Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Student Self-Portraits: Voila!!

Another project our fifth graders just completed last semester was the self-portraits they painted. I found this idea on a teaching video by Peggy Flores, as shown in this YouTube video. It is the very same one I have on DVD (except I bought the DVD 2 years ago) which goes on to explain several different ways to approach the self-portrait. For the 5th grade students, I gave them a choice to either do the Fractured Watercolor portrait, or the Puzzle Self-Portrait (both are demonstrated on the video).

First, I showed my students a powerpoint I had made featuring famous self-portraits through the ages during our first introductory session. The following week, we watched the Peggy Flores DVD segment so they would have some idea of the various techniques that they could use once they drew the original pencil portrait. This was followed by several drawing sessions during which students learned and practiced drawing themselves while looking into large self-standing mirrors. Most took about two to three practice drawings on newsprint before they felt ready to transfer their drawing to watercolor paper.

The transfer involved them placing the watercolor paper on top of the finished portrait outline over a window on a sunny day... sort of a vertical light box effect. Students easily trace their outline and features from the newsprint onto the watercolor paper with a Sharpie fine point marker.

Fractured Watercolor Portrait:
The next session saw them watercolor painting the portrait. Instructions included: use one color for the background, one for the hair, one for the face, and one for the clothing. Eyes and mouth were left open to the student. They had to paint wet on wet (which they learned in previous years).

The watercolor session took one to two sessions, depending upon a student's speed and comfort zone with this media. For most, they got the entire painting done in one session. I found that the best looking paintings were the one in which the students didn't overwork the watercolors, and were able to live with the way the colors would bleed together. Some kids really thought they were messing up when this happened, but I was prepared to address that.

I told them to consider themselves on a discovery mission: they knew they wanted to complete the project, and they knew the materials they were working with, but they didn't know what the results would look like. There was a real fear (for some) that they would mess up. I explained that was a risk, indeed. Artists often take risks when they make a piece of art because there is always the chance that what they see in their minds will not match what they actually make. But what I've found (from my own experience) is that what I make is usually better than what I had imagined in the first place... mistakes and all!  I wanted them to look at the 'mistakes' as part of the process. I reminded them that many discoveries were made from misjudgments, errors, misunderstandings, and taking the wrong path. I had hoped these words of encouragement would allow them to let go of the fear of making a mistake, or at least to accept the minor anxiety they were feeling, and just go forward anyway. Just do it, I said, to quote a famous advertising slogan!!

The next week, they picked up the ultra-fine point Sharpie marker to fracture the watercolor. To fracture, they first had to notice the places where colors met and blended, where values suddenly changed from light to dark. When they could see these 'lines', they could trace over them with the marker, and outline these 'islands' of color/value. A few kids had a hard time with this at first, but once I pointed the possible fractures out, they easily began finding new ones to trace on their own.

I think the girls had the most difficult time when fracturing their faces... it didn't make them pretty.  (I overheard their comments as they worked.) It felt like they were putting scars, lines, wrinkles, etc on the face. In the end, though, most of the girls were happy with the effect of the fracturing. The boys got a big kick out of the fracturing technique. One even emphasized his outlining technique with stitch-like marks. It wasn't bad actually... unfortunately, his is not finished. I may come back and edit this later and add it. It's interesting.
The biggest complaint I heard was "Man this takes a long time!"... "But look how good they look!" I replied frequently. "Isn't it worth the extra time?"


 Puzzle Watercolor Portrait: One class elected to do the Puzzle portrait instead. Their instructions were slightly different... and they used washable markers (we used RoseArt, Crazy Art, and Crayola brands). They transferred their outlines to the watercolor paper the same as the others had, and they outlined with Sharpie markers...  but they used the washable markers to color, and brushes with water to paint over the marker colors, to achieve the watercolor effect. However, the background was completed with wet on wet brushed on watercolor (using Prang semi-moist pan colors).

I would have to say that of the two portrait sessions, the fracturing took the longest, and was the more challenging for the students if only of their patience and endurance to continue working on the same project over a period of time. The Puzzle portraits didn't take quite as long, but coloring the puzzle pieces with markers took longer than painting them with watercolor directly. I suppose we could have just used watercolor paints, but I was trying to get two different looks. And if you compare them closely, you'll see that the Puzzle portraits are brighter and bolder than the fractured portraits, while the fractured portraits have a greater looseness, almost a sketchy look to them.

If you are an art teacher, I hope you find this information helpful. I think it helps when art teachers share their class work... their students' work, and the process. It helps take the mystery out of teaching art, or even making art.

Please feel free to contact me, but mostly, just leave a comment. Thanks!

Odd discovery today as I tried to read the comments on the previous post... I kept getting a blank screen each time I clicked on the comments at the end of the post. I finally was able to read them when I went into another feature of the blog, and clicked on comments. That's where I could read every comment written, without any of the text from the post. Just comments. I was wondering if anyone else has experienced that, or if it is something unique to my computer. I've not been using this blog for so long, possibly there's something I haven't done, that I need to do, to make sure it's updated??? Would appreciate any help ... thanks!


  1. Wow, that is impressive Bea. I do so love to see what you are doing with your students. I always wanted to go to artschool myself, but was never allowed. These are fabulous!
    PS so good to see you back posting.

  2. Wow, those are amazing. Glad to see you back.

  3. Thanks, Marie and Ken... it's good to read your comments, and yes, I am hoping to get back into blogging at least once a week during the regular school year. And I can actually read your comments, which is a big improvement since last week when I tried to read the comments, I was unable to see them. I don't know what has changed, but glad it works now. Thank you for visiting!!

  4. What a fabulous post. My wife is an art teacher and i also teach a kids class. When i saw this i emailed her right away. Thanks so much for sharing. Can't wait to watch the video. Cheers!

  5. Bea I just saw your comment on my blog. I love following other art teacher blogs. I have a list on my blog, but I actually follow even more.
    I have been teaching a total of 15 years. Eleven of which were in South Central Kansas. Now I am up in NE Kansas. I had a few years break when we moved up here but I have been at my current position for 4 years.
    I have 351 K-4th graders. Luckily I don't travel between schools anymore.
    I loved your portraits.I've seen this technique with pumpkins before but it works great with your portraits. Beautiful. I took a quick tour of several of your posts but plan on checking back and will following any new posts! Have a great time....

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog, Bea. I'm going to try to add that 'followers' gadget. These are very cool portraits! I'm also looking for new portrait ideas, so will add this to my Pinterest board, and hopefully try it out sometime!

  7. Wow, these portraits are wonderful, you have really talented kids in your classroom and of course they profit from a great art teacher like you :)