It’s Becoming a Pattern: Alma Thomas, Bridget Riley, & Katherine Bernhardt

For this class we focused on artists who use different types of patterns in their art. We learned that a pattern can be very specific and mathematical and it can also be a few repeating images that aren’t in any particular order. Sometimes making art using patterns can feel restrictive because it feels like it has to be exact, but these artists show that you can make patterns out of whatever you want and in whatever design.

Alma Thomas was born in Georgia in 1891 but lived most of her life in Washington D.C. She taught Junior High for 35 years and didn’t start painting seriously until after she retired in 1960. She studied art at Howard University and received an MA from Columbia. When she took her first art class she said she felt that:

When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven. Becoming an artist…seemed like an unattainable aspiration when I was a little girl in Columbus.

When she retired from teaching art she suffered from arthritis and started painting abstractly with watercolors and acrylics. It wasn’t until her 80’s that she started producing the art she is known for now. She used short bars or blocks of paint, sort of like stacked bricks to make bright bursts of colored pictures.

Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969

We talked as a class about the emotions the patterns and colors evoked and how small individual blocks come together to make a larger piece of art. Thomas was inspired by the colors and shapes she saw in nature for most of her pieces and she created a visual rhythm of her paintings by contrasting colors in subtle and dramatic ways. She said of color:

Man’s highest aspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors.

Alma Thomas died in 1978 after suffering from debilitating arthritis that kept her from painting as much as she wanted to in her last few years. However, she was able to achieve national recognition as an artist in her lifetime: in 1972 one of her paintings was selected for the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as well as being the first African-American woman to be given a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

For our activity we gave the kids a white piece of card stock and strips of different solid colored paper to cut into brick like shapes and glue to their paper to make a collage. We asked them to think about what part of nature they wanted to emulate, the emotions they wanted to show, and the colors they would use to show those things in an abstract way.

You could also do this with watercolors or other paints like Thomas did, or you could use stickers, or even markers and crayons to make the block like shapes that defined Thomas’s paintings.

Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931 she studied art and moved through impressionist figure painting and pointillist landscapes before she pioneered an art form called Op-Art. She described Op-Art as using modern and abstract forms to create “elusive experiences of nature”— pieces you have to stare at to get their effects. They work similarly to optical illusions where they disorient your eyes and brain as you try to focus on the piece.

Most of her work is in black and white and plays with the contrast between the colors. She uses precise lines, shapes, and placement to get the effect of an optical illusion.

She also does work in color, as seen below in her work Nataraja which means Lord of Dance. When you look at the painting below does it feel like a dance? It is bright and happy and colorful and everything is moving in a similar slanted way like they are all together doing a dance.

Nataraja, 1993

To start we talked about what an optical illusion was and we looked at a few together as a class and talked about how it worked. This website has some fun ones to look at, the one linked was our favorite. Its a fun way to get kid’s brains going and thinking about what it takes to make an optical illusion — and they also love it when their brains get tricked!

For the activity we made optical illusion 3D hands, seen below.

We used the technique shown in this video but only using black and white to make it look a little more like Bridget Riley’s work. You can also use a ruler if you think it will be easier for your child to make straighter lines (we felt that in our class the rulers tended to get more in the way than they helped, but do whatever you think your child can handle).

Katherine Bernhardt is an artist who does not use patterns in a traditional way. In her art she paints repeating fruits, animals, figures from pop-culture, foods, objects, etc. in bright colors on a canvas completely filled with paint.

Berhardt grew up in the 1980’s and paints a lot of objects and characters from her childhood, like E.T. who she dressed up as for Halloween as a child, and products and brands that were popular growing up.

When you look at her work it doesn’t immediately feel like a pattern — definitely not in the exacting way Bridget Riley, or the methodical way Alma Thomas used patterns. But Bernhardt still uses repeating figures and objects to fill the canvas.

Her work is fun and bright and messy and uses things kids see in their everyday life. It is easy for children to use her art as inspiration and use things they like from their lives and experiences to make art.

For this activity we asked the kids to write down a list with three sections: animals, fruit, things. They had a few minuted to write down every animal, fruit, and thing they could think of. We explained that things could be foods that had a recognizable brand like kraft mac and cheese or fruit by the foot, or an article of clothing, something from a tv show or movie that they like, pretty much anything. Then they chose one thing from each list and those were their three objects they were going to paint.

We watched from 7:19 to 8:41 of this video to watch Bernhardt paint and listen while she explained her process. Then we gave each student a canvas and some markers so they could sketch each object they were going to paint a few times. The sketching step was very important to encourage the students to think about the placement of their objects and how big to make them.

Then we mixed palettes of acrylic paints with water to make them a little more sloppy and let the kids paint until they were content with what their canvas looked like. You could use tempera or really any kind of paints for this project and they don’t have to be watered down if that is too messy for what you want to do. If you have space outside and a large canvas you could try spray painting the initial sketch like Bernhardt does and then paint the canvas on the ground so you can really walk around it and be more free with your paint and strokes.

This was a great class to show so many different artistic interpretations of what makes a pattern. Each artist used them in different ways to make art that looks and feels completely different. As always, we hope you found a great activity to do with your children or students. Have fun making art!

We are a 501c3 non-profit in Provo, Utah. Our goal is to make art accessible and inspire a lifelong love of art and creativity for children in our community.