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Self-Portraits Inspired by Grant Wood

Grant Wood (1891-1942) was an American artist best known for his paintings of rural American life.  My students were fascinated by the story of how his father died when Grant was only ten years old, and his mother had to move her family from their home on the farm to the big city. This was a hard move for Grant, who missed his farm animals and his life in the country.  He felt out of place at his new school, where some kids even made fun of him. But he kept his sense of humor, and along with his talent for drawing, he made new friends and things got better for him.   
Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic” inspired this special self-portrait.  I had fun showing my 4th grade students a print of “American Gothic” and having them guess who it was that Grant Wood painted in that picture.  No one guessed it, but that’s not surprising…. it was their family dentist and his sister, Nan!  Who would ever guess that??!  He was actually first inspired by the Gothic-style window in a farm house that he saw, and then he looked for the right people to go with it!
For our project, students brought in a photo of their house along with a photo of one other family member (or their family dentist!) to include in their portrait.  We first drew with pencil, then traced our lines with Sharpie before using colored pencils to add color.  The colored pencils didn’t work out so well, as you can see by the scratchy lines, but the portrait concept is one I will definitely do again!  Follow my tips for drawing successful portraits here and add just a section of the house in the background for a new twist on the traditional self-portrait project!

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  1. Hi,
    I’m thinking he would be a great artist to start the school year. I want try doing self portraits and I love the idea! What medium would you use with new third graders? I think that the pencil with sharpie is great but would you stick with colored pencils? New crayons or pastels? Just curious, thank you!!!!!!

    1. Hi Amy – Self portraits are a great project for starting off the school year! For beginning of 3rd grade, I would probably have them use crayons instead of colored pencils. (It takes some practice to learn how to fill in large areas neatly with colored pencils.) Make sure you get some of the “flesh tone” packs so you don’t end up with orange or yellow faces! For skin tones, I like to buy the jumbo crayons, peel the paper off and break them in half. Then students can use the side edges to fill in large areas without leaving streaky lines. Sharpie is good… you might want to use the “F” size (instead of “UF”) so they don’t get too caught up in drawing tiny details. Have fun with this!!