Matisse, Math & Contemporary Art.

Henry Matisse, The Snail. 1953

When you go to school in a different country and speak a different language, math and art become the universal language for you. I have seen that picture or painting before! I know how to solve that equation. Years later, one of the things that I love to do is to examine art through the “math lens.” Artists have been studying and using math to create their sculptures, drawings, and science to create colors or select the best materials to make works of art. What is your favorite work of art? Do you know the story behind that particular work of art?

One of my favorite works of art is “The Snail,” I actually saw it in person at the Tate Modern in London, UK. Henry Matisse created “The Snail” in 1953, while he was ill in bed. Because painting required more movement, he started to use paper cut-outs from his studio to create his artwork. He chose the colors and cut the shapes with scissors, then pasted the pieces into a canvas to create the painting. A couple of months ago, the students from Posada Esperanza and my family created a painting by arranging and pasting shades of green cardstock into a canvas. COVID-19 has giving us the opportunity to be resourceful with the materials we have at home to create contemporary art, while also learning school subjects. Now, it is time to create our own paper paintings.

Paper Painting 1: 1/4 +1/4 +1/4 +1/4 +1/4= 5/4

Paper Painting 2: 1+1/4 +1/4 +1/4 +1/4 = 2

Matisse, Math & Contemporary Art.

White canvas, piece of copy paper, or cardstock for the background. 

Several pieces of green (or any color that you have at home) cardstock cut in squares- sizes vary.



Drawing with Scissors book.

Do you know a way to paint without using “actual paint”? Using food coloring and frosting to paint a cake? Chalk to paint the sidewalk? Lipstick to paint your lips? Do you know that some artists use paper to paint? Henry Matisse was one of them, he mostly painted with paper by the end of his life.  Let’s learn a little more about his life and artwork in this book: Drawing with Scissors.

Do you recall any important details about Matisse’s life? What was the painting that you liked the most? Why? Do you think “The Snail” by Matisse would look the same with painting instead of paper?  If not, why?

Now let’s take a closer look at “The Snail” Why do you think he called it the snail? What do you see in the painting? What shapes do you see? Do you see any 2-dimensional shapes?  If so, which ones? A trapezoid, a rectangle, a square. Let’s take a look at the painting with gold numbers. Do you see the big square- the biggest of them all? That is one whole, then the second row are halves, then quarters. How many quarters there are in a whole? How many quarters in one half? Let’s take a look at the two paintings above and do the math.

1. Paper Painting: 1/4 +1/4 +1/4 +1/4 +1/4= 5/4

2. Paper Painting: 1+1/4 +1/4 +1/4 +1/4 = 2

Lastly, I am going to give you a bag with different shapes that you are going to select and rearrange as you want to create your painting. Take some time to think about how you will arrange the pieces on the canvas.

What do you see? Do you recognize any shapes or forms in your paper painting? What other shapes would you use to create a painting? What colors would you choose? How many quarters do you have in your painting? Let’s do the math.


Create another colorful artwork inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs: Blue and Other Colors: with Henri Matisse.

Visit MOMA website to learn more about Henry Matisse.

References: Henry Matisse- The Cut Outs

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