Putting It All Together

Blue Water
Philip Guston (American)

Students will observe Blue Water and identify the various shapes and forms in the painting by putting together a puzzle of the object. They will then experiment with various other materials to gain a better understanding of how parts can come together to create whole images and structures.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 30 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • identify at least one color and one shape in Blue Water;
  • assemble a puzzle; and
  • understand how smaller pieces can come together to create a whole.


  1. Warm-up: Divide the students into small groups and present each group with a set of building blocks. Have the students build simple structures with their blocks and count the number of blocks they used to create a whole structure.
  2. Display Guston’s painting Blue Water for the students to see. Call on students to identify any colors, shapes, or recognizable forms they see. Help the students to see individual forms, the to look at the shapes as small clusters, and then as a whole. Point out how each individual form and shape that Guston used connects to the one next to it. All of the forms together create one whole image!
  3. Give each group a plastic bag with Blue Water puzzle pieces inside. Instruct students to lay out the pieces so that they can all be seen. Point to areas on the projected image and ask students to hold up the piece that corresponds with what you are pointing at.
  4. Instruct students to put their puzzle pieces together to recreate the original Blue Water image, using the projected image as a model. Make sure to point out how all of the puzzle pieces come together to make one whole image.
  5. Collect puzzles and pass out five or six Lego pieces to each student. Have the students connect the Legos in any way they want. When everyone is finished, pick up the creations, connect them all, and turn the structure on its side so it’s long like Guston’s figures. Ask the students: Which section of Legos is yours? Whose Lego creation is next to yours? Point out to the students how, just like with the puzzle pieces and with Guston’s figures, the individual creations connect to others to create a whole structure.


  • A few sets of building blocks
  • Legos
  • About the Art section on Blue Water
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • One Guston puzzle for every three students, cut into pieces and put in a plastic bag


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Blue Water

Philip Guston, American, 1913-1980
Born: Montreal, Canada
Work Locations: New York
About the Artist

Philip Guston (originally Philip Goldstein) was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1913 and moved to California when he was six. He began his professional art career in the 1930s, painting murals with social and political themes. In the 1950s, Guston began creating non-representational art (art with no recognizable subject matter), for which he became widely known and respected. After creating this kind of art for nearly two decades, Guston shocked the art world in the late 1960s when he abruptly abandoned non-representational art and started filling his new paintings with objects like eyes, cigarettes, and soles of shoes. “I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories,” he said. However, the stories in Guston’s paintings weren’t always crystal clear; some of the shapes that he painted resembled real-world objects without being totally recognizable. He wanted “to paint the world as if it had never been seen before, for the first time…”

Guston worked with no master plan, and repeatedly expressed astonishment at the forms created by his own paintbrush. “I am a night painter,” he said. “So when I come into the studio in the next morning the delirium is over. I come into the studio very fearfully… And the feeling is one of, ‘My God, did I do that?’” Late in his life, Guston became completely immersed in his art. He would paint around the clock, working for more than 24 hours at a time. He wrote, “[My paintings] are large, ten feet or so, and take complete possession of me… It is a new “real world” now that I am making—I can’t stop.” Guston died in 1980 in Woodstock, New York.

What Inspired It

“The trouble with recognizable art is that it excludes too much. I want my work to include more…I am therefore driven to scrape out the recognition…to erase it. I am nowhere until I have reduced it to semi-recognition,” Guston said. Around 1970, Guston began assembling what he called his “new alphabet”: a set of forms or shapes, mostly objects from his own life experiences, some of which actually looked like letters. Cigarettes (Guston was a chain smoker his whole life), light bulbs, body parts, and soles of shoes began crowding his compositions. These autobiographical forms shared the space with other less recognizable forms, whose origins were sometimes unclear even to the creator himself. Speaking of the forms that comprised his “new alphabet,” Guston said, “Sometimes I know what they are, but if I think ‘head’ while I’m doing it, it becomes a mess…I want to end with something that will baffle me.”

Another source of inspiration comes directly from Guston’s childhood. On his thirteenth birthday, Guston’s mother enrolled him in a correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning, a fitting gift for the boy who was a fan of newspaper comic strips Krazy Kat and Mutt and Jeff. However, Guston soon grew bored with the drawing lessons and gave up after taking only a few courses. In his mid-50s, Guston returned to his earliest inspiration. Many of his late paintings—like Blue Water—borrowed their style from the cartoons he loved as a boy.



Guston used a very limited color palette for this piece: only blue, red, white, and black.

Cartoon Quality

The cluster of objects floating on top of the water strikes some viewers as cartoon-like. Notice the bold outlines, the simplified colors, and the rounded edges.

Large Eye

At the far right end of the cluster of shapes, a large eye looks back at the other forms. Sonnet Hanson, DAM Master Teacher for Modern and Contemporary Art, poses the question, “If one sees the eye as that of the artist, could it be that in some way he is looking back on the remnants or unsettling events of his life?” Other critics purport that Guston did in fact depict himself as a Cyclops or a Cyclops eye in more than one painting.

“Semi-recognizable” Shapes

The ambiguous shapes in this painting are a part of what Guston called his “new alphabet.” Some forms are recognizable and some are not. Is that a ladder, or a letter? Is that a horseshoe or the sole of a shoe? Are those legs sticking out of the water, or intestines? Guston didn’t set out to create a clear-cut meaning for his paintings, so the possible interpretations are endless.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.