Thumbprint Self-Portrait

Here’s a great idea I found on Pinterest…. You can see lots of inspiring examples here and here.  I tried this lesson with my middle school students and they really had fun with it!  
For more detailed instructions with photos, tips, writing prompts, a student gallery, and fascinating fingerprint facts, check out my pdf on Teachers Pay Teachers!

  • Black stamp pad
  • Copy paper 
  • Black (F) and (UF) Sharpies
  • Colored pencils
  • Examples of the 3 types of fingerprints: loop, whorl, and arch.
  • Photocopier for enlarging fingerprints (or take pictures with your phone and enlarge on your computer)


1. Collect a thumbprint from each student.  Identify the 3 different types: loop, whorl, and arch.
This was more challenging than I expected!  You need thumbprints that are clean and crisp… if they’re blurry at all, they only get worse when you enlarge them.  You’ll find that some thumbs just print more clearly than others, but keep trying and eventually you’ll get a thumb print from everyone that’s good enough to work with!
(Another option for collecting fingerprints is to rub a soft pencil on some paper, rub your finger onto the pencil, and then press a piece of clear tape onto your finger.  Lift the tape off carefully and stick it onto a piece of white paper.  This works amazingly well!  See more detailed directions here.)

2. Next, you need to enlarge your thumbprints.  
First, cut them out and write students’ names in pencil, then enlarge them one at a time.  Make the first enlargement at 400%, then enlarge that one 250%, and you should end up with the desired result… a thumbprint roughly the size of your face! (Or you can save time by using your phone to take a photo of each thumbprint, upload to your com­puter, and enlarge the image that way.)

3. You’ll notice that your thumbprint enlargements will be very pixelated.  So, take a (F) Sharpie and trace over the lines of your thumbprint to smooth the pixelated lines as much as possible.  
Don’t worry if some lines start and stop, or run into each other.  Just do your best to darken them and smooth them out.

4. Next, center a clean sheet of lightweight paper over the top of your thumbprint.  
You may want to tape the two papers together to keep them from sliding around.  (Tip: Before taping anything that you’ll want to remove later, first stick the tape onto your pants, then when you lift it off, the tiny fibers that are stuck to the tape will cause it to be less tacky and less likely to tear your paper when you remove it!)  If you have trouble seeing through your paper to trace your thumbprint, taping the paper to a window or light box (if you have one!) will be a huge help.

5. Now, use your (UF) Sharpie and start writing along your thumbprint lines!  
Begin at the top and use the lines of your thumbprint as guide lines for your writing.  You don’t need to retrace the lines onto your paper – you want your writing to create the ‘illusion’ of lines in your drawing.  And don’t worry about following every line exactly – this won’t be used for I.D., you just want to get the general idea of the thumbprint!  So, start writing a narrative about yourself… how old you are, things you like and don’t like, your hopes and dreams for the future…. that kind of stuff!  If you feel more confident writing in pencil first, you can do that, but you’ll need to carefully erase any pencil left showing after you trace with Sharpie!

6. Optional… use colored pencils to lightly add some designs in the background before tracing over your writing with Sharpie.  This will personalize your self-portrait even more!

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31 Responses to Thumbprint Self-Portrait

  1. Christie January 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    I can see how middle school kids would LOVE this opportunity to share their thoughts!!

  2. Michelle January 24, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    I'm trying this with my 5th graders this week.

  3. Mrs. P, Art Explorer January 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    what a wonderfully creative self-portrait! this is especially nice for those students who get hung up (frustrated) on their self-portraits not looking like themselves! Great idea–thank you for sharing it. (mrs. p @

  4. Natalie January 24, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    I have always wanted to try this! What a fabulous lesson! I love these! Thanks for the lesson!

  5. Megan January 24, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    I saw those on Pinterest too and thought about trying them! Glad you said your middle school students enjoyed it – I really need to find stuff that would be a good thing to work on between assignments and this could be something they continue to add to… must try it!! Thanks!

  6. TeachKidsArt January 24, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    Yes, Megan, this would be a good project to pull out when finished with other work, since the supplies are so minimal. And you're right, Mrs. P., this is the first self-portrait we've ever done where no one got hung up on not having an exact likeness! Once I figured out how to teach it, the kids had no trouble “catching the vision”. I hope you can all try this one… it's a winner!!

  7. Gia DeSelm February 9, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    I was having trouble getting a clear fingerprint so I Googled and found this:

    It uses tape and I was able to get a really clear print.

  8. Núria Almansa February 9, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    Hello, I’m an ethics teacher from Barcelona. At the moment my 16- year-old students and I are working on how we build our identity. As I love art I usually follow your blog and when I came across the digital fingerprint idea I thought it would be great to combine with what we’re doing in class. I really wanted to thank you for sharing your creativity. If you want to see either the process or the final result of our work, please visit our school blog:
    Thank you so much!

  9. TeachKidsArt February 9, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Gia, THANK YOU for that amazing tip for collecting fingerprints with tape! I tried it out and it totally WORKS! I'll be doing it this way from now on… thanks for sharing your discovery!!

    And Nuria, thank you for writing and sharing your slide show of your process and results! So glad you and your students enjoyed this project!!

  10. Anonymous February 21, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    We are studying the Human Body in science and this is a great way to combine science and writing. I take fingerprints with pencil and tape when we get to the study of skin, so this will be a super fit. Thanks for the excellent idea!

  11. Carolyn September 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    I would add the small decorative elements, designs first and then write my narrative over the top……cute idea, can’t wait to try with my grandsons.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge September 4, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      Now that you mention it, Carolyn, I think that IS the order we did it in… write narrative in pencil, add colored pencil designs, then Sharpie over the top of the narrative. I’ll change it on my directions… thanks!

  12. JenEgg October 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    I’m going to do this with my daughter for a 4H project! Thanks!

  13. Amelia Moore October 11, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    GREAT IDEA!! What size paper is this? 8.5×11?

    • Cheryl Trowbridge October 12, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

      Yes, Amelia, this is just plain old 8.5×11 copy paper!

  14. Lina December 22, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

    Hi, I’m so glad I stumbled onto your website! as a homeschooler this is ideal for the unit we are learning! Thank you so much!

  15. SraHawk June 4, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    I did this with my second level Spanish class a culminating writing project using all categories of vocabulary into one autobiographical essay. The kids actually completed it early becaus ethey were so excited to see the final print. Thank you so much!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge June 4, 2013 at 9:09 am #

      That’s awesome! It’s always fun to see the kids so excited about their work!!

  16. Tami Landis July 24, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Hi Cheryl,

    I love this lesson and want to use it as an intro into my Art I course, but I am having trouble with the copier and even have the tech guy stumped. When I start to enlarge the fingerprint, it doesn’t center properly, resulting in the image getting cropped off the edge of the paper.

    You have great step by step of the process, but I was wondering if you have any additional advice.

    Thank you!


    • Cheryl Trowbridge July 24, 2014 at 10:02 am #

      Tami, I’m sorry you’re having a problem getting the fingerprint enlarged! I think you just need to find the “sweet spot” where you need to place the image on your specific copier with each enlargement. I’ve done this project with three different copiers, and with each of those, that spot was in the right front corner, but it could be different on different machines. Good luck!

  17. Lundon July 15, 2015 at 8:53 am #

    Did you do this with all classes? Do you have periods in your middle school. I’m just thinking I have 130 kids that’s a lot of copying to enlarge their print. They can do everything else on their own, but the copying is awfully time consuming. How did you do it as efficiently as possible?

    • Cheryl Trowbridge July 15, 2015 at 9:41 am #

      Making the enlargements for this lesson is definitely a labor of love, even with fewer students like I had! It’s a perfect opportunity to involve parent volunteers or an older, responsible student. You can also collect fingerprints ahead of time and do a few each day if you have to. While it’s more prep than most lessons require, all I can say is it’s worth it! The kids LOVE doing this and the end result is a special keepsake for each family!

  18. Malena July 15, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    I LOVE this idea and really want to try it this year. How long does it take to make all the copies for each student?

    • Cheryl Trowbridge July 15, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

      How long it takes to make the copies really depends on the copier you have… some are a lot faster than others! But once you get your routine down, there aren’t a lot of decisions to make. It’s really not that bad… unless you’re doing hundreds, I suppose!

  19. Susie August 16, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    Hi! Thanks for the great idea. After about 15 minutes of frustration with using the copier…. I decided to take out my iPhone and snap a picture of each fingerprint. It was WAY easier to just upload them to my computer and enlarge the image that way. Saved me lots of time and the pictures are very clear. Thanks again for the wonderful idea and I hope that this saves people some time!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge August 16, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

      Wow – great idea, Susie! That would be a huge timesaver! I’ll update my post to include that. I know a lot of people will find it easier to use their phone than deal with a copier. Thanks so much for sharing that!!

  20. julie September 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

    Thank you. I’m trying it with my students this week.

  21. Shelby October 1, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    I’m a facilitator for grieving children and this will be a wonderful project to make in memory of their loved one! Thank you!

  22. Natasha December 16, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    I’m excited about trying this with my kids. Thanks!


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