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Teacher Workshop: Self-Portraits!

I just finished the 4th workshop in my “Teaching Teachers to Teach Art” series. This workshop focused on teaching Self-Portraits and we had a blast! We learned the basic “rules” for drawing portraits (see below) and did three self-portrait projects inspired by famous artists Paul Klee, Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani. I’ll be sharing those lessons here on my blog over the next few days.

It’s been encouraging to see not only classroom teachers, but also home school teachers, student teachers just finishing their credential programs, professional artists who want to learn to teach art to kids and even grandparents looking for new ways to spend quality time with their grandkids – all interested in learning to Teach Kids Art!!! Art truly is alive and well, despite all the budget cuts we keep hearing about!!

Just a note to my a.m. workshop students…. we ran out of time to make the paper “frames” I had planned for our Paul Klee project, but my afternoon students got to do it…. So, to be fair, here’s the link to my post “Fun Paper Frames” from a couple of months ago where I shared how to do this!

Read on for my “Tips for Teaching Portraits and Self-Portraits”….

These instructions will help you with the basic placement of facial features and their proportions, whether you are creating a self-portrait or a portrait of someone else. Each of our faces will vary in shape and proportion because we are all unique individuals!

• Show examples of portraits and self-portraits by famous artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Amadeo Modigliani and others. Explain to younger students that a portrait is a picture of someone else and a self-portrait is a picture of your self.

• Discuss the location and shape of each feature as you demonstrate, explaining that your instructions are for the “average” face and that each of our faces will vary slightly from these basic guidelines. (Students will retain more and more of these “rules of portraiture” as they continue to hear them repeated each year!)

• Pass out small mirrors and encourage students to look closely at the shapes of their facial features and the shape that their hair makes against their face as well as its outside shape. (Inexpensive mirrors can usually be found at the Dollar Store. A less breakable option for Kindergarten is “mirrored poster board” cut to 5”x7” and mounted onto foam core board to make it rigid.) Keep your mirror handy and refer to it often, comparing the shapes and lines you are drawing (and their relationships to each other) with what you see in the mirror!

• Have students draw with pencil first, reminding them to press lightly so they can erase when they need to!

How to Draw a Self-Portrait:

1. Begin by drawing the head shape as a large oval in the center of your paper. Make your oval slightly larger at the top. It may be helpful to use the pink eraser on the end of your pencil to sketch basic shapes like this before drawing them with pencil.
2. The eyes are almond shaped and are halfway down the head, five widths across, with the width of one eye in between. Add the upper eyelid by drawing a second line just above the top of the eye, matching that curve. If you choose to add eyelashes, they curve up and out, away from the middle of the face. The iris of each eye is partially cut off at the top and the bottom. Darken in the pupil, but leave a small speck of white to represent reflected light. (Have students take a minute to look for this tiny reflection in each other’s eyes.)
3. Eyebrows generally follow the curve of the eye shape and are made up of tiny hairs, not a solid line.
4. The tip of the nose is halfway between the eyes and the chin. The bottom of the nose is the width of the space between the eyes. For K and 1st grade, I suggest drawing the nose as a slightly curved “L” shape. For 2nd grade and up, you can teach them to draw the tip of the nose like a tiny “smile” line with the ends curving downward, and the sides of the nostrils like a parenthesis on either side of it.
5. The bottom of the mouth is halfway between the bottom of the nose and the chin with the width being the space between the pupils. First draw a slight curve to represent the space between the upper and lower lips. Add a curved line below this for the lower lip and two curved lines that meet in the middle above it for the upper lip.
6. Form a front view of the ears with a simple curved line along the side of the head, running from the top of the eyes to the tip of the nose.
7. The width of the neck is equal to the space between the outside edges of the eyes.
8. For K and 1st grade, draw a curved line from the lower left to the lower right side of your paper to represent the shoulders. For 2nd grade and up, you can curve the neck into the shoulders in a more realistic way.
9. Draw the hair as a solid shape, focusing on the shape it makes against your face and also against the background. You may add a few individual hairs to indicate the direction the hair is growing, but don’t overdo it! Erase any part of the ears that the hair covers.

Important!! Drawing the hair as a single shape is probably the best piece of advice you can share with your students to help them achieve more success with their portraits. Point out that the hair takes up space on the top and sides of the head. Have them study their own hair in a mirror so they can observe this first hand. Students have a tendency to draw hair as individual hairs growing out of the head. When you help them to see the difference and start drawing the hair as a shape, you’ll convince them to break this habit, and their work will immediately improve 100%!

• If you choose to trace your pencil drawing with another medium (such as Sharpie), trace carefully over your drawing and then use a Magic Rub eraser to remove any pencil lines that are still showing afterward.

• When painting your portrait, be careful to leave the whites of the eyes unpainted! It’s usually a good idea to paint the iris first as a reminder.

• If using watercolor, a tiny amount of red or orange may be added to well-diluted brown paint to get a good skin tone. Be sure to add enough water to your paint! You may want to have students “try out” their skin color on a separate paper first.

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  1. Thanks! The kids love these guidelines – I had some of these but also I’ve added your tips to my lesson plans which come under the theme of ‘looking closely’ OBSERVATION stage. I also use the central cross in an oval shape from ‘The new Drawing on the right side of the brain.’ Using charcoal with the older students also helps them to make a quick first impression of character/ personality. They tease each other about the size of their noses, ears or spots but then get teased back when the artist swaps roles with the model :-))

  2. I am a parent volunteer for art in my second grader’s class and our upcoming lesson is portraits. (They did self-portraits back in K, so this time they are to draw a classmate.) Your guidelines will be extremely helpful! Any tips for having them sketch each other? Should they take turns so they are not constantly asking each other to “look up”? In your lessons, I could only find self-portraits…

    1. Great question, Audrey! One idea would be to use a timer and give them 2 minutes at a time to draw their partner, then switch. The limited amount of time is long enough to keep the one doing the drawing focused and on task, yet not too long for the “model” to hold still. Try it and let us know how it works for you!