Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Vincent Van Gogh Art History Lesson: Three-Layered Landscape


Submitted by: Renae Hemingway
Endorsed by: Dr. Don Descy, Mankato State University

Date: February 18, 1997

Grade Level(s): 4, 5, 6


  • Arts/History


Art History Lesson: Three-Layered Landscape as related to Vincent Van Gogh’s use of space and line in “Boats on a Beach”.  Focuses on the elements of space and line in creating depth.  Uses aesthetic scanning to facilitate appreciation of art.


Student will show understanding and appreciation of great works of art.

Objectives: Student will:

  1. demonstrate understanding of Van Gogh’s use of space and line in creating depth.
  2. create a landscape picture with at least three layers, showing depth using overlapping, diminishing size, subdued color, and vanishing lines.
  3. create a center of interest or focus point within the landscape.

Background Information:
The following artist background information should be summarized and discussed with students. The source of this information is from “Vincent Van Gogh: Masterworks” by Julia, Sophie, and Mikael Ferloni. Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853. As a child, VanGogh was freckled with fiery red hair like his mother. He didn’t fit in with other kids his age. He often misbehaved and got in trouble. He disliked school and felt different. At age eleven, Van Gogh left his home and local school, and was sent away to school.

Even at a young age, Van Gogh showed artistic talent. He started drawing early. He was said to enjoy drawing with both black and colors. He often drew for his father who was a pastor. Throughout his life, Van Gogh painted scenes of the countryside. As a boy he spent time in the outdoors alone. He went for long walks and stared at the sky, trees, and creatures around him. He drew many nature scenes based on his observations. Van Gogh painted colorful flowers and trees. Later in life, his travels in Paris helped him create incredible detail in his flowers.

After school, Van Gogh worked for some art dealers with Goupil and Cie. He attended art exhibits and museums in his free time. He traveled to places like Amsterdam, Brussels, London, and Paris to research art.

One of the art dealers Van Gogh worked for had a daughter Elisabeth (Betsy Tersteeg). Van Gogh drew over forty sketches for her, and the drawings were made into three small books. Most were nature scenes, although others contained people, vehicles, and buildings. All of VanGogh’s drawings had distinctive, clear and crisp lines.

Van Gogh continued at his job at Goupil and Cie transferring between branches in London, Paris, England, and Holland. He was very dedicated and successful at his work, but had to conform in order to do so.

It was during this time that Van Gogh fell in love with his landlord’s daughter Ursula. He worked relentlessly to win her, but unfortunately, Ursula did not return his love. It crushed Van Gogh and resulted in an unhealthy, unhappy experience. In 1876, he left his job.

Van Gogh soon started as a teacher in Isleworth (near the Thames).  He taught French, German, math, and grammar. To supplement his small salary, he became a curate (priest’s assistant) at a local church. There he did some preaching. He seemed to live his life for others and looked to the poor for inspiration. Then Van Gogh studied theology and was a pastor for awhile. He helped the needy and poor. A big coal mine disaster had a huge effect on him. Van Gogh neglected his own health and later left his post.

It wasn’t until the age of 27 that Van Gogh really became an artist. In the next ten years though, he created over 800 paintings and drawings. His works were vivid with expression and feeling. It was like he was obsessed. Van Gogh spent his money on art supplies rather than on food or clothes. He often went hungry, or without sleep, to paint and draw.

His work was filled with landscapes and nature scenes from the past and present. He developed a love of color and paint, and also experimented with charcoal, chalk, and watercolors. One mode he would not use was plaster models. The dislike even caused a break up with a roommate and teacher, Mauve.

At one point Van Gogh fell in love with another woman. Again, the love was not returned. Once again he was miserable with loss. Later, he took in a young, pregnant woman, Sien, who had no where to go. He let Sien, and later the baby, live with him until they parted company. A former colleague from Goulip and Cie was most distressed by this unbecoming generosity and let everyone know, including potential art buyers. This made it very difficult for Van Gogh to sell any of his work.

Van Gogh was very unhappy. He moved to the country for awhile to save money. In a short three months there, he completed 42 works of art. His use of color changed, darkening noticeably .

Many unfortunate events happened in the remainder of Van Gogh’s life. One of the most significant was his father’s death. Van Gogh had always been interested in cemeteries. This combined with his experience with death, led to some works on the subject. He often felt isolated and unhappy.

Van Gogh continued to work on his art. His misery seemed to drive him deep into his imagination and compel him to work. He did some Impressionist work and later some Japanese printmaking. The printmaking let him introduce the use of blacks and whites as a color scheme.

Toward the end of his life, Van Gogh had trouble with mental disorders. Continual personal failures diminished his spirit. His later works show evidence of misery and anger. His color palette had darken with his spirit. In the end, he was barely able to work and tried to remember the grand days when he could paint endlessly.


Show students the large print of Van Gogh’s “Boats on a Beach”. Ask them about Van Gogh’s use of the elements of design (review as needed: shape/form, color, texture, line, space, value). Students may note brushstrokes for texture, variety of color value, and shape/form of the boats. Lead students, as needed, to discuss the extensive use of space and line to show depth and realism. Point out diminishing size, subdued color value, one point perspective, and overlapping.

Use “Initiating Questions” as needed to facilitate aesthetic scanning and discussion of the print. These should include questions about Sensory, Formal, Technical, and Expressive Properties of the piece. Some examples are: What medium and techniques did Van Gogh use in constructing the lines in this print? (paint, strokes, lines, impressions) What colors and values do you see? (vibrant on boats, subdued in back, blues, browns, greens)  Describe the balance you see. (asymmetrical-boats and beach, water)  How does Van Gogh create simulated texture? (brush strokes, color values)  How is space and line represented? (diagonal, curved on boats and waves, diminishing lines and shapes, overlap)

Review what a landscape is and several examples. Tell students they will be designing their own three-layer landscape to show depth using space and line. It will contain a foreground, mid-ground, and background. Ask questions to review Van Gogh’s use of space and line in “Boats on a beach” and relate it to the project. Would the objects in the foreground be larger or smaller than the other layers? Why? Where would the colors be most vibrant? What might happen to the details in the background? Review and demonstrate how to mix colors, make textures, and shadows as needed.


  1. large print of Van Gogh’s “Boats on a Beach”
  2. construction paper in earth and landscape tones (blues, greens)
  3. pencils and erasers
  4. colored pencils or crayons
  5. glue
  6. cardboard spacers (optional)
  7. scissors


  1. Decide on a landscape and think of 8-10 objects that could go in it. Choose the main focus or center of interest. (examples: a tree, lighthouse, building)
  2. Select three values of colored construction paper to use.
  3. Recall Van Gogh’s use of space and line in “Boats on a Beach” and use your knowledge of diminishing size, color, receding lines, overlap, etc. to help create your own landscape.
  4. On the lightest color draw the objects in the foreground. Remember these should be big. You should use about 2-3 inches of the bottom paper.
  5. Cut away the extra paper with your scissors.
  6. Lay the foreground on the next paper (a shade darker), matching up the sides. Draw a line for the mid-ground about 5-6 inches from the bottom edge.
  7. Draw in 2-3 objects in the mid-ground and then cut away the unused paper.
  8. Place the foreground and mid-ground on the darkest paper and draw the background. Objects will be smaller, less detailed, and duller in color.
  9. Add details and color to all the layers as you go. Look at the layers together. Remember to use more color and detail in the foreground.
  10. Layers can be glued one on top of the other in order when finished. Optional: Place spacers (small pieces of cardboard) between each layer to give the landscape more depth.

Concepts Covered:

  1. Depth can be created on paper by using overlapping, diminishing size, vanishing lines, and subdued colors.
  2. Landscapes contain a foreground, mid-ground, and background.
  3. Size gets smaller and colors more subdued as objects get farther away.

Assessment Suggestions:

Observe students throughout the lesson for attention, understanding, and participation. Critique students’ end studio projects (three-layer landscape) for evidence of overlapping, diminishing size, vanishing lines, and subdued colors. Note details and number of objects in the piece as well. Ask students questions to check understanding.

Closure: Students pair up with a partner, and tell each other about their landscape. Each describes where it is, and who or what lives there. Students compare and contrast their landscapes and look for elements of depth. Look again at Van Gogh’s “Boats on a Beach”.  Note what similarities and differences you see from his work to yours.

Show students the book “Van Gogh: Masterworks” and any other literature or resources on the artist. Let students see a few of VanGogh’s other works. Let students look at and read the material during free time.

Lesson Extensions:

  1. Create a drawing or painting imitating Van Gogh’s style in “Boats on a Beach” or one of his many works. (Have resources available)
  2. Look at your own landscape or a friend’s closely. Write a story about what happens there. (language extension)
  3. Draw a picture showing who or what lives in your landscape. What happens?