Phillips-at-Home Series: Ossorio Experiments

Today’s activity looks at Alfonso Ossorio’s Five Brothers as we dive into the curious world of science using the scientific method. The scientific method is a process of six steps scientists use to help them gain knowledge, solve problems, and understand why things work the way they do. We’ll use it to conduct experiments exploring the various reactions materials such as wax, salt, and glue have with watercolors. After conducting our experiments we will use our findings to create our own Ossorio-inspired masterpiece. Let’s get started!

Alfonso bottom of staircase

Hans Namuth, Alfonso Ossorio at the Creeks, 1952. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

About the Artist: Alfonso Ossorio was one of the first members of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which rejected naturalistic images and stressed spontaneous expression. An artist, collector, and patron of both American and European artists, he is one of the most colorful figures of postwar America. Ossorio was born in the Philippines in 1916, and spent the majority of his childhood attending Catholic Preparatory School in England. Ossorio moved to the US to attend boarding school, and became a citizen in 1933. He attended Harvard where, against his father’s wishes, he majored in Fine Art.

In 1940, Ossorio was offered his first solo exhibition when Betty Parsons, a prominent New York art dealer, discovered his work. Through his connection with Parsons, Ossorio was introduced to Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet. Throughout his career, Ossorio experimented with different mediums, both conventional and unconventional. This enabled him to create a style that was informed by the works of Pollock and Dubuffet, yet remained fiercely independent due to his interest in surrealism and belief in free and spontaneous gestures.


Alfonso Ossorio, Five Brothers, 1950. Watercolor, ink, and wax on illustration board, 18 3/8 x 30 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1951

Look Closely: Five Brothers was painted in 1950. Ossorio’s return to the Philippines in the 1950s, at the age of 34, was the first time he had returned in 26 years. The works he created during this time are thought to be some of his most personal images. Though the title of this work recalls a specific image, Ossorio replaces any representational forms with complete abstraction. He focuses on the complexity of the surface and interactions between materials as he layers ink on top of dense layers of wax and watercolor using a wax-resistant technique.

Thinking Moment: When you look at this painting, what jumps out to you? Try to identify the different mediums you see. What are you curious about?

In this art project, we will be scientists as well as artists. Keep in mind Ossorio’s unique technique and style during our watercolor experiment. After we investigate the properties of watercolors and collect our results, we’ll use what we know to create an Ossorio-inspired work of art!

The six steps of the scientific method are: observe/ask a question, research, hypothesis, experiment,analysis, and conclusion. Click here to download a worksheet we’ve created to help you keep track of your data and results.

Age Suggestion: 5+
Time Estimate: 1-2 Hours
What You’ll Need:
Watercolor paint
Paint brushes
Wax crayons
Glue (liquid glue is best)
Two sheets of paper
Water cup
Sharpie marker and/or pencil
Scientific method worksheet

Step 1: Gather your materials. Print the worksheet and have something to write with.


Step 1: gather your supplies

Step 2: Now we will walk through the 6 steps of the scientific method:

Observe/ Ask a question: The scientific method starts when you ask a question about something that you observe. Examine the watercolor paints, salt, glue, and wax crayons. For example, put a dab of glue on your fingers. Observe how it glides across your fingers. Now ask a question. Does the consistency change? What do you think the glue is made out of? Think about what questions come to mind as you examine the glue.

Research: Look for information on the internet or at the library about what it is you’re questioning and gather background information. We did this by reading the ingredients on the packaging, and looking for information about watercolors, wax, salt, and glue on the internet.

Hypothesis: Form an educated guess based on your research. This is called a hypothesis. It’s a prediction of what will happen during the experiment. A common way to form a hypothesis is by using the “If, then” format: “If I do ________ then _________ will happen.” Using what you’ve learned so far; what do you think will happen when you mix the different materials with watercolors?

Here is an example of one of ours: “If salt is sprinkled on top of watercolor paint, then the salt will absorb the water in the paints leaving a change in color pigment.”

Experiment: Organize a plan to test your hypothesis.

A) Fold and cut a sheet of paper into four smaller pieces and label them as follows: “Control”, “Glue”, “Salt”, and “Wax”. These squares will represent the four tests you’ll conduct.
You may be wondering what the paper labeled “Control” is for. When scientists conduct experiments, they have what is known as a control variable. The control variable is when the matter being tested is unchanged and constant. In our experiment the control variable is watercolor.


Divide your sheet of paper into four and label each square


Label the four squares

B) Take the piece of paper labeled “Control” and begin painting using the watercolors. In this test you’re observing how watercolor behaves on paper without any of the other materials.


Paint with watercolor onto the control square

Jot down something you notice happening. In our control experiment, we observed the way watercolors interact with each other and on the paper. If you put two watercolors closely together, the paints bleed into each other, as you can see where the purple splashed into the red.

C) Let’s set up the glue test next. With your glue bottle in hand, gently squeeze a design onto the piece of paper labeled “Glue”. Put this piece of paper to the side. We’ll come back to this test when the glue has had time to dry.


Use glue on the square labeled “glue”

D) For the third test, grab the piece of paper labeled “Salt” and have your salt ready. Start painting on this piece of paper with your watercolors. With the paint still wet, sprinkle salt over the paper.


The salt experiment

Remember to record your results! How is the salt reacting with the watercolor? We noticed that the places where we sprinkled salt showed a change in color pigment as the salt absorbed the water in the paints. Depending on how much salt was used, it created either lighter or more concentrated areas of paint and left a unique texture.

E) In your wax test, create a drawing using crayons. Draw whatever you’d like! Use the watercolors to paint over the areas of the paper where there’s crayon. What happens to the watercolor and the wax?


The wax test

Record what you see in your worksheet. In our wax experiment we noticed that the crayon repelled the watercolors. Therefore, when we painted over our crayon drawing the spots where we had used white crayons appeared extremely vibrant.

F) Lastly, return to your glue test. Check if the glue has dried. Paint over the paper with watercolor to see what happens.


The glue experiment

Record your observations. We observed that the places where the glue had dried fully repelled the watercolor, similar to how the crayons did. However, in places where the glue hadn’t fully dried the watercolor bled into the glue.

Analysis: Review your findings. The information collected is called “data”. What happened to the watercolor in each test? Read your notes and record anything you might have missed.
Here are our results from the experiment


All four experiments

Conclusion: From your results, review your hypothesis with the data. Check to see if your data supports your guess and report what you’ve learned from the experiment . Were your predictions correct? Write down the outcome and what you’ve learned from this experiment.

For example, our hypothesis for salt was, “If salt is sprinkled on top of watercolor paint, then the salt will absorb the water in the paints leaving a change in color pigment.”

Our analysis of the salt experiment supported our hypothesis. We learned from our research that salt absorbs water, just as we predicted.There were some instances where the salt formed concentrated areas of pigment depending on the ratio of salt and paint used. Furthermore, we predicted that the wax and dried glue would repel the watercolor, while wet glue would mix with the watercolor. The results from the experiments proved our predictions to be correct.

Step 3: Create your masterpiece. Now it’s time to create your own painting. Use the conclusions you drew from experimenting to brainstorm how you want to design your final piece. Maybe you want to build layers, mix all of the different materials together, or only use one. Have fun and see what happens!

Here are our finished artworks:


(left) painting by Betty Q. Le, K12 Intern (right) painting by Marin Williams, K12 Intern

We each used all three materials building upon different layers.

We first drew with crayon, then added the glue, followed by painting with our watercolors and finishing our works by sprinkling salt on them. What do you think?

Ossorio is known for his use of organic lines, geometric forms, and bold colors. We manipulated the wax, salt, and glue in an attempt to imitate a natural, uncontrolled gesture similar to Ossorio’s.


Get a closer look of Betty’s painting. Can you tell where the salt, glue, and wax is used in the painting?


What about in Marin’s?

Step 4: Reflection. Look at what you’ve created! Isn’t it cool that you got to be both an artist and a scientist?

Ossorio was always concerned with displaying expressive gestures in his art. What kind of gestures did you make?

We hope you enjoyed experimenting with us today, and that you continue to question the world around you using the scientific method to guide your experiments. We would love to see where your experiments led you! Take a picture of your work and share it in the comments below.

Marin Williams and Betty Q. Le, K12 Education Interns

School Program Educators Meet with Question Bridge Artist

Image 2_Question Bridge_Caitlin Casey

Bayeté Ross Smith discusses Question Bridge with Phillips School Programs Educators last month.

On Wednesday, October 7, Bayeté Ross Smith, one of the creators of Question Bridge: Black Males met with Phillips School Programs Educators to discuss strategies on how to integrate the themes and content of the exhibition into school tours. On view through January 3, 2016, this documentary-style video installation seeks to represent and redefine black male identity in America.

According to Smith, Question Bridge is an effective education tool because, as a case study, it facilitates broader conversations about the identity politics operating in other identity groups and underrepresented demographics. Smith explained that the project reveals not only that indicators of identity are rather arbitrary, but also that there is as much diversity within a demographic as there is outside of it. “The only thing that black men have in common is that they are male and black,” said Smith. “You can’t say they have one thing in common. This seemed like a prime way to examine this issue and deconstruct it, as well as examine the idea of communication and healing within one community—even though it isn’t exactly ‘one community’ so to speak.”

Image 1_Question Bridge_Caitlin Casey

Bayeté Ross Smith and Phillips School Program Educators during October’s session on Question Bridge.

During his presentation, Smith exposed the group to the many ways educators can engage with the project through the Question Bridge curriculum, website, and mobile app. The curriculum aims to help students develop a variety of skills, such as building cultural, visual, and multimedia literacy. Furthermore, it allows students to engage in the essential, overarching question of how we can create equitable environments of inclusion in our diverse 21st century society. Composed of eight functioning modules with specific learning goals, based on themes such as “The Human Condition,” “Code Switching,” and “The Power of Communication,” the Question Bridge curriculum offers an alternative way for workshops to be structured and students to engage with the material. Each module includes a student workbook and teacher guide, which consists of a list of additional resources and a glossary of terms for reference.

On Thursday, November 12, the Phillips is hosting an Evening for Educators focused on Question BridgeFind details and register here.

Caitlin Casey, K12 Education Intern

Deconstructing the Struggle Series

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

Install shot_Struggle

Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: Struggle…From the History of the American People. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As I reflect upon our semester, I am amazed at how Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series has opened itself to us for new discoveries about the individual works and about the series as a whole. For a time in this course, we were able to view 30 panels from The Migration Series in a space adjacent to the gallery with the 12 panels from the Struggle series. We began the semester with “mindfully” looking at works from both series. Our observations in the galleries and later examinations of surface and shape taught us a great deal about the viability and flexibility of Lawrence’s practice in tempera paint applied to sequences of same size panels over time. In the nearly 15 years separating Lawrence’s Migration epic and his American History (comprising events from the American Revolution and the Early Republic), we found an amazing continuity in his method: starting with research in the Schomburg Library, next visualization from notes and texts, pencil drawing and notation on the surface (both front and back), and lastly the patterning and improvisational layered application of pure colors. However, unlike The Migration Series, which reads like an epic poem with stanzas and refrains, the Struggle series visualizes the incidents of history by way of individual filmic splices. We feel the quickened pace of being in the moment and psychological intensity in the acute angles of Lawrence’s shapes and in his flashing contrasts of seemingly improvised color. Lawrence’s notations—some of early titles—on the backs of the panels also offered us important clues to the identity of the historical events as well as to his thinking.

For example, on the back of the panel about Patrick Henry’s speech, Lawrence erased the word “Protest.” On the back of the panel about the Boston Tea Party, Lawrence wrote, “Masquerade.” In Lawrence’s work, when a story is being told is as important as what is being told. For him, deep context is important. So our students set about researching historical events and textual sources as well as the current events in 1954–56 when the series was being created. Among them were school integration, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the heinous murder of Emmet Till. The partial or incomplete aspect of the Phillips’s showing of the Struggle series became an opportunity for the students to posit alternate sequences and to underscore key themes such as violence vs. non-violence or the individual vs. society. When given the amazing opportunity to rearrange the Struggle series gallery, we ultimately opted for the 12 panels to be arranged chronologically in the order of historical events. In this way, the reader of the series first finds in the story of the Revolution the image of a Slave Revolt and Petition before encountering Patrick Henry’s appeal for liberty or death which invokes a slave petition. In each of the following parts of this blog series, students respond to different panels and discuss their interpretations and report their research on Lawrence’s work.

Beth Turner, Former Phillips Curator