Although my career as an art educator has been short, I have always very much felt the self-portrait woes. Even as a graduate student it seemed that every lesson created by a colleague was somehow related to a self-portrait. For a while I found it somewhat annoying because kids don't want to draw them! Their mostly negative attitudes toward self-portraits accompanied by their feelings of discomfort while examining themselves in the mirror are simply just sad. These projects force them to be reminded of their insecurities while they put them on paper for all their peers to see. I know as a student myself I never liked creating self-portraits, mostly because my drawing never actually looked like me. It is so frustrating to have to draw yourself when you know you don't have the artistic ability to render yourself perfectly.
All of these thoughts sort of motivated the mask project we completed in my Intro. to Visual Arts classes. Yes, they learned about drawing portraits and had to create a series of them, but their final product was not an exact replica of themselves - in fact they turned out to be "masks" that these kids sometimes where when they are feeling a certain way, or they became completely different people. The fact that they were able to play with color and not have to represent themselves realistically seriously took the pressure off, especially for those kids who are insecure about their artistic abilities.
As an artist and a teacher I understand the importance of self-portraits in all their forms. They are a chance for students to self-reflect and gain some appreciation for themselves while they consider their personal identities. But how can we avoid the redundancy of this project for the kids who want to take art every year? How can we make it more interesting and exciting for the students? This was my solution for my Drawing and Painting students:
Yes, it is important for students to understand the proportions of the human face and our bodies, but do we need to make them draw full body portraits or serious portraits of their faces over and over again?! In order to make this experience new and exciting, we started with some gesture drawings. I love this exercise for many reasons, but mostly because it forces them to work quickly and NOT use an eraser! After a discussion about the human body and its proportions we jumped right in and the results were fantastic!
Students modeled on top of the tables for their peers while they drew the figures in one, three, and five minute poses. With no pressure to render their figures super realistically based on the short time frames, students were pleasantly surprised with their success! This exercise appeared to be a real confidence booster, and so instead of dragging it into a full-body self-portrait, we moved on to facial features.
Their paintings again proved to be outstanding works of art as their was less pressure to make them look like themselves and instead they could focus on one small area of their bodies. This was the perfect opportunity for students to learn to mix flesh tones, which is certainly a difficult skill. Working about 25 times larger than life, students were also able to be more free and expressive with their paint handling.
These paintings may not be traditional self-portraits, but they are self-portraits indeed. The art-making process was much more enjoyable for all of us as their insecurities about their bodies disappeared. In the end, they had really nice paintings that they could proudly hang on the wall without immediately exposing their identities to their viewers. This clearly took away some of the anxiety that typically presents itself with portraits, and instead produced beautiful paintings that even create a sort of collaborative artwork when hung as a group.