Lesson Plan

Duane Brissette, Moonrise, 1981, acrylic

Lesson plan developed by Ann Parker, Tower Rock and Merrimac elementary schools, Sauk City, Wisconsin

Grade Level

Written for grade 4/5, but could be adapted for older students

Summary of Activity

(e.g.) Students will explore symbolism and use dream imagery to create a work of art.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will learn to look for visual cues and symbols in order to "read" a work of art.
  • Students will analyze design elements and understand how an artist uses these elements to compose a piece of art.
  • Students will research other pieces of work that utilize surrealism, dreams and memory,  then create a piece of original art that incorporates their own ideas and memories. 

Guiding Question

How does artist Duane Brissette tell a story with his art? What details in his painting Moonrise help us to "read" this story?

Curriculum Connections

Language and literacy, visual art


Access to a computer lab and library to research Surrealism and artists and writers who work from memory and dreams, white paper, pencils, erasers, thin- and thick-point felt markers in saturated colors


Familiarize students with the painting, Moonrise, using the following guided discussion:

Sauk City artist Duane Brissette feels that art should have content and encourage multiple interpretations. He feels that “a piece of art acquires content as it lives” (artist interview, July 6, 2012. He also feels that art ideas should be expansive or big to allow for many people to imagine many different stories. What this means is that the viewer has some work to do when seeing Moonrise for the first time.

What is going on here? Who is the man in the ravine? What is this place? The parking lot is crowded. Where are all the people? What is happening inside? There is a red panther crawling out of an illuminated hole, and it’s heading towards the man! Is he in danger? Why have the red rabbits come to view the scene?

Think about your own dreams (if you can remember them). Do the objects, creatures, people and stories make sense together in an everyday sort of way? How would you describe the way a dream “feels” or seems? Do you usually recognize some of the parts of the dream and how they might have come together? Artists use words like surrealistic, dreamlike and narrative to describe this kind of work. What do these words mean? What other artists make this type of mysterious dreamlike surrealistic work? You can find more work like this at your library or by looking up these words online.

What do you notice about the colors in this painting? Describe the colors. Duane Brissette is known for using saturated colors. What does this mean? Name a few places where the colors are especially saturated.

Where does the light come from? What happens to the color of objects that are hit by this light? On what side of each object does the light hit?

Duane Brissette uses personal symbols to tell his stories. Symbols are things or shapes that stand for other things. Two examples are hearts (love) and peace signs (peace). What objects in this painting might be symbols? What do you think they might mean?

How has Brissette composed his painting? Has he filled the space completely or has he left parts of the paper unpainted? How do we know what is most important in the painting? Can you find horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines that help guide your eyes to the most important things? After following these lines, what do you think Brissette thought was most important for you to notice?

Brissette consistently uses repeating shapes as a design motif. What shapes are repeated in this painting?

Now that these questions have been asked, and some answered, here are some hints from Duane Brissette:

  • The rabbits represent innocence. They live in the scene but are not harmed or involved in the goings on. He usually just includes one rabbit, but this time he included two.
  • The panther represents the feminine side of the world.
  • The man represents the masculine.
  • The building is a dancehall that Brissette remembers from his childhood. People are inside dancing and there is music floating out into the night.
  • The moonlight that indirectly illuminates the scene is usually considered feminine in art.
  • This painting is part of a three part dream story

 Now that you know his interpretation, do you like his version better or yours?


1. As a group students analyze Moonrise using the questions in the introduction.

2. Individually, students try to remember one or more of their own dreams. They attempt to write down three to five things/people/places that they remember from one or more dreams. Keep in mind that some kids never remember any dreams at all. For those kids, ask them to choose one animal, one person, and one place keeping in mind dream elements do not need to make "everyday sense."

3. Students look at library books that address dreaming, such as Alice in Wonderland, and do internet searches for works of art and artists such as Marc Chagall who use memory or dreaming in their work. Teachers may want to generate a list of cues since some works of art may be too difficult or mature for kids this age.

4. Students invent at least two personal symbols and choose meanings for their original symbols.

5. Students will create a light pencil sketch on 9-by-1- inch sheet of white paper that tells a story using their own memories and dreams. Remember to sketch lightly so erasing is easy and color can be added later.

Students should keep in mind the following "Duane Brissette Basics":

a) Fill all space…no empty spots!
b) Use repeating shapes and pattern!
c) There must be a light source that strikes all objects from the same direction.
d) There must be at least two "private" symbols that have a special meaning for the student artist.
e) Color must be strong and saturated and carefully applied.

6. Students will carefully color their entire composition with thin- and thicker-point felt markers. No empty areas…no scribbling or rushing!

7. Optional: Students share their dream compositions with classmates to see if they are "readable" and/or students write a brief story outlining the objects, creatures, and story of their dream.


narration/narrative, symbols, repetition, saturated color, repeating pattern,  surrealistic/surrealism, design motif, content, interpretation, expansive, innocence.

Common Core Standards

(5th grade standards were used)

Literacy: 5W-2b and d, 5W-3, 5W-7, 5SL-1 

English Language: 5RI-1, 5RI-3

Wisconsin Visual Arts Standards

(4th grade standards were used)
A.4.1, A.4.2, A.4.6, C.4.1, C.4.2, C.4.4, C.4.6, D.4.4, D.4.6, E.4.1, E.4.5, G.4.1-4, H.4.1, I.4.6-7, K.4.2-3, L.4.1

Duane Brissette (American, b. 1939), Moonrise, 1981, acrylic, 21½ x 25½ inches. Purchase, through funds from Mr. and Mrs. Frederic F. Renfert. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

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