These portraits are scaled so the subject is not a figure in negative space; instead, it’s a person—an in-your-face expression of personality jutting out at us. Students are asked to fill the picture plane with themselves, leaving the viewer nowhere to escape to, no place to rest their eyes. We talk a bit about “the gaze” of the viewer and how filling the frame gives agency to the viewed, to the portrait, to the self.
Looking for Vitality
We also discuss the need for vitality in a self-portrait. It should not be staid and static, like a senior photo for the yearbook. Bringing emotions to the portraits brings them to life. I’ve met very few high-school students who didn’t have strong, sloppy emotions. It can be difficult for them to express, as they don’t want to lock down anything they don’t see as “Instagram-worthy.” Will they get likes from being real?
Working with Cardboard
The final work is done on reclaimed cardboard from the school. It’s an eco-friendly project with other perks. The cardboard we used had a life: a flattened box, scraps of tape, some markings. This has value. It’s not a pristine piece of Canson Mi-Teintes paper, which bears more than enough purity to intimidate young artists. Instead, it’s a wonderful, scruffy, warm brown, allowing the artist to produce the highlights with white charcoal rather than leaving it up to the white of the paper to do it.
Drawing with Charcoal
We begin this project after a week of practicing sketching and experimenting with charcoal; for many students, this is a first encounter with this medium. They also learn how to depict correct proportions, not by gridding or projecting an image, but by measuring one element against another. We also watch a few YouTube videos on how to draw facial features in charcoal. On day one, I ask students to stand up and sketch themselves big and close. Typically, I ask three-quarters of the class to start again because they began too small. Only then do they heed my habitual plea for a full range of value. Recently, I’ve had them add a punch of color in small doses for emphasis.
The first year I taught this lesson, I did it with three drawing classes and made an installation of the results at our high-school art show where they were hung back to back, three tall and ten wide. The portraits were impressive—a charcoal classroom of larger-than-life, in-your-face emotional teenagers! Perfect—just how I see them!
Elizabeth Carpenter is art department chair and AP studio teacher at Beloit Memorial High School in Beloit, Wisconsin. ECarpenter@sdb.k12.wi.us
Connecting: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
Art teachers highlight environmental issues and encourage sustainable practices through a variety of meaningful lessons. Kindergartners upcycle discarded materials into humorous robots; elementary students investigate the negative effects of plastic on the environment and create detailed compositions of the Long Island Sound; middle-school students illustrate cartoons that document life as a young person in the time of COVID, high-school students create larger-than-life portraits on reclaimed cardboard; and more.