Formal Charcoal Portraits and Informal Art Journal Portraits

My 8th graders just completed a fairly rigorous unit on self-portraiture. One -very talented- student queried, “haven’t we already drawn ourselves this year?! We’ve already done this!”  Well, and she is right. . . But, I explained to her, and everyone, that all artists learn how to draw the human form by first studying their own form.

We are getting ever closer to the end of the school year and many of my students intend to take more visual art courses in high school (I know, because I’m helping them to enroll in the courses).  I have an unprecedented number of past students whom are either in, or have graduated from, post-secondary art schools. In fact, I have no less than two senior exit shows that I’ll be attending this May (soooo proud!).  I’m not sure if I have just been lucky to teach so many talented individuals, have been fortunate enough to bring out confidence about art abilities, and/or instilled art passion in others. . But, whatever, I’ll take it!  This reality has caused the desire within me to ensure that my students not only understand what will be expected of them in more advanced visual arts courses, but to begin to provide similar experiences within my own classroom.

Sure, I’m just teaching middle school, but a lot of the primary decisions we make about who are/who we are going to be happen in middle school. For instance, should a student decided that s/he is dumb, and forgo ever studying or paying attention in class in middle school, it is very hard for that student to compete on-or-beyond-level in high school without really intense personal change and intervention. I was always a poor-to-middling student in elementary school and in 6th grade. I had two incredible teachers in 7th grade, Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Belinds, whom made (read forced/pressured/whipped) me into understanding that I was a bright person whom should expect much, much more of herself. As a result, I changed into a more dedicated student, and consider myself an academic today. I know that this would never have happened if it weren’t for the dedication of those two teachers. . So, yeah, I just teach middle school. Proudly.

Anyway, I am not always able to help students in all of their areas of academic concern, but I can impact how they feel about themselves, how they interact with others, and how they develop aesthetically within the confines of the walls of my classroom. I take it very seriously.  And, yeah, I’m hella proud to have so many students whom have gone on to pursue further arts studies. I know it isn’t just due to me, but I’m so honored that I got to be a part of their process. AND I’m proud that I did them the solid of teaching them to the absolute best of my abilities.

So, this project is taught to my students with these thoughts in mind.

Here is the process:

1. I took 2-3 full-length photos of each student in poses of their choosing (we discussed how “high energy” poses with tense muscles are harder to draw than relaxed poses; they still got to choose). This was done prior to the beginning of the unit (I just took them in the hallway while they were finishing the previous project).

2. Students were given mirrors and practiced drawing just their faces from observation (1 class day). We did warm-ups (1, 2, and 3 minute drawings), blind contours, and extended drawings etc.

3. We looked at the portraiture of Alice Neel and discussed how a portrait doesn’t have to be “photo-realistic” to be successful (you want to engender a culture of safety and success when embarking on such a daunting task).  We outlined grading procedures for the project (did you attempt to the best of your abilities? Did you follow directions? Were you actively engaged during class? Did you positively participate in crit? Did you try to draw accurately or did you take the easy route of just “cartooning it”? Does your portrait at least look humanoid -no aliens!)

4. Students were given printed photos, mirrors, and could used phone selfies (ha! finally found a use for those things!) and were told they were to draw from observation (I did a demo and drew myself live using the document camera- which impressed them- hello! 9 years of Art school darlings!!). Students used pencils to draw themselves from at least their head to their waist (they could go full-body if they wished, and special permission was granted for students whom wanted to do something a little different -like a bust- if they could substantiate why etc. etc.).

5. Students looked at other student examples of portraiture (I like to break up the presentations, so it doesn’t get boring).

6. Students used charcoal and charcoal pencils to add some value and interest (I did a demo).

7. Students looked at a presentation about art journaling and watched a video of an artist making a journal (so they could see the organic nature of the practice).

8. Students were given a second sheet of paper and told to make a large art-journal page that was a “self portrait.” They were told be organic and free (as compared to the specific and rigorous nature of drawing form observation). They could use text. We also discussed the fine line between scribble-scrabble and art journaling.

9. Students cut out their portrait and glued their portrait to their art journal page.

10. TA-DA Students have a formal, academic, literal self-portrait alongside a more intuitive, personal, and informal self-portrait.

Artworks are on 18 x 24 white paper and the unit took 8 class periods of 45 minutes.