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Whaam! (1963)

by 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?

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students the painting below and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe what they see in the painting and how it is arranged.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: in class, you can view a full-screen version of the image on the Tate website.



Whaam! 1963

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997)



Stage 2: 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?

Suggested activity: drawing from memory

Remove the picture from display. Whilst it's not visible, ask your students to redraw the basic elements of the picture from memory. Give them a set time in which to complete their drawing and make it quick!

Now display the picture again and ask your students to compare their drawing with the original. What have they remembered and what have they forgotten? Compare answers. Why do they think they have remembered certain features and not others?

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions of the work and spark a discussion.  

We’d suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Composition (e.g. movement; cropping)



Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Compare Whaam! with Paul Nash's 1941 painting, Battle of Britain.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition, Space and Materials & Techniques.



Whaam! 1963

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997)


Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain 1941

Paul Nash (1889–1946)

IWM (Imperial War Museums)


Cross-curricular activity: Art & Design and History

As described in the context box, Whaam! takes the form of a comic book strip, which is clear in the division of the image across two panels, the use of black lines and a minimal colour palette. The picture also reflects on the artist's service in the US Army and was created when the Vietnam War was well underway.

Task your students with depicting a moment from history that they have studied in class reinterpreted as a comic book strip. What key figure(s) and quoted speech might they want to capture? For example: the building of Hadrian's Wall; Vikings sailing across the North Sea; the moon landing in 1969.

If you'd like them to learn something new from history, you may wish to use films on Art UK focused on Emmeline Pankhurst or Walter Tull, or watch inspiring true stories from history on BBC Teach.

Your students may want to work in groups to create a series of panels that narrate one historical moment in parts. Try to limit each pupil to completing a two-panel comic book drawing and to choose only two colours other than black and white to give a retro comic book feel.

For inspiration, you may wish to look at the following sculpture with your students which was created by pupils at a school in Coatbridge alongside sculptors Merlin Currie and Andy Scott. It explores the history of their local area and industry:

Comic Book (Vulcan Ventures)

Comic Book (Vulcan Ventures) 2011

Andy Scott (b.1964) and Pupils of St Ambrose High School and Merlin Currie (b.1958)

Monklands Canal, Blair Road, Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire

If you're looking for a quicker activity, why not follow our negative space paper-cutting activity in Art UK's lesson plan on the 'Titanic Sign' and sculptures that remember, using the historical figure's name or something they said as the text for the artwork.

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