Celebratory Self-Portraits

posted on Jul 28, 2021

We are all different and unique! One of the many differences that can be seen is our skin color, but very rarely will our skin color match the “flesh” crayon in the box. Growing up, I was frustrated at my inability to represent myself through the predetermined and limited colors available. We are all shades of brown and, as art teachers, we can guide children to think outside the crayon box and show them there is beauty in our diversity. During this project, students will learn how to recognize, accept, and celebrate our differences through a self-portrait collage painting.

SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, Elementary art lesson, Celebratory Self-Portraits, self-portrait collage painting
Collaged self-portraits from kindergarten students Catherine (left) and Jonathan (right).
SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, Elementary art lesson, Celebratory Self-Portraits, self-portrait collage painting
Iain (left) and Blen (right).
SchoolArts magazine, September 2021 issue, Elementary art lesson, Celebratory Self-Portraits, self-portrait collage painting
Renzo (left) and Anne (right).

Finding Value in You
To understand our own identity, we need to begin by recognizing what makes us unique. When I was in school, we were taught that it was rude to notice each other’s differences and were encouraged to be color blind. But children do see color and begin to recognize physical differences at a very young age.

If we pretend everyone is the same and overlook our differences, we ignore individuality. This is not practical as no two people are the same. We live in a diverse world and children are exposed to a variety of people, whether it’s in-person, on TV, or in the media. Children’s environments consist of varied families, homes, skin colors, hair, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, points of view, and so on. Our differences make us who we are, distinct and independent individuals who comprise the vibrant spectrum of our society.

We want people to see us, understand us, and appreciate us for who we are. Yet in order to find commonality and value in others, we must first find value in ourselves. By highlighting the positive aspects of individuality, children learn that being unique is beautiful and our differences are meant to be honored. As children embrace their own individuality, they begin to not only accept each other, but celebrate each other.

Skin Is Only One Layer of Our Identity
Start a conversation with your class about skin color. Ask your students to reflect on these questions: What is skin color? Why is our skin color different? Why is it important to recognize these differences? This development of higher-order thinking skills allows students to connect to universal themes and ultimately discover truths.

Race will generally surface during these conversations. Promote dialogue to gauge students’ understanding of race while allowing space for inquiry. It is critical to recognize that race is a social construct and our skin color is only one factor of our layered identity. Afterwards, have your artists mix paint to match their own skin color and paint an entire sheet of paper so it matches their skin.

Unique Hair Is Everywhere
Just like our skin, our hair is different as well. Initiate a discussion about the kinds of hair students see around the room while celebrating the various colors, textures, and styles. Direct your young artists to look at their reflections in a mirror and closely examine the beauty of their hair. Guide them as they mix paint to match their hair color and use a variety of lines and marks to represent the texture of their hair.

Recognizing Differences in Society
Remind your class about all of the colorful shades our skin comes in. Acknowledge that sometimes individuals are treated differently based on their skin color, but our skin does not make someone better or worse or right or wrong. There are myths and stereotypes associated with skin color, but the truth is our skin and hair contain a pigment called melanin and some people have more than others.

The amount of melanin we have in our skin and hair is determined by our ancestors and helps to protect our skin from UV rays. Our skin tones and hair are only a small part of how exceptional we all are. Display all of students’ skin and hair paintings, taking note of the beauty in their diversity. Next, tell students they will use their own paintings to construct a self-portrait collage.

Distinguishing Details
The final step to creating self-portraits is to add facial features. Recognize how our eyes and mouths are all different sizes, shapes, and colors. Use mirrors to help artists draw their eyes and mouth on a separate sheet of paper before gluing them onto their self-portraits. Provide colored pencils and scrap paper so they can add additional details or accessories.

Reflection and Presentation
As artists, we express ourselves through our work, and it is important for students to have the opportunity to reflect on and present their ideas. Encourage them to speak not only about what they look like, but who they are as individuals. Reiterate the fact that our race and physical appearance are only part of our layered identities. There are many reasons to feel different because we are all diverse and that is what makes us special. When we begin to acknowledge our differences and share our stories, we realize the many ways in which we are similar. Self-portraits are a celebration of us all!

Paula Liz is an art teacher at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the founder of Anti-Racist Art Teachers (

National Standard
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

All the Colors We Are

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