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September 24, 2014 Three Ideas for Student Self-Portraits By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Self-portraits add a personal touch to a classroom at the start of the year and help decorate bare walls before “published” student writing is ready to hang up. Parents enjoy picking out their children’s portraits when they visit for Meet the Teacher Night or Open School Week, and the “selfies” create a sense of ownership for the students in their new classroom space. Here are three self-portrait art projects that can be completed in three periods or less using inexpensive materials. So get ready to embrace your inner artist as you get creative with your students!


    Self-Portrait Project 1: Warhol-Inspired Pop Art

    Andy Warhol is famous for his silk-screened portraits of celebrities that use repetition, geometric configurations, and contrasting colors. After sharing some examples of Warhol's portraits and still lives, students create their own self-portraits in his comic book style.


    First, students draw an outlined self-portrait using black marker. (Permanent marker works well.) Photocopy each student's line drawing so they have four or more copies of their portrait design. It helps to copy their portraits onto cardstock or the thickest paper you can feed through your copier. Then the students color in each self-portrait using a different color scheme. You can use whatever materials you have available: markers, crayons, or colored pencils will suffice. You can also have the students explore a different medium for each portrait. Mount the students' collection of portraits in a two by two array. For more ideas about this project, Scholastic has a detailed lesson plan about Warhol's portraits.


    Self-Portrait Project 2: Negative Space Collages

    Rather than having students create a collage face, invite them to make a collage of the space around their face with words and images that represent them. The contrast between their black and white portraits and the colorful background really makes the faces pop.


    First students draw self-portrait busts using permanent black marker. It helps to provide mirrors to allow students to notice lots of details. Encourage students to add texture and to fill in details about their hair, face, and clothes. Then they color in all of the negative space (background) with a solid color marker. Finally, students cut out images and words from magazines to collage over the background. Show students how to cover as much of the background as possible by overlapping their paper cutouts. 


    Self-Portrait Project 3: Klee and Picasso "Cubist" Faces

    Introduce students to Cubism while studying some of the portraits by Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. Scholastic has a full lesson plan about Picasso's cubist compositions that highlights several of Picasso's portraits. You may also want to share "Senecio" (1922) by Paul Klee to compare two different artist's approaches.


    First students use crayons to draw their faces. Remind students to press firmly with their crayons to leave enough wax for the wax-resist technique. Then they divide their faces and the background into smaller, geometric sections. Students may choose to leave some features without segments for contrast. Finally, students use watercolors to create wax-resist paintings over their crayon drawings. Encourage students to think about complementary versus analogous color choices. This is a great opportunity to work in some color theory. 


    Quick Tips for Classroom Art Lessons

    All of these self-portrait projects were developed by the incomparable art teacher at my school, and thanks to Michelle Schneider’s leadership, our students are a true community of artists. However, you don’t need to rely on an art teacher or dedicated art program to enrich your students’ lives with art. Making art in the classroom has enormous benefits for our students, as discussed in this blog post by Meghan Everette. 

    Create projects inspired by the artwork of professional artists. Closely examine of few of that artist’s works as a class. Share some relevant biographical info about the artist, and voilà, you’ve also done an art history lesson!

    For watercolor projects, it’s usually less expensive to buy pads of watercolor paper at an art store than reams of individual pages. Then you can just pull the pages off the pad.

    Don’t allow students to sharpen colored pencils in your electric pencil sharpener! The waxy core in colored pencils will jam your sharpener in no time. Instead dedicate a few handheld sharpeners to the cause.

    Encourage students to fill the entire paper. Many students draw tiny creations, but their artwork will have a bigger impact if they can supersize their drawings.

    Quart-sized take-out containers are perfect for storing paintbrushes, markers, and colored pencils. It also works as large water containers for painting projects. Make sure students store paintbrushes with the bristles facing up!

    Remember that picture book illustrators are artists too — and quite possibly, the artists that our students know best! Use illustrators as "mentor artists" for art projects rather than just "museum artists."


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Susan Cheyney