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Art theme: history paintings

History paintings relate important stories and – perhaps confusingly – the category includes religious and mythological stories alongside historical scenes. Often these works contain an important message and the size of the work (its scale) can be significant as a result.

Contextual background for teachers

Whaam! (1963)
Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997)

Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 172.7 x W 406.4 cm

American artist Roy Lichtenstein was a well-known exponent of the Pop Art movement. The composition (arrangement of forms) is borrowed from a comic book and the hard-edged style, with forms outlined in black, gives it a cartoon-strip appearance.

The title, Whaam!, is onomatopoeic which heightens the impact of the missile launched from the fighter plane on the left at the enemy plane on the right. Lichtenstein had served in the US Army and, at the time of painting this, the Vietnam War was well underway.

How has Lichtenstein represented war here? Does the simplified style, in two-dimensional (flat) blocks of unmodulated primary colour, affect our interpretation?

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.


Whaam! 1963

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997)


Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

Nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What do you think is going on here? Who or what does the artist want us to look at first? Is there movement in a particular direction?
  • What difference does it make to see the battle action up close rather than further away?
  • If this painting could make a sound, what kind of sounds would it make?
  • In terms of its style, what does it remind you of? Why?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

Use The Superpower of Looking Kit to ask questions about the artwork.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You may like to introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers at this point.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Choose a moment from history to recreate in Lichtenstein's comic book style. Challenge students to make use of a limited colour palette and outlining forms in black.
  • Create a drawing using the Ben Day dots typical of Lichtenstein's work. Find out more about this style in this profile of Roy Lichtenstein from Tate.



  • Listen to Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan. The song was released in 1963, the same year Lichtenstein painted Whaam! It is one of the most famous anti-war protest songs. Do students feel that the music suits the painting?



  • Get your students to touch toy aeroplanes.



  • Take on this paper plane challenge set by Imperial War Museums which takes inspiration from aircraft used in combat.



  • Whaam! makes use of onomatopoeia. You can find out more about this device in this resource and video exploring onomatopoeia from BBC Bitesize. What other onomatopoeic words can you think of to go with the painting?
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'aeroplane'.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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