Is That What I Look Like?

Sixth graders are notoriously aware of their appearance. Fragile egos combined with growing bodies make for a tough sell when you ask students to do self-portraits. At first, this struck me as odd in this day of selfies. But then, here’s the difference; I am asking them to draw themselves, which is an entirely different matter than snapping away with a cell phone. Most people leave their portrait drawing abilities at the stick figure stage, so my first task is to make my students accept that fact and then move forward in small steps with contour line drawing.

This year I have combined previous lessons with a really nice contour drawing exercise I found on Pinterest.

  1. My students have already been contour drawing glue bottles, scissors and other objects in their sketchbooks. They know that a contour line is the line formed when space touches the edges of an object. So when they draw the contour lines of an object they are also looking at and drawing the space around, within and between objects.
  2. To judge my student’s current drawing abilities I ask that they draw a self-portrait in their sketchbooks. As we review these drawings I discuss with students the drawing symbols they have learned as a child and the difference between that and drawing what they really see. I rely heavily on the drawing theories here from Dr. Betty Edwards great book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that completely changed the way I drew and how I taught drawing. Students begin to realize that stick figures and smiley faces do not look anything like them any more than a ball with sticks sticking out of it looks like the sun!
  3. Next I provide a warm-up exercise: Students choose a portrait of a person about their age I downloaded from the internet (Hair-style pages are great for this because they have close-ups with great detail.) The student places a clear transparency over the top of the photograph and traces the contour lines of the face in black sharpie. (Sharpie is great! No erasing!) They can check their work by sliding a piece of white paper under the transparency. Here’s a sample of a contour line drawing on a transparency. DSC08907
  4. I took a digital portrait of each student. They had their choice of pose. I took the photos, because of time-restraints and because I wanted clear focus and detail in their faces.
  5. The final project was two steps: First, trace your portrait using only contour lines. Second construct a collage background behind your portrait.
    Here’s an example:


The backgrounds really enhanced the line drawings and provided more choices for expression. The students really enjoyed the project, I believe it built confidence in their contour drawing abilities and when displayed with a black mat, the portraits made a very effective display. I think this project is a keeper. The next step is a self-portrait without a crutch!

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