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Thiebaud’s Cake Math (intermediate version)

Grade Level: 5–8

Using the painting, Cakes by artist Wayne Thiebaud, students will learn and practice math concepts of volume and surface area. Then they will create a bold cake painting, either online or with classroom art materials.


Wayne Thiebaud
American, born 1920
Cakes, 1963
oil on canvas, 152.4 x 182.9 cm (60 x 72 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art from the Collectors Committee, the 50th Anniversary Gift Committee, and The Circle, with Additional Support from the Abrams Family in Memory of Harry N. Abrams



Curriculum Connections

  • Math (fractions, addition, subtraction, money problems, classification problems, writing story problems)


  • Smart Board or computer with ability to project image of Thiebaud’s Cakes
  • Art paper
  • Pencils
  • Markers or poster paint
  • Brushes

Warm-Up Questions

Have you ever seen a scene like this? What seems unusual about it? (Note the thin, delicate stands—almost like a circus performer balancing plates on a straw!)




Wayne Thiebaud, c. 1985–1986
©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Ten Things About Thiebaud:

  1. Wayne Thiebaud was born in 1920 in Mesa, Arizona. He moved with his family to Long Beach, California, at age nine.
  2. Thiebaud grew up during the Great Depression. He was a boy scout and worked in restaurants.
  3. In high school, he played basketball. He took art classes and started drawing cartoons. He also worked on stage sets for theater productions. Perhaps this experience with stage lighting gave him the idea to put bright light in his paintings.
  4. As a teenager Thiebaud held several jobs, making posters for a movie theater and painting signs. One summer Thiebaud worked in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. He drew the "in-between frames" (drawings positioned between key changes in movement in order to make animation play smooth) for such cartoons as Goofy and Pinocchio.
  5. In the 1940s, Thiebaud went to junior college and then served in the Army as an artist and cartoonist. He married and settled in Los Angeles and worked as a commercial artist and illustrator. At age twenty-nine he went back to college and received degrees in art, art history, and education. He began teaching art to college students and decided to become a serious painter himself.
  6. In 1961, Thiebaud's food paintings—images of cakes, pies, candy, gumball machines, and deli counters painted with thick paint in bright colors—were exhibited in New York. They were a big hit! Though some scholars called Thiebaud a Pop artist because he painted popular consumer goods, he said he painted them out of nostalgia; they reminded him of his boyhood and the best of America.
  7. Thiebaud explained:

    "My subject matter was a genuine sort of experience that came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be . . . . I would really think of the bakery counters, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience. From when I worked in restaurants . . . [it was] always poetic to me."

Wayne Thiebaud
American, born 1920
Eight Lipsticks, 1988
drypoint on Somerset Satin paper, 17.8 x 15.2 cm (7 x 6 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Kathan Brown

8.  Thiebaud painted things other than food. He made still lifes of neckties, eyeglasses, lipsticks, even cows and dogs. He also painted large portraits of human figures, applying thick paint in bright colors against stark white backgrounds.

9.  Thiebaud went on to paint cityscapes—from the steep hills of San Francisco to the colorful landscapes of the Sacramento Valley in California.

10.  Wayne Thiebaud retired from full-time teaching in 1990. He lives in Northern California and continues to paint.

Guided Practice

Begin by looking carefully at the painting Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud with your students. Display a copy of the painting and ask students:

  • What do you see? Describe the cakes.
  • Where are these cakes? How are they displayed?
  • How is the painting lit? How can you tell?
  • What is the painting about? What is happening?
  • What is the mood here? Why do you say that?

Read the facts “Ten Things About Thiebaud” at the very beginning of the lesson and ask students what they learned about the artist that might help explain his painting.

Most of the cakes shown are the same geometric solid, a cylinder. Solid shapes such as cylinders have volume. In this case, the volume is the amount of cake inside.


Let's focus on the Valentine cake:

The baker sells it as a 10-inch cake. Which part of the cake measures 10 inches? (diameter)

To calculate the volume of this cake, use this formula: V = pi(r2)(h)

What measures do you need for this formula? (radius and height)

Since the diameter of the cake is 10", the radius (r) equals 5". The height of the cake (h) is 4.5". You can use 3.14 as an approximation for pi and calculate the volume of cake using V = pi(r2)(h).

Answer = 353.25 cubic inches

Now, how can we calculate the amount of frosting on the cake?

First, try to estimate the amount of frosting you think it will take to ice the cake. Here are your choices: 12 square inches, 50 square inches, 98 square inches, or 222 square inches. This is how to figure the answer:

The formula for the surface area of a cylinder is: 2(pi)(r2) + 2(pi)(r)(h), but the formula for the cake is: pi(r2) + 2(pi)(r)(h)

Why are they different? The cake is a cylinder, but the bottom is not frosted; so you only need to include the surface area of the top; so you don't need to double pi(r2).

Use what you know about the cake to calculate the surface area.

Answer: 222 square inches of frosting

Doesn't that sound like a lot of frosting for one cake? If you have ever frosted a cake, you know it takes only a cup or two of frosting to cover its surface. It is amazing that those cups contain frosting to cover several hundred square inches!


Use what you have learned to calculate the volume and surface area of this 8" cake. It is 4" high.


V = pi(r2)(h)
SA = pi(r2) + 2(pi)(r)(h)

Answers: V = about 201 cubic inches (200.96 in3), SA = about 151 square inches (150.72 in2)


Now that students are familiar with the painting, have them make their own boldly-designed cakes paintings. What type of cake do they like? What shape is their cake? round? rectangular? another shape? What colors are used for this type of cake? How would they decorate it?


Have students challenge their classmates with other math problems relating to the cakes in this painting. What about the ones that have already been cut into? How much cake and icing would a slice contain?


Decorate Thiebaud's cakes in "Cake Maker"

Download a family-oriented guide to Thiebaud

Search the collection “Wayne Thiebaud, Memories and Delights” at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art