunt.
For Russell, the disappearance of the buffalo epitomized the “West That Has Passed.” He may have identified with the buffalo that way—a tiny buffalo skull became a trademark he used with his signature, perhaps because he began to see himself as a relic of the Old West.