Students will explore how William Merritt Chase repeated lines and textures throughout his fish painting. They will make a Japanese-style gyotaku fish print, then choose a line to repeat by adding an object to their print with oil pastels.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonTwo 45 minute lessons
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- look actively at a painting and explore lines, colors, and texture;
- make a gyotaku style fish print;
- use their imaginations to transform a line into an object; and
- share their finished artworks with the class.
- Begin by showing the class Chase’s painting. Ask students to go on a visual hunt for repeated shapes and objects. Some examples: curved lines, kitchen items, shiny objects.
- Have students go on a hunt for opposites. Some examples: the slithering fish and the firm copper pot; the dark background and the light fish and plate.
- Share the following quotation from Chase about his love for painting fish: “I enjoy painting fishes; in the infinite variety of these creatures, the subtle and exquisite colored tones of the flesh, fresh from the water, the way their surfaces reflect the light, I take the greatest pleasure…It may be that I will be remembered as a painter of fish.”
- Tell students that a painting like this one usually took Chase less than a day to complete, and he would douse the fish in ice water to keep them from smelling. Story has it that Chase once rented a fish in order to paint it and returned it still fresh enough to be sold!
- Explain that there is a Japanese painting process called gyotaku, which involves making prints with actual fish. Just like Chase wanted to capture the beauty of fish by creating a painting of them, Japanese fishermen created a rubbing of fish they caught before selling them or releasing them back into the ocean.
- Tell students that they will be creating their own fish prints. Each student will print a fish on a dark background and then repeat the curve of the fish by drawing additional objects after their print is dry.
- Set up the printing stations. Each station should have a fish laying on dry paper, water-based paint and brushes, and a water cup for rinsing.
- Do a demonstration for the students:
- Choose a fish and paint one side with a variety of colors.
- Place your paper over the painted fish and press down on the paper, making sure all areas have been pressed down.
- Starting at one end, peel your paper off the fish slowly. (It may help to have someone hold down the fish as you pull the paper back.)
- Let students experiment a couple of times on newsprint before they do their final print. Consider having some iridescent/metallic colors of paint for the students to use to mimic the shininess seen in Chase’s painting.
- Display Chase’s painting again. Review the different places where Chase repeated curved forms.
- Have students look at their prints and focus on the lines in their fish. Have them trace a line from their fish onto tracing paper. They will use this line to create a new object and incorporate that object into the background of their print. Tell them they can use this line to draw anything they’d like!
- Give students pastels to add their curved object to their fish print.
- Have students share their prints with the class. Display them together in a prominent place.
- Real fresh fish from the market or plastic fish replicas, which can be purchased through Dick Blick and eNasco.
- Newsprint for practice prints
- Latex gloves (if using real fish)
- One large sheet of heavy, dark paper per student (14 x 12 inches)
- Tracing paper
- Paints of various colors, including some metallic colors
- Paint brushes
- Oil pastels
- About the Art section on Still Life with Fish
- 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
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
William Merritt Chase was born in Williamsburg, Indiana, and began his formal art training in New York before heading to Germany, where he studied at the Munich Royal Academy for six years. While Chase identified himself as a realist, painting realistic still-lifes and portraits, others classified him as one of America’s best artists painting in an impressionistic style. His body of work spans a wide range of subject matter: still-lifes, portraits, landscapes, and impressionistic views. He always championed skillful technique over distinguished subject matter, and delighted in turning humble or inelegant common objects into pleasing images. In Chase’s words, “If you can paint a pot, you can paint an angel.”
Chase taught for over 38 years and was very proud of his role as a teacher. His teaching career included the Art Students League in New York and his own outdoor art school on Long Island. Chase would tell his students, “Be in an absorbent frame of mind. Take the best from everything.” One of his well-known students, Georgia O’Keeffe, once described him: “There was something fresh and energetic about him that made him fun…To interest him, paintings had to be alive with paint and a kind of dash and go.” Even though he received recognition and honors throughout his career, Chase relied on teaching to support his family and to give him the financial stability to avoiding painting works for the mere sake of marketability. Chase died at the age of 66 after several months of illness.
What Inspired It?
William Merritt Chase enjoyed turning mundane subjects into pleasing images. As he said, “Paint the commonplace in such a way as to make it distinguished.” Because fish were objects of great beauty to Chase, he painted them frequently. In 1913, he remarked, “I enjoy painting fishes; in the infinite variety of these creatures, the subtle and exquisite colored tones of the flesh, fresh from the water, the way their surfaces reflect the light, I take the greatest pleasure…It may be that I will be remembered as a painter of fish.” Chase’s impressive technique drew attention and acclaim to his work, placing his still lifes with fish in high demand. His affinity for a dark palette and bold brushwork were influenced by his studies at the Munich Royal Academy.
Chase was notorious for painting quickly. His dashing painting demonstrations, in which he completed a major composition within a few hours, were legendary. A fish painting like ours usually took him less than a day to complete. He would douse the fish he used as models in ice water to keep them from smelling. Story has it that Chase once rented a fish in order to paint it and returned it still fresh enough to be sold.
One scholar refers to this painting as a “kitchen piece” because of its lack of “elegance,” its association with daily life, and because the elements depicted are related to the preparation of a meal. The fish is displayed with objects that might be used to prepare it.
Chase enjoyed painting copper pots, so his choice of including one in the composition was not only practical but also aesthetic. The pot creates a play of color and shine between its burnished gold and the shimmering silver fish, and also a play of texture between the slithering fish and the firm structure of the pot.
Chase was able to achieve a strong sense of realism without a high degree of detail. In this work there are several examples of his quick vigorous brushwork. Chase creates a convincing fin by simply dragging a flat, dry brush through wet paint. There are several spots on the copper pot where the canvas is still visible.
Chase admired many 17th century Dutch artists and hung copies of their paintings in his studio. By recreating the characteristic dark background used by these artists, Chase was able to better highlight the light silvery tones of his fish.
Chase used color carefully in this painting to create a rich, warm atmosphere. The golden-brown foreground and background accentuate the silvery-grey fish, while the bright red of the lobster and onion balance and enliven the composition.
A group of dead fish gave Chase an opportunity to compose an elegant series of related curves. And by including the cooking pot and white plate, he could take the echoing shapes a step further.