Self-Portrait Paintings

4th Grade Self-Portrait Paintings

Our identities are complex and who we are as individuals goes beyond our appearance. This project begins by exploring and unraveling the many layers of our identities and brainstorming ways we can visualize who we are beyond our looks.

This is an extensive unit and in total this project takes around 15 classes to complete (with 45 minutes classes). It may seem like a lot but that time is necessary for students to thoroughly discuss, reflect, and refine their work. As students learn to genuinely acknowledge, understand, respect, and appreciate their own identity they can begin to not just accept each other, but celebrate each other.

Before we begin our self-portrait paintings, this is how I introduce my 4th grade students to the idea of positionality and the complex layers that make up our identity. Positionality is the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Positionality also describes how your identity influences your understanding and outlook on the world. This can sometimes be a complicated subject to explain to younger students so I use an apple to illustrate the different layers of our identity.

The outer layer is the skin. This is how we look and our physical appearance- hair, race, age, height, clothes, etc. It is also the first thing someone notices about you and it is often how strangers perceive you.

The next layer is the flesh. This is more about what you like to do and your actions. This can include your interests, talents, skills, ability, language, etc. This layer is one that people can begin to uncover through casual conversations and interactions. This is often how an acquaintance, classmate, teammate, or teacher might know you.

Then the innermost layer is your core. This is what you think and who you are deep down inside. This includes your thoughts, beliefs, values, culture, religion, traditions, hopes, feelings, etc. This layer takes time to uncover and will only be seen by close friends and family.

Before they begin their self-portraits we discuss what these layers are and why they are an important part of who we are as individuals. They brainstorm different aspects of their identity within each layer and are tasked with visually representing at least one aspect of their identity from within each layer.

Next, we learned how we can use facial proportions as a guide to help us with our drawings. I emphasize the fact that no two people are alike and that the measurements will never be exact- rather it is a tool artists use to assist us in the placement of facial features. (Download my Facial Proportions Guide)

We use mirrors and work from observation to draw our self-portraits throughout the lesson. I also have a few visual references of various eyes, noses, lips, and hairstyles that they can utilize as well. (Download my Diverse Portrait Features Guide).

They then added a background, clothing, and additional details that represent the different layers of their identities based on their previous sketch. Before painting, we traced our drawings with sharpie to make it easier to see and use colored pencils to add color to our eyes.

As they begin to paint their skin we revisit the ideas and questions explored in Kindergarten in our self-portrait collage project. (What is skin color? Why is it important? Why do some people feel uncomfortable talking about this?) Because students are older we are able to dive further into our discussions. In addition to mixing and matching their own unique skin color, we also look to see how light affects the appearance of our skin. We learn about value and how we can use tints and shades to add form to our portraits.

Below are some of the reference images and instructions I share with my young artists to assist them with this process. They are always amazed at how they can transform a painting so that it appears 3-dimensional!

After painting our skin, we learn all about texture and how to show variation between the different surfaces (ex. wooden floors and grass). Watch this video as I demonstrate how to paint various textures they incorporate into their backgrounds!

Click here to download my texture and other painting handouts at my TpT store.

After painting, we use colored pencils to refine our work and add final details. Part of this includes looking closely at our hair and using colored pencils to add lines to represent our hair's unique texture. My young artists complete their work by writing an artist statement to display alongside their phenomenal self-portraits!

Student Art