The Visual “Language” of Emotions

Lesson Plan


Students will examine how the composition of O’Keeffe’s Cow Licking influences their reaction to the painting. They will then draw upon what they learn to create a piece of their own.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

One 45 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • list at least five visual details in the painting Cow Licking;
  • explain how O’Keeffe made creative choices for a specific purpose;
  • feel comfortable taking creative risks to make their own work of art;
  • identify at least three goals they want to achieve in their artwork; and
  • explain how peer critiques can help them refine their thinking and artistic processes.


  1. Preparation: Read the About the Art section on Cow Licking, in particular the “Details” section.
  2. Warm-up: Ask students to find photographs and pictures of cows online or in magazines, as many as they possibly can. Have the students get into groups of two to three and discuss how each picture makes them view the cows. If they are able to print the images, have them draw lines on the pictures that reflect how their eye moves across the image and what role the cow plays within those lines. Do any of the pictures evoke emotions? Do the students have a strong reaction to any of them? Why or why not?
  3. Show the students O’Keeffe’s painting Cow Licking and have them write down their immediate response. What elements lead to that response (e.g., content, composition, color)?
  4. Have students compare O’Keeffe’s cow to the images of cows they found online. Help them see how her artistic choices transform the animal into something different, unique. She doesn’t paint a literal cow, but uses line, color, composition, cropping of just the head, etc., to express something different than what a photograph can. She zooms in on the face and gives us that big, watery eye that seems to look at us. A cow is such an ordinary subject, but O’Keeffe does something to it that gives us a different feeling than a photo of a cow might. This is a powerful thing and it is interesting to think about what she did, artistically, to create a different feeling in the viewer.
  5. Share information from the “Details” section of About the Art and talk about the lines of the image and where the viewer’s eye travels. How do these lines influence the feelings the painting evokes? Does the fact that the painting has no angular or straight lines influence the students’ response to it? (The lesson can end after this discussion, or you can move forward with the art project.)
  6. Tell the students they are going to pick any object or animal to use as inspiration for their own artwork. You can have them draw their own image, or if they don’t feel comfortable drawing, they could manipulate a digital image or create a collage instead. They need to make a composition that evokes a strong impression or feeling and brings the viewer close to the subject.
  7. Have students brainstorm about their composition and then share their ideas with a partner. After giving each other feedback, they should begin working. The project could be short and confined to a single class period or it could be a longer assignment stretched out over a week or more, depending on the skills emphasized.
  8. When the students finish their pieces, have them get into groups of four to five and discuss the emotions they were trying to evoke, how they did or did not succeed, and how they could modify their piece to be more effective.


  • Computers and printer to print images from the Internet
  • Assorted magazines
  • Glue sticks
  • Scissors
  • Colored pencils
  • Paper or cardboard
  • Information about humor found on the following websites:

"What is comedy and what makes something funny?" from Language Foundry

"What Makes Something Funny?" from NPR

  • About the Art section on Cow Licking
  • Color copies of Cow Licking for students to share, 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
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

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

About the Art

Cow Licking

Cow Licking


Georgia O'Keeffe

Who Made It?

Georgia O’Keeffe was a woman ahead of her time: independent, adventurous, and radically creative. Her paintings of abstract forms, flowers, architecture, landscapes, and bones earned her a reputation as a pioneering modern American artist.

O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, and her early years living on the family’s dairy farm initiated a lifelong appreciation of nature. She declared in 8th grade that she wanted to be an artist, and after learning to draw in her art classes at school, she went on to study drawing and painting more formally in Virginia, New York, and Chicago.

In 1912, while O’Keeffe was enrolled in a summer drawing class at the University of Virginia, she was introduced to the ideas of artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow thought that artists should “fill a space in a beautiful way” rather than try to copy directly from nature. He offered advice on organizing and balancing shapes, lines, and colors in the composition; simplifying forms; and balancing dark and light. O’Keeffe adapted these tools to her own work, producing a series of abstract charcoal drawings that were like nothing she had ever done before. Of her newfound discovery of abstraction, she expressed that “It was like learning to walk. I was alone and singularly free, no one to satisfy but myself." These principles went on to permeate all of her future work.

O’Keeffe shared her abstract charcoal drawings with a friend from art school, who, in 1916, took them to Alfred Stieglitz without O’Keeffe’s knowledge or permission. Stieglitz was a photographer and owner of the influential art gallery 291 in New York City, where the cutting-edge work of contemporary American and European artists was exhibited. He included O’Keeffe’s drawings in a group exhibition, officially launching her career in the public eye. The two went on to form a relationship and eventually marry in 1924 and were among the most well-known advocates of modern art in America.

O’Keeffe’s career spanned nearly six decades. Reflecting on her career at age 90, O’Keeffe said, “It takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve…A kind of nerve, and a lot of hard, hard work.”

What Inspired It?

A dairy cow is an unusual subject for O’Keeffe, who rarely included people or animals in her work. But a cow was no stranger to O’Keeffe, who spent her childhood on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She also would have known cattle from her years of teaching art in Amarillo, Texas, during her twenties. This particular cow was likely inspired by one she saw on her many stays in the upstate resort area of Lake George, New York, where she regularly spent summers with her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and his family.

O’Keeffe’s work was often inspired by her surroundings. In the 1920s she painted the skyscrapers of New York, where she lived with Stieglitz. She experimented with close-up views of flowers that she occasionally glimpsed in the city and saw in abundance at Lake George. In 1929 she began summering in New Mexico—moving there permanently in the 1940s after Stieglitz’s death—and depicted the crosses, landscapes, architecture, and other aspects of her adopted home in colorful paintings. And when she began to travel the world in her later years, she painted her interpretation of the view from the airplane, above the clouds.


Unusual View
Unusual View

The cow’s head takes up the entire length and width of the 20x12-inch canvas and is shown in perfect profile against a plain background. The head forms a triangular shape on the canvas, beginning with the narrower tongue and snout and widening toward the skull and ears at the bottom of the composition.

Curious Tongue
Curious Tongue

Do you see the vibrant green grapes dangling from the top of the composition? The cow’s curved pink tongue reaches out from its parted lips as it tries to get a taste of the juicy fruits above.

Cow’s Eye
Cow’s Eye

Notice the large eye staring directly out at you as the tongue reaches up to taste the grapes. Have we caught the cow in the act of pilfering the grapes?

Vivid Color
Vivid Color

“Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me,” said O’Keeffe. She loved color. Variations of rich greens and pinks saturate the canvas and contrast with the black and white of the cow’s head. Notice the soft pink color of the nostril and the thin crescent of blue above the large pupil of the cow’s eye.

Curved Lines
Curved Lines

There isn’t a straight line to be found in this painting. The rounded eye, the jaw lines, the arch of the tongue, the oval nostrils, the plump grapes, and even the pattern of fur colors are made of smooth, curved lines. O’Keeffe often used the curved line as a repeating form in her drawings and paintings.

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.