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Can a teacher use art to better understand math? As a teaching artist, I’ve found that looking at and making art can be instructive in getting students to identify and articulate mathematical concepts.

Here are some of my go-to images:

1. “The Fall of Icarus” by Matisse

2. “Suprematism. Self-Portrait in Two Dimensions” by Malevich

3. “Composition with Grid #1” by Mondrian

While there are many images I could use, I have chosen these particular images and images like these because of their apparent simplicity. I love when students can look at a piece of art and confidently declare, “I can do that!” These particular pieces allow for easy-to-set-up activities, through which students can make variations on the originals. We’ll get to art-making later, but for now..

Let’s talk art and math!


Show art on the board, one piece at a time.

Students examine image silently for 30 seconds. Discuss the importance of observation, focusing on what their eyes see, not what their brains imagine.

Ask students, open-ended questions, similar to those in Visual Thinking Strategies (See: for info on VTS), but instead math-focused questions:

What number(s) do you see?

How do you see these numbers?

What makes you say that?

Have students describe and point out the art qualities that informed their previous responses.

If the discussion stalls, ask students to discuss specific aspects of the art: What colors or shapes do you see? How many?

During the discussion, chart student responses, organizing ideas into desired categories, based on your intended lesson.

Later discussions can feature compare and contrast strategies, viewing multiple images simultaneously.

Here’s a chart based on a discussion of Matisse’s “The Fall of Icarus”:

I used our discussion as an introduction to math/art for K-1. Follow-up activity is having students use specific numbers of colors and shapes to make their own art.

Sample illustration, using numbers and colors in Matisse’s “The Fall of Icarus”:

Another version can feature four different, student-selected colors, with the same or different number of shapes.

Go back and review the Matisse, Malevich, and Mondrian pieces above. Can you imagine your students making similar work? Variations of each can be generated as collage illustrations, with teacher know-how, student creativity, construction paper (pre-cut shapes for the younger students), scissors, and glue.

There’s a whole world out there through which students can see numbers. Get to it!

Please post below any inspirational art images or projects that you have used to get students playfully interacting with your lessons. Artist names need not start with “M.” 😊