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Making Self-Portraits with Elementary Students

Updated on April 6, 2020
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I am a K–12 art teacher at a small school district, and I love to cook. Most of my articles are art projects for kids or recipes. Enjoy!

Basic human facial proportions
Basic human facial proportions | Source
Frida Kahlo self-portrait example
Frida Kahlo self-portrait example
Van Gogh self-portrait example
Van Gogh self-portrait example

My elementary students had a great time making self-portraits. Each grade level that I teach (kindergarten thru fifth grade) completed one. I am so pleased with how they turned out! The kids had a blast making them and wanted to do them again, we just don't have enough time in the school year!

I broke the lesson into two different class periods. The first day of the lesson I do a short, general introduction to self-portraits. I show examples of famous artists and their self portraits; such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol. Then I go over the proportions of the face, placement of eyes, ears, noses, mouths and hairlines. I have an example of a basic generic human head on the board with guidelines that I draw as I talk to the students.

I also point out the placement of features on my own face as I talk, it keeps the students more actively interested if they can look at me as an example. I draw individual features of the face larger on the board ahead of time. Especially close-ups of the eyes, nose and mouths. I show them the eye is actually a large circle, but our eyelids make it appear almond or football shaped. The students seem to like the football analogy, it tends to help them draw their eyes more accurately. I do show them that there is about an eye width between the eyes. I also point out how the eyebrow leads into the top of the nose. This all helps the students create more accurate self-portraits the next week. If they feel along their face and look in the mirror it will help them understand proportions and how big to make features.

Each student then is given white drawing paper, a pencil and an eraser. I have the students look at my drawing on the board and try to draw a person's face on their own paper. I have head shaped templates for the youngest three grades to trace. This gets them to draw larger on the paper than they would on their own, it also saves lots of frustration for the kids. I tell them that we will be drawing their class pictures the next week, so this is a practice self-portrait for them. I also have them look at their neighbor's facial proportions. This helps to cement the general facial proportions in their minds. I will have mirrors in the future that the students can use for this lesson, but I do not at the moment, so we use each other and class pictures. We only do black and white practice portraits.

The following lesson period, I have each of the student's class pictures available for them to use during class. I pass these out at the beginning of class. I also review the proportions of the face with the students and then get the white drawing paper out. I have them start by using regular drawing pencils to get their portraits drawn. After they have the self-portrait drawn, I have the students use color pencils if they so choose. I do allow the students to decide if their pictures will be color or black and white, they really appreciate having input on the projects we do. I feel it really helps the students own their work and love it even more. I hope if you try self-portraits with students that some of my tips will help the lesson go more smoothly. I think it is a very rewarding lesson for both teacher and student and enjoy it very much.

one of my fifth grade student's self-portraits
one of my fifth grade student's self-portraits | Source
second grade self-portrait
second grade self-portrait | Source
another second grade self-portrait
another second grade self-portrait | Source

Have you made self-portraits with elementary students before?

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