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Lesson Plan | Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero: Abstract Animal Portraits – MMoCA


Fish, 1973, aquatint with embossing


Visual Art, Language Arts, Science


Ann Mary Kohl-Re

Grade Level

3rd–5th grades


Students will encounter an authentic art object and make an analysis of how the artist’s choices help create meaning. Students will create a portrait of an animal that causes a unique relationship with the viewer.


Through close study and class or small group discussion, analyze how Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero’s use of flat color and close-up, frontal view cause us to fall in love—or at least in curiosity—with the subject of his aquatint, Fish. Create a portrait of an animal that elicits a bond between the image and its viewers using an approach similar to the photographs of Joel Sartore in the book Photo Ark.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you relate to the creature in Fish?
  2. How did Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero’s choices (style, composition, color) help facilitate the way you relate to Fish?
  3. How can you, as an artist, communicate that your artwork is a portrait that depicts a specific animal (rather than a cartoon or otherwise-embellished image)?


Do animals have thoughts? Do they have feelings, such as empathy? We know that they have behaviors that help them to survive. Scientists study animal behavior—seeking to learn how and why they move, feed, care for young, migrate, etc.  Scientific studies are providing strong evidence that many other animals experience emotions. But who can help us explore what an animal might feel or think, or inspire feelings in us toward another animal? Artists! Visual artists like Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero and photographers like Joel Sartore allow us to look “eye to eye” at another creature, perhaps capturing how that animal might be feeling, but certainly portraying an individual in all his or her uniqueness. As you look at Fish, what might this fish be thinking or feeling? What has the artist done to cause us to interact with Fish in this way?

Angler fish are odd-looking. They can seem comical to us, with their large face; small body; long, translucent teeth; and attached lantern/fishing lure. But Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero doesn’t quite portray Fish as comical. He didn’t give her human or cartoon-like characteristics to make her look like a human-fish. How do you perceive Fish? Does she look curious? Consider why she might she appear this way to you, and how the artist achieved this appearance.

Can artists inspire people to make the world better? If an artist can cause us to become curious about a species, especially if that species is endangered, undervalued or unknown, can that help us to value the earth’s creatures and their habitats? Can you be such an artist? Can you create a compelling, abstracted portrait of an animal, one that illustrates its physical characteristics, but also how it might look out at you from its watery, or tree-top, or arid world?

Stand with a partner or two and look at Fish. Be silent for a while and try to enter her world. Then speak or write a question or comment. Choose some questions or comments to share with the class. Discuss how the artist combined facts and imagination to create the wonderful image of Fish.

Search for photographs of unusual animals using the Photo Ark, if possible. Choose an animal that calls to you, either because it’s familiar to you or causes you to be curious about it. Study the shapes and lines of the animal’s body. Do not be greatly concerned about the texture of its fur, skin or feathers; instead, focus on the shapes and contours of the creature. Do what you can to make the animal look at you, as if it’s studying you too. Emphasize the face and eye or eyes, and the pose of its body, as in a well-designed image of a person. Choose a single color for the background of your painting. Consider the color of the environment in which the animal lives—water, sand, forest—and make your color decision using this information.

Note to the teacher: You may want to do some mini lessons on structure and placement of different animal features, i.e., how to place and draw a bird’s beak, or the placement of eyes in a monkey’s or insect’s face.  Also, details such as paws, claws, and how to simplify textures such as feathers or fur.

Use watercolor or tempera to paint the background. Follow this by painting your animal, including essential details that you have simplified to emphasize these features. Finish your work by outlining your drawing with Sharpie, colored pencil or pastel. Be expressive with your line work, especially with expressive details such as the face and feet, paws or fins.


Look at Sy Montgomery’s books about relating to animals, such as The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea or Inky’s Amazing Escape: How a Very Smart Octopus Found His Way Home. Read about the study of animal behavior. Read or study adaptations in animals. Watch a recording of Joel Sartore: and discuss whether you think his Ark is a good idea, and useful to inspire people to value the diversity of animal life on our earth.


National Core Art Standards

Visual Arts: Cr.1.3a, Cr.1.2.3a, Cr.1.2.5a, Cr.2.1.3a, Cr.2.2.3a, Cr.2.2.4a, Cr.2.2.5a / Re.7.2.3a, Re.7.2.4a, Re.8.1.3a, Re.8.1.5a, Re.9.1.3a / Cn.11.1.5a

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