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  • Wenna Doig

A Portrait Says…

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

The first time I tried to get my students to think about what was ‘expression worthy’, I made up a graphic organizer to help them brainstorm as much as they could think about their subject (often themselves). This resulted in a lot of fairly superficial preferences and pet peeves…”I like Starbucks and Axe body spray is gross”. OK, that might have been me.

The first year or two that I did this project, most of the portraits were 2D pencil crayon numbers with a person in the center and a bunch of objects representing what they liked floating around their heads. I figured I might have been pushing them too much for their age (12 and 13), so I focussed on getting them to look at ways to integrate these symbols into the setting; have the person outside of a Starbucks holding her nose as someone else in the background sprays Axe. The next step was having the conversation to the effect that pencil crayon does not highlight everyone’s strengths. If you are rushing to get through something, pencil crayon, much like a younger sibling will rat you out every time. It takes patience to keep it neat, and even more to use it effectively. This spun off into me realizing that I needed to do techniques classes for every medium we used (seems like a no brainer now, but I was still a fairly new teacher).

I moved the portrait project to later in the year, after we had had the chance to try a bunch of media, and really explore the properties, pros and cons. Gradually I started to see students making much better choices for them. Someone who is fast and furious tends to lean more towards either oil or chalk pastel. Those who favour precision tend to like ink, water colour and pencil crayon. My more kinesthetic kids started to build their portraits. That’s when it really started to take off.

I started spending more time on art history, growing a whole unit on portraiture throughout history and across cultures. I’m still adding to it every year. We look at artist intent, and what cues you to make these inferences (and I throw in lots of salacious details about the artist or time period). That’s when I realized that I hadn’t been pushing kids past their developmental ability, I just hadn’t figured out how to scaffold them enough to get there.

Now by the time we get to this project, we have looked at A LOT of portraits, talked extensively about what the artist was likely trying to express, and how they can tell. We even talk about what they could do to change the ‘message’ about the subject (change angle, facial expression, focal point, lighting). Looking at samples of ‘same subject, different artist’ is very useful for this. They have all tried many media including a couple types of sculpture. I conference with everybody once they have answered the following questions;

  1. Who is your subject?

  2. What do you want to express about them?

  3. What metaphor will connect with your audience?

  4. What media is the best choice for you and for what you want to express?

I’m not saying that every student loves this and sails through it. It’s hard. But I find that overall, I get the most creative things from them in this really hard unit. I’ve had performance art, installation pieces, many variations on mixed media, music composed and videos created. They blow me away. Sometimes they make me cry (here I’m thinking of a lovely piece done by a student to commemorate a deceased family member). Some are really funny, some are great ideas that don’t necessarily work out the way the artist intended. That’s cool. That’s life.

The piece I am featuring in this post is done by a former student, Simon. He is also one hell of a slam poet. He used ink, paint, and collage. I love the layered imagery. It’s not a happy piece, but it’s rawness connects with a lot of kids at that age in particular. Thank you Simon for letting me put this online.


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