Helen Frankenthaler "Soak Stain" Art Lesson for Kids

Frankenthaler Lesson Plan

A watercolor painting technique that's one of a kind!

“There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is all about.”

– Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – 2011

A lesson plan in watercolor for all age levels, completed in two 45 minute class periods.


Students learn about the life of the famous artist Helen Frankenthaler, and create a set of note cards using her “soak-stain” painting method.


  • Liquid watercolor paint
  • Plastic cups
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Various sponges, brushes, sticks, etc. (optional) drop cloth/newspaper
  • Large watercolor paper Nasco School Grades 18 x 24 in. white, pack of 100 Packs of cards and envelopes, 5 x 6.5 in.
  • Paper cutter, ruler, rubber bands (for teacher prep)


Abstract Expressionist, Color field painting, soak-stain technique, warm/cool color, association, emotions, express, diluted, muddy, mount

National Core Art Standards—Visual:

#1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work
#3: Refine and complete artistic work

#5: Develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation Responding– #9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work

Dancing Through Fields of Color:

Dancing Through Fields of Color by Elizabeth Brown, Ilustrated by Aimee Sicuro

By Elizabeth Brown, Illustrated by Aimee Sicuro

Dancing Through Fields of Color is a charming account of Helen Frankenthaler’s childhood and passion for art. It tells how she chose to ignore any rules in art in favor of free expression, joyfully exploring color and move- ment with spontaneity and free form, often ex- pressing memories and emotion through color.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) has long been recognized as one of the great American Abstract Expressionists of the 20th century. As a young artist in NYC during the 1940s, Frankenthaler was credited with what is known as Color Field Painting, and then developed the “soak-stain” technique where she would pour thinned down oil paint onto can- vas, producing color washes that would fuse together. She would then at times, manipulate/guide the “spill” of paint with a brush or sponge to create various abstract images.

In this lesson plan, students learn the process and experiment with Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique, and then use their paintings to cut up and create a set of one-of a-kind note cards.

The psychology of color:

Warm colors and feelings associated with them:

Yellow: sunny, cheerful, happy, excited, inspired, creative Orange: joy, comfort, success, enthusiasm

Red: love, drama, energy, sometimes anger

Cool colors and feelings associated with them:

Blue: peaceful, tranquil, harmonious, serene Green: fresh, calming, organic, loyal, gentle Purple: vibrant, royal, artistic, unique

Have a discussion with your students about the connections between feelings and warm and cool colors. Warm colors usually communicate love, happiness, fun, warmth and excitement, inspiration and creativity. Cool colors spark feel- ings of peacefulness making you feel calm and rested, they are soothing, they can sometimes communicate sadness.

Encourage the students to think about this, and share moments, memories, places and ideas associated with color, just as Helen did in the story; such ideas as memorable sunsets, lush green places, the colors of the seasons, the colors of summer days at the beach, or warm, loving memories of moments spent with family. Have students think about what memories/emotions they want their art to express, and the colors which would best communicate them.

Watercolor on paper

To begin:

Due to the size of the paper and nature of the project, this is a good one to do outdoors on the ground covered with drop cloths or newspaper. Consider setting up 2 stations accommodating 12 kids at a time (6 at each station) – 1 station with several cups of cool colors, the other set up with warm colors. Add water to paint.

Begin by having each student put their name on the back of their paper. Next, have them flip the paper over and wet it using the spray bottle, or, they can paint the paper with water using a large brush.

Now, demonstrate how to pour small amounts of the 3 colors onto the wet paper and watch it spread and run together, soaking in, staining the paper and creating unexpected effects!

Watercolor paints poured on paper

Pouring colors:

Encourage students to experiment, and enjoy the process– see what happens when they add a squirt of water or tilt the paper a bit letting streams and trails of color run. Some white paper showing is good too! Advise students not to overdo it, and stop before colors become too diluted or muddy.

For older students, an additional option at this point is to have them manipulate/ guide the wet paint by using tools like sponges or brushes or even sticks. Encourage them to keep it abstract– no real recognizable images.

Encourage students to make full use of most of the paper. Let the paintings dry.

Watercolor paint notecards

Prep for creating note cards:

The first step in creating the cards, begins with a small investment of your time with a paper cutter. Here is a convenient way to get a set of 12, 4 x 6 in. cards from each student’s painting:

  1. Position each painting horizontally on the paper cutter and cut 4, 6 in. strips.
  2. Now cut each strip into 4, 4 in. pieces.
  3. Stack the set of 12 cards, and rubber band them with the student’s name on top to return to them.

 Pack of notecards

Here is a convenient, ready-made pack of cards and matching envelopes I found at my local craft store (Hobby Lobby) where I used a 40% off coupon. Similar things could be found on Amazon. Packs could be divided up allowing 6 cards and envelopes per student. Students then choose their favorite 6 “paintings” to mount on their 6 cards.

Investing in packs of cards and matching envelopes is obviously the most convenient way to handle this part of the project, but you could of course, cut your own cards from a light card stock and buy envelopes on Amazon to size.

 Watercolor notecard

Creating note cards:

Begin making the cards by having student glue their 4 x 6 paintings onto the front of 6 folded cards leaving 1/2 in of white paper at the bottom for writing. This works out best when cards are designed in a horizontal format.

Next, Encourage students to give their abstract painting a creative title (a memory, place or feeling) based on what they might have been thinking during the painting process. If their idea has changed and they are now seeing something different in their painting, that’s ok! The idea is that they are thinking creatively. Have students title and sign each card in pencil, just like an artist would.

Students will surprise and impress you with their own very original thoughts and creative ideas for their paintings!

Artist Helen Frankenthaler Notecard

Artist and lesson info on the back:

A nice touch to this project, is to include a short note for parents or recipients of the card to read on the back of each card about Helen Frankenthaler and this lesson plan.

Download and print this lesson plan, then copy and hand out sheets of info for students to cut out and glue to the back of their note cards.

Watercolor Art

A gift:

There now, wouldn’t this lovely set of mini masterpieces made from your student’s original art and creative writing make a cherished gift for say, Mother’s Day?


Artist Biography - Janis Doukakis


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