In the Studio: Self-Portraits

And just like that, another school year begins! I can’t believe we are already in week three of the new year. I tend not to work on too many “projects” so early in the year, preferring to give the children time to get comfortable in our space, explore, and make connections with classmates and staff. However, the one project I will dedicate time to is self portraits. I always find the children exhibit a high level of interest in drawing and painting at this time of the year and portrait work excites them. Additionally, portrait work requires slowing down, looking closely, and noticing details: all skills I want to emphasize and encourage in the first term. At the start of the year, we are also looking to develop a rapport and make connections with our students, so small group work like this often leads to relationship building.

“When we invite children to create self-portraits, we offer them mirrors and encourage long, sustained study of their faces from [an] unfamiliar perspective. Then we ask them to re-create themselves on paper, weaving together the image that they see in the mirror with the person they experience themselves to be. Their portraits are eloquent statements of self.”  (Ann Pelo, The Language of Art (2007))

If you are new to self-portraits, I highly recommend reading Ann Pelo’s book, The Language of Art, to get an idea of the process. Ann so clearly lays out this project from beginning to end, including how to set up the studio, what prompts to use, cleanup, and ways to build on the experience.

This year I decided to take a new approach to our self-portrait work. Rather than limit the children’s experiences to the Art Studio, we would take some time before drawing our portraits to look more closely at faces and facial features. We began by reading Faces by David Goodman. In this story, the author shows us how we can spot “faces” everywhere in our environment and how we can construct faces out of loose parts. After reading the story, we set up a simple provocation with loose parts and mats/cork boards:

These mats can be downloaded for free from Picklebums at https://picklebums.com/people-play-dough-mats/

Our next step was to move beyond loose parts into a drawing/sketching phase. From what I had seen of the children’s drawings so far, I knew that most children were using simple mark making (dots, lines, etc.) in their pictures. We decided to take some time to look more closely at our facial features and break down how to draw them with increased attention to detail. Each week, we take time in our schedule for a focused art and drawing lesson (if you want to read more about Art and Fine Motor Instruction, click here: https://thecuriouskindergarten.blog/2014/01/16/art-and-fine-motor-instruction-snowflakes/). In our first lesson of the year, we decided to focus on faces. Now, I know that giving a large class of somewhat-new-to-school 3-5 year-olds whiteboards, erasers, and dry erase markers seems daunting in the first few weeks of school. In fact, I almost bailed on the lesson myself out of fear. In the end, I decided to have confidence that I could capably walk the children through the process of listening and following instructions, managing their materials, and successfully drawing themselves. And wow! Were we impressed! At the start of the lesson, each child gets a 9×12 whiteboard, a tissue or sponge (for erasing), and a whiteboard marker. I absolutely love using whiteboards for this kind of lesson because they are totally “risk-free” for the children. If they make a mistake or are unhappy with what they’ve drawn, they simply and easily erase it and try again. Even the most reluctant of artists are willing to give drawing a go on a whiteboard, in my experience.

During the lesson, I modeled looking in a mirror, talking the children through what I noticed, one facial feature at a time. I had extra mirrors on hand for the children to look in too. The children felt extremely successful with their finished works and we photographed them to share with our parents at home. I really believe that walking them through this process together helped to increase their interest and confidence in drawing their portraits at the Art Studio.

A few days later, we opened the studio for portrait work. This year, we decided to use sharpies on acetate (overhead paper) so that we could paint them afterwards and not lose any details of the children’s sketches. Once again, we had mirrors on hand for the children to look in.

This student was clearly very proud of his amazing dimples!

This student was so excited about his work, exclaiming, “My first nose! Ms McDonell, I did it! I drew a perfect nose!”

Honestly, the black and white portraits were beautiful enough, but we decided to carry on with the painting portion of the project. When everyone had completed their sketches, we read Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. I absolutely love this book as it talks about all the wonderful colours of skin we see in the world. As a follow up, we set up a selection of “skin tone” coloured tempera paints (we used a collection created by Crayola) at the art studio. The trick with this technique is to flip the transparency over and paint on the back. When the paint is dry, you flip the transparency back over and all marker sketching that was covered by the paint is visible from the other side. It makes for a bit of a “surprise” when the children see all their work revealed to them in complete, detailed form. It is very important when painting on acetate to mix the tempera paint with a bit of white glue. Otherwise, when the paint dries, it will flake off the plastic sheeting.

And voila! Our first art project of the year is complete! I love how each portrait is unique and special and I can see the children’s personalities and characteristics so clearly represented in their work. This is the first time I have scaffolded the children’s portrait work in this way, and it just reminded me of how truly capable children are when given the tools and support they need. If you haven’t given portraits a try, I hope this post will inspire you to do so!

 

 

 

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