The Power of Themes
I believe in the power of themes.
Portrait themes can be complex
or simple, but they are necessary
when guiding students. When creating a theme I use the four Cs: color,
contrast, composition, and content.
These simple words give students the
necessary tools to explore rich and in-depth concepts. When creating your
portrait lessons, keep these in mind.
Below: Convergence and a strong focal point
makes this a simple yet striking composition.
Color: Va Va Voom!
Colors can make or break a portrait.
How can you involve color as theme?
Color can often create a mood or
tone without any other element. It is
important for students to define these
colors prior to creating a portrait.
Who best to learn this from than
practicing or well-known artists?
Take those dusty art history books
off the shelf and ask students to pick
out artists who use colors to express
the mood or tone they are trying to
portray. Once they have narrowed
down several color palettes that they
like, ask them to create color test
sheets to ensure that they have the
It is up to you to guide and
provide in-depth prompts
to inspire your students
to master their technique,
as well as the unique story
a portrait should provide.
knowledge to create complex color
palettes. Some artists who provide
lessons on color are Alice Neel, John
Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Peyton, and
Contrast: The Spotlight’s on You
One of the biggest mistakes young
artists make in working from models
is not using a light source. A light
source not only creates an interesting dynamic in the composition, but
it also gives students the tools they
need to see volume and depth in the
face and body. A light source also
provides interesting themes within
students’ work. Some examples might
be computer light, refrigerator light, a
flashlight, or imaginary light.
Composition: Make It or Break It
Our heads and bodies tend to want to
park themselves right in the middle
of the composition. The best term for
this is “MOP” or “middle of page” as
my students know it. This location
can lessen the intensity of a portrait.
This is where thumbnail sketches
come in. It is imperative that students
empower themselves with multiple
solutions to a prompt. This gives you
the opportunity to guide students
and critique their initial ideas and
compositions. If students are having
compositional problems with their
portraits, try cropping the image,
combining several thumbnails, using
more dynamic angles, or depicting