I like to think of “selfies” as a form of modern day self-portraiture. Someone may snap a picture of himself/herself, publish it to social media, and wala! Selfie complete, quick and simple. Many of my students are very familiar with the “selfie” concept and halfway through this project, I heard one student said to another, “Hey, let me see your selfie so far!” This made me stop to think…
People create self-portraits of themselves for various reasons. Vincent Van Gogh painted a series of self-portraits during his troublesome years and many believe he searched for answers through his painted image. Frida Kahlo’s story can also be read through her many self-portraits but rather than searching for answers, she used the canvas as a way to come out of hiding and release her emotions. Rembrandt’s legacy of 60 self-portraits serve as an autobiographical documentation of his personal history and inner development.
I’m fascinated by self-portraits and love incorporating them into my curriculum at every grade-level. This particular lesson is great for 6th graders because it ties together several elements of art while introducing the gridding technique. First, I walked around the room and took pictures of each student. I asked 6th graders to prop their elbows on their tables and rest their chin in their palms.
I printed the photos off and distributed them to students to be taped in sketchbooks. These would be our reference photos throughout the gridding process. Students were given sheets of brown drawing paper for their work surfaces. The gridding technique is a great way to teach students about scale and proportion. First, students drew a simple 4-square grid on top of their reference photos. Second, they reproduced the same grid on their work surfaces.
6th graders labeled each box (1,2,3,4) in both their reference photo and work surface. Students focused on drawing the lines and shapes they saw in box 1 of their reference photo into box 1 of their work surface. *Helpful hint: It’s easier to focus on one box at a time if you cover up the other 3 with a sheet of paper. Several students taped 2 notecards together to form an “L” shape.
Once the lines and shapes from the first box were transferred, students moved onto box 2, 3, and 4. This gridding process took patience but really paid off for the kids who took their time.
After hearing several students comment about their eyes being too low on their head, ears looking odd, and so forth I decided to do a quick facial proportion review. We took notes on the quadrants of the face and where facial features really should be in our sketchbooks. This little reminder seemed to help!
One of the key elements we focused on in this lesson was line. Contour line, specifically. Students outlined their faces with sharpie markers and brought everything together with one continuing contour line. They did not pick up their sharpies. The contour lines gave their self-portraits some character and brought unity to their artwork.
Students used oil pastels to color in their eyes and chalk pastels to fill in 1-2 other details. Some students wanted to bring color to their shirts while others chose to accentuate their hair or table. The technique of ‘selective coloring’ gave students the chance to bring certain details to the foreground of the composition.
The foreground portion of the project was the rigid and structural part of this project. Students were given clear instructions on how to grid-draw and create an ongoing contour line. Once the foregrounds were complete, students created mosaics in the background by tearing up magazine shreds. The background gave students a chance to break free and let their personalities shine through. I asked students to tear out magazine scraps that spoke to them- be it words, colors, or images.
Some close-ups to show the neat mosaic & foreground/background juxtaposition:
I held a classroom critique midway through the mosaic-process. Students were given clipboards and evaluation sheets as they walked into the room and critiqued the artwork in cycles of two. Each student listed positive and constructive feedback for each of the numbered self-portraits. There were required vocabulary words they were required to include in their feedback, including contour line, positive space, negative space, gridding, mosaic, texture, proportions, balance, and composition.
Students received their graded critiques as well as their anonymous classroom feedback the next day. I was really impressed with how well the 6th graders were able to articulate their observations on their own work and the work of others. On the final work day, I walked around the room and gave feedback to 6th graders as they responded to their feedback and made adjustments.
Looking back on the terms “selfie” and “self-portrait”, I have to say this project has stirred me to change my perspective. While many people (such as myself, until recently) have dismissed selfies as nothing more than a narcissistic trend of the younger generation, I wonder how much taking a selfie differs from painting a self-portrait? Yes, creating a self-portrait requires more time, patience, skill, and observation. But conceptually, the urge to capture a version of oneself (be it through a quick ‘selfie’ or process of a self portrait) is the same.
In the end, the person engineering the portrait is striving to capture themselves frozen in a fleeting moment. And whether that person frames it on their dining room wall or posts it to their Facebook wall, self-portraiture can be a mode of communication and connection with the rest of the world.
Food for thought..