“Know Thyself”: Elementary Self-Portrait Ideas

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Happy Fall, y’all!

Thought I’d post a bit about the student projects going on in my art classes.  Each year for our first big project I start off with self-portraits in every elementary grade, from kindergarten all the way to fifth.  (This year I heard the word “selfie” a lot in our discussions of self-portraits!)

Why, you may ask, would I have kids make self-portraits multiple times?  Why would I give every grade the same project?  When I first started teaching, I found the idea of “progressive” self-portraits over time on the Incredible Art Department website (scroll down to the lesson by Judy Decker).  She has students in each grade make a self-portrait on 9×12 paper and saves them in a portfolio until, at 5th grade graduation, she displays all six self-portraits together for students to see and reflect upon.  I loved this idea!  At the private school where I teach, however, we have lots of kids that don’t stay all the way through the elementary grades (and we don’t have an official fifth grade graduation, since our school goes up to 12th grade), so I just send home the portraits each year and encourage parents to save them to look back on later.  I also make sure we do the self-portraits in a completely different way each year, focusing on different artists for our inspiration and using a variety of materials and techniques from grade to grade.

I encourage students to think about what a self-portrait can tell others about the artist and to represent who they are at this particular moment in time.  We talk about how we grow and change from one grade to the next, not just in physical appearance but in terms of our interests and goals, as well as in our artistic abilities as we practice and acquire new skills.  We look at self-portraits by Rembrandt, Judith Leyster, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Chuck Close, Warhol, and lots of others.  This is a fun YouTube video I found (posted by Blake Prim) that gives a quick run-through of some of the most famous self-portraits.  Often when I tell the kids that we’re going to start on self-portraits I hear “Yesss!”  It seems to build confidence to have some familiarity with drawing themselves from previous years.

Kindergarten: This year we made cut- and torn-paper face collages.  So cute!  I found the idea here.  I buy the 9×12 “multicultural” construction paper packs that come in a variety of skin tones from pale peach to tan to dark brown, and I encourage the kids to try to pick a paper that they think looks like a close match to them.  We talk about the beauty of our differences and how God created each of us to be unique and special.  First, they try to round out the construction paper by cutting off the four corners.  (Some end up shaped like potatoes, but these are the most adorable.)  Students observe themselves in mirrors and then draw their features with construction paper crayons (I always do a quick demo. and remind them not to forget ears, eyebrows, noses, etc.).  The following week they finish up and also cut or tear paper scraps for hair.

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I enjoy seeing the portraits all together on the wall!  Soon after students all finish their self-portraits, we have a huge Grandparents’ Day event, and the grandparents love seeing their grandchild’s artwork.  In my next post I’ll share what we did in the older grades.  Art teachers, what ideas do you use for self-portraits?

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