How can colour, composition, and abstraction be used to create a dreamlike mood in painting?
This resource takes an in-depth look at The Fishermen, a painting by Tanzanian artist Louis Mbughuni. Through discussion and analysis, students will explore the inspirations behind the painting and the visual elements used by the artist. The resource also includes suggestions for a painting project inspired by The Fishermen with research links to other modern and contemporary artists.
This resource can be used to support students in:
discovering the work of artist Louis Mbughuni
analysing how visual elements and concepts can be used to create mood and atmosphere and convey ideas and feelings
responding to painting through discussion of ideas, thoughts, and feelings
researching and developing ideas for a painting project
This Art and Design resource offers a series of activities that can be used together as a lesson plan or as individual components to integrate into your own scheme of work. It is devised for CfE Level 3 / Key Stage 3 but may also be useful for Level 4 / Key Stage 4 students.
Art and design - Evaluate and analyse creative works - Actively engage in the creative process of art - Know about great artists and understand the historical and cultural development of their art forms - Produce creative work, explore ideas
Art and design - Developing students' own personal and creative responses - Developing creative thinking skills through designing and making
Art and design - I have experimented with a range of media and technologies to create images and objects, using my understanding of their properties (EXA 3-02a) - Through observing and recording, I can create material that shows accuracy of representation (EXA 3-04a) - I can respond to the work of artists and designers by discussing my thoughts and feelings. I can give and accept constructive comment on my own and others' work (EXA 3-07a)
Art and design - Students use their knowledge about the work of other artists to enrich and inform their work through analysis and evaluation - Students use a variety of processes - Students evaluate their work through discussion - Students explore, experiment with and apply the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
This is one of two lesson plan resources for secondary age students that focus on modern African paintings in The Argyll Collection in Scotland. They can be used individually or together within a lesson plan, offering students the opportunity to explore the contrasting approaches to painting mood and atmosphere.
The Argyll Collection was developed between 1960 and 1988 as a learning resource for young people in Argyll and Bute. It was established by writer Naomi Mitchison (at that time a Councillor for Argyll and Bute) and Jim Tyre, art advisor to the Council.
'My plan had two edges: one was purely artistic. But the other was to build up a Scottish confidence, a sense of nationhood, something a civilized person could be proud of.' – Naomi Mitchison, Times Educational Supplement 1966
The focus of the collection is contemporary Scottish art, but it also includes artworks from Africa and Asia, collected by Mitchison on her extensive travels. She wanted students in Argyll to be able to connect with other cultures, and often selected artworks that linked these cultures with Scottish cultures – such as scenes of fishing or agriculture.
He studied fine art at Makere College in Uganda. Although as a student he studied twentieth-century developments in Western art, he was passionate about expressing his African heritage and identity. At college, he often painted alone in his room to avoid being influenced by anyone and developed his unique approach to using colour and abstraction to express his personal responses to the subjects he paints.
When Louis Mbughuni was growing up, Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) was under British rule. It gained independence from Britain in 1961 and after unification with Zanzibar was renamed Tanzania. Mbughuni supported the new socialist government and new president of the country Julius Nyerere and served as Director of Arts and Language in the Ministry of Culture for Tanzania. Mbughuni believes that art should serve society and that its ultimate goal should be to help people to both understand the world in which they live and to transform it.
Though trained in fine art, Mbughuni's career spanned theatre, literature and cultural policy. He now lives in the United States and is still a practising artist.
Ask your students to look at this painting and discuss their first impressions.
Use these nudge questions to help get the discussion going:
what does the painting show?
what is the mood or atmosphere of the painting? What does it make you feel? (It might help to ask your students to think of words they might use in response to it.)
do you think that this is an abstract painting? Why?
how different do you think your response to the painting would be if it was painted in a more realistic way?
The painting depicts fishermen on a lake. There is a small village with trees on the distant shore. But the painting is not a straightforward realistic depiction of the scene. Louis Mbughuni has abstracted elements of the painting – the composition, the figures and the colours – to create a sense of eerie mystery.
Fishing in this region of Tanzania traditionally involves men in wooden dugout canoes called jahazi. The canoes often have a small sail. The fishermen use nets to catch tiny sardine-like fish called dagaa. The fish are caught at night with small lamps used to attract the shoals.
Much like the importance of fishing to many communities in Scotland, fishing is an important part of the life and economy of many communities in Tanzania.
Discuss the painting again with your students considering this contextual information.
Can you see any suggestion of fishing nets and shoals of fish in the painting?
Does knowing that the fishermen fished at night with lamps change how you see the painting?
How similar – or different – would a scene of fishing boats look in Scotland?
Louis Mbughuni's paintings celebrate the rural life of Tanzania, a country known for its vast wilderness areas, which include the plains of Serengeti National Park, and Kilimanjaro National Park, home to Africa's highest mountain. He also draws on his memories and experiences and looks to African art and culture, politics, and his religious faith for inspiration.
His painting The Fishermen was based on his memories of a month-long fishing trip he made with his cousin on Lake Namanga when he was 12 years old.
It was also inspired by the New Testament story of Jesus recruiting fishermen as disciples and the Miraculous catch of fish.
'My intention was to depict this biblical story with a creative twist of symbolism, mystery and African identity.' – Louis Mbughuni
Ask your students:
does knowing about the inspiration behind the painting change how you see it?
How has Louis Mbughuni created the dreamlike mood of the painting?
When Naomi Mitchison bought The Fishermen for the Argyll Collection she described it as a 'dream image'.
The painting reflects the magical excitement that the artist must have felt as a young boy out on the lake at night, as well as the spirituality and symbolism of the miracle of the catch from the New Testament story.
Discuss the composition of the painting with your students.
How has Louis Mbughuni arranged the elements within the painting – the fishermen, the village and lake and sky?
Is there a foreground and background? How has Mbughuni suggested this? How does this affect how you see the painting?
How many fishermen can you see?
The fishermen in the canoe dominate the foreground of the composition while the village is smaller in the background. Mbughuni has used perspective to make the familiarity and safety of the shore and village seem far away. This perhaps suggests that the reality of home and everyday life are also far away, as well as infusing the scene with a sense of danger.
The fishermen are mirrored, repeated upside down, at the top of the painting which adds to the strange dreamlike feel of the image.
How has he used abstraction?
Louis Mbughuni said that he abstracted the fishing scene to create a 'dramatic image of mystery'.
If he had painted the scene in a more realistic way, the sense of mystery and spirituality might have been lost among the realistic details.
Dicsuss colours, shapes and patterns
Perhaps the first thing we notice about the painting are the bright colours and the swirling pattern of shapes that seems to surround the fishermen and their canoe.
Look at the shapes and patterns in the painting with your students.
Describe the shapes. What do they make you think of?
What effect does this patterned lake have on how you see the painting?
Do the figures look like real people – or do you think Mbughuni has abstracted them too?
Now discuss Louis Mbughuni's use of colour as a class.
Are the colours realistic?
Are they the sort of colours you might see at night?
How has he used light colours and dark colours?
What mood do they create?
Do you know of any other artists who use colour to create a dreamlike or mysterious atmosphere?
Thoughts on shapes and patterns
Artists often abstract an image by exaggerating shapes or forms or repeating them. Although the painting shows a recognisable scene, the abstracted elements make us see and think about it in a different way.
The shapes suggest the movement of the water – waves, ripples and deep and shallow areas. They make the lake look turbulent and possibly dangerous.
Some of the shapes look like nets or sails and fishtails. Can you spot these in the painting?
Although the figures in the boat are recognisable as people, Louis Mbughuni has a simplified their shapes (as well as the shapes of the village and trees).
He explained that he did this to add a sense of 'majesty and simplicity' to the figures, inspired by the simple forms of early Egyptian art and African religious sculptures and artefacts.
Louis Mbughuni has used unrealistic colour to help create the mood of his painting. The two figures in the boat are silhouetted against a background of luminous yellows, reds, purples and blues.
While fishing with lamps at night explains some of the eerie colours and shadows, the colours also add a dream-like unreality to the scene. He used a mix of light and dark colours to add to the sense of drama.
'There is something majestic about pure colours. There is an aura of spirituality about them! It's all around them and within them.' – Louis Mbughuni
Mbughuni explained that his juxtaposition of light and dark colours was inspired by the highlights and shadows seen in African carving as well as the traditional use of colour in African art and artefacts.
Colour in African art is traditionally deeply rooted in spirituality and symbolism, the colours used are not just about looking bold, they are designed to reflect feelings and emotions and to tell stories.
In The Fishermen, Louis Mbughuni has placed bright complementary colours next to each other.
Complementary colours are pairs of colours that appear opposite each other on scientific models such as the colour wheel. When they are used side-by-side in a painting, they make each other look brighter.
Fauvist painters at the beginning of the twentieth century often used complementary colours to create vibrant paintings.
Colour in Western art
Since the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, many Western artists have experimented with abstract colour to moods and feelings – from Symbolism to Abstract Expressionism.
Mbughuni's use of colour to express the religious spirituality of a scene can perhaps be compared to paintings that Post-Impressionist artists Paul Gauguin and aslo Émile Bernard made at the end of the nineteenth century.
In his painting Vision of the Sermon(Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888, which is in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Paul Gauguin used bright colours to suggest the intense feelings experienced by a group of Breton women witnessing a vision on their way home from church and convey the mysterious spirituality of the scene.
Have a go! Paint a mysterious dreamlike painting
Task your students with painting a dreamlike, eerie scene, inspired by the mood of Louis Mbughuni's painting The Fishermen.
These research links and suggestions provide ideas and inspiration for students planning their painting projects.
What will you paint?
Choose a dreamlike or eerie subject.
Think of a place from a childhood memory or a story you have read.
Choose a subject from your imagination such as an empty street or a dark forest or a windswept stormy beach.
Or be inspired by the unreal and often surreal environments of computer games or science-fiction movies!
Imagine yourself in this place:
what does the place look like?
what does it feel like?
what does it sound like?
How could you use visual elements such as composition and colour to convey the atmosphere of this place?
Note your ideas in your sketchbook.
Explore how other artists have painted dreamlike places or mysterious scenes.
Michael Armitage is a Kenyan-British artist who works between Nairobi and London. His paintings suggest visual narratives that challenge cultural assumptions. He explores politics, history, civil unrest and sexuality. Armitage is inspired by modern East African painters such as Jak Katarikawe.
Paula Rego's painting The Dance (1988) shows figures dancing on a beach at night. The shadowy night-time setting and the blue tones that Rego has used to evoke the moonlight, makes the painting seem mysterious.
Russian painter Marc Chagall also painted dreamlike scenes. They combine memories of the village in Russia where he grew up, with tales from Jewish folklore. He often includes floating or upside-down figures and uses bright colours in his paintings, which add to their other-worldly atmosphere.
Doorway in Part Wall 1968
Albert Reuss (1889–1975)
Heinz Koppel (1919–1980)
The Quest 1938
Cecil Collins (1908–1989)
Woman Seated among Sculptured Forms 1970
Albert Reuss (1889–1975)
K Enters the Castle at Last 2004
R. B. Kitaj (1932–2007)
Up the Creek 1992
Louise McClary (b.1958)
Margaret Shields (b.1942)
Tyn y Waun, Evening
Will Roberts (1907–2000)
Concrete Cabin 1991–1992
Peter Doig (b.1959)
The Moon, the Woman and the Fox 2000
Bill Lewis (b.1953)
A Winding Road – Cornish Landscape 1920
Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith (1879–1959)
Plan your painting
Gather images that inspire you. These could be photographs of places or people, or artworks. Use these to help you plan your painting.
Sketch some ideas and make notes to help you plan your painting.
Think about the things you want to include and how you will arrange them (e.g. if you are going to paint a scene of people in a landscape, will the people be big and fill the page or will they be tiny figures in a big landscape?).
Small quick drawings, sometimes called thumbnail sketches, are a great way to jot down lots of composition ideas.
The time of day – whatever you choose to paint, an evening or night scene will make the painting seem a bit more mysterious!
Colour – look again at the colours that Louis Mbughuni used. Think about using bright unrealistic colours. You could juxtapose complementary colours or use colours that are all within the same colour range – as Paula Rego has done in her painting The Dance. Use shades of blue or pinks and reds
Shapes and patterns – although Louis Mbughuni created a recognisable scene of a boat on a lake, the shapes and patterns of the lake and sky add a strange dreamlike quality to the picture. They look almost like fish tails. Are there any shapes in your painting that you could abstract?
Something unexpected! Louis Mbughuni repeated the figures in his painting upside down. How can you make your painting look strange and other-worldly?