Exploring idea and media while developing skills is always an interesting challenge in the middle grades. Providing art units that address these areas
while also giving every student the
opportunity to succeed is always on
my agenda. My school operates with a
multi-age structure grouping students
in grades six through eight. Thus, I
have students with exceptional skills,
as well as brand new students with
very little experience. Because of this,
building layers into units that address
diverse learning levels is key.
Addressing the Self-Portrait
I wanted to approach portraiture differently this year. Often, the daunting
task of having to draw a self-portrait
turns some students away, so I set out
to create portraits with realistic like-nesses while incorporating an exploration of multiple materials and allowing
an expressive quality to weave its way
into the work.
We began by discussing traditional
portraiture. Traditionally drawn portraits often feel stiff because so much
emphasis is put on technique and
achieving a physical likeness. Often
the student’s personality gets lost in
We discussed self-portraits that placed
more emphasis on students’ personalities. I asked them to each think of a
pose or facial expression that really
expressed something about their individuality. Once each person had a few
poses in mind, we spent a class period
photographing these poses. As a class
we looked at the photos, offering supportive input to ones that were especially original and fun. Each student
selected his or her favorite photo and
I printed them on 8 x 10" ( 20 x 25 cm)
paper. (We used regular paper instead of
photo paper since the photos would be
With the photos in hand, I explained
that students were going to blow these
photos up proportionally. More experienced students
would do a portrait
as large as 5 x 5' ( 1. 5
x 1. 5 m), while less
experienced students would enlarge their photos to a
24 x 30" (61 x 76 cm) size.
The 24 x 30" size was a simple proportional jump, while the others had to
make cropping decisions and come up
with different formulas. Once formulas were developed, students carefully
graphed their photos, then did the same
on a larger blank sheet of paper.
One Square at a Time
Students’ next task was to enlarge the
self-portraits proportionally onto the
big paper. They first focused on only
line and shape, not giving attention to
shading or textures. I suggested that
students begin in one corner and work
their way across (or down), progress-
ing in sequential adjoining squares.
Rulers were used throughout to
measure the sizes of shapes and
lengths of line. Looking at one
square at a time helped students
make the conceptual jump from
naming the object they were
drawing to seeing them as shapes
with size relationships. After sev-
eral classes, students had their
enlarged portraits ready for the
I asked students to consider which
medium or materials would best
express their personalities. Were they
dramatic like the effect of charcoal?
Were they layered with lots hidden
below the surface like collage? Were
they bold like oil pastels? Soft-spoken
like blended colored pencils?
Beginning students selected two
media and applied them in a checkerboard fashion. The more experienced
students selected three different media
and experimented more with combinations of materials. Possibilities
included oil pastel, charcoal, collage,
pencil, paint, and colored pencils.
I asked all students to treat each
square as an independent composi-
the shapes that
were drawn, but
not thinking about
them as hair or
hands or eyes. As
one square and moved to the next, I
asked them to be mindful of the edges
of each square and to emphasize art-
istry, especially where the edge of one
square met another.
The final results were incredible.
Each portrait was a complex collection of thoughts, ideas, and feelings all
combined with a likeness that even
surprised the students. Every student
felt proud of what he or she had created. All the students were able to
share new techniques they had discovered about the materials. They were
especially pleased with the physical
likeness, which had the least amount
I asked students to
consider which medium
or materials would best
express their personalities.
Amy Ruopp is an art teacher at Woodland
School in Traverse City, Michigan.
Students use different media, techniques, and processes to communicate
ideas, experiences, and stories.