When creating a great postmodern portrait, embrace the cellphone, the selfie, and TikTok. They are ever-present resources for this generation. We’ve come a long way since glamor shots at the mall! Phone pics and filters are the first stage, and we talk about “bad” portrait photos and things to avoid. Students check their current photo stream for great shots they may already have, then shoot some additional photos with good natural lighting. This serves as digital sketching and composition experimentation.
Juntang C., grade ten.Audrey L., grade twelve.Left: Roshni A., tissue paper portrait, grade eleven. Right: Savannah Jade D., grade twelve.Sarah, self-portrait on wood paneling.
I’ll admit it, I love portraits. On any trip to a gallery or museum, I’m always pulled to the portraits first. I want to see flawless color transitions on cheeks, fine lines, details around eyes, and luscious hair texture. I always wonder about the model and the artist—what were they like?
When I survey students on the first day of class, most of them express a desire to master the portrait challenge. This seemingly timeless genre teaches the elements of art and principles of design, such as proportion, symmetrical balance, value, and texture, as well as color mixing and color theory. In addition, the theme of identity is an important one for young artists as their sense of self is being investigated, questioned, and formed.
Despite my love of portraits, I’m fully aware that this traditional art category needs updating to fit with postmodern art principles and contemporary art trends. I push the familiar elements of art and principles of design, but I also add:
Layering. This can be achieved by using premade backgrounds and experimenting with mixed media.
Representation. Self-portraits are authentic and true, one of the most original artworks you can make.
Hybridity. Why stop at just the human in the photo, why not embrace your “altered” ego? Combine past and present selves.
Juxtaposition. Consider pop culture. Also consider your heritage and personal journey.
Gazing. Who is the audience? How do you see yourself?
When creating a great postmodern portrait, embrace the cellphone, the selfie, and TikTok. They are ever-present resources for this generation. We’ve come a long way since glamor shots at the mall! Phone pics and filters are the first stage, and we talk about “bad” portrait photos and things to avoid.
Students check their current photo stream for great shots they may already have, then shoot some additional photos with good natural lighting. This serves as digital sketching and composition experimentation. Then they practice creating the various parts of the face using mixed media, review teacher-driven proportion notes, and finally, create continuous line contour drawings of self-portraits in front of a mirror.
Once students have a solid grasp of proportion rules, it’s time to create the final piece; for this, I insist on a premade background. Students choose from a stack that they made the first week of class that includes instant coffee washes, bleach paintings, wood, recycled materials, and collage.
Learn the Rules and Break Them
It’s important to let students explore their own aesthetic; there’s nothing wrong with using distortion to express meaning. Haven’t we all seen perfect hyperrealistic portraits before and shrugged and thought, “Meh, isn’t that why we have photography?”
I want to see the artist’s hand. What can the artist add or change by making portraits through their own unique lens? We look at postmodernists Ben Tour, Tara McPherson, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn, all living artists who alter traditional color schemes and proportions.
I show weekly warmups of living artists from magazines like Hi-Fructose and Juxtapoz who showcase artists who think differently. This variety of inspiration helps broaden the range of what a typical portrait is. As students create their pieces, I encourage walk-around critiques so they can see if their work is original among their peers. I make originality 20% of the rubric, encouraging risks and change until they arrive at that one-of-a-kind innovative stage.
At the end of the day, I want the portraits to tell a story. I want a title to be an easy thing to generate because of the meaning shining through. Our brains are wired to seek out faces, and it’s only natural that we seek them out in art. This is our opportunity to prepare our students for a postmodern world.
Art teachers share exciting assignments inspired by the work of contemporary artists such as Jihoon Ha, Susan Strazzella, Mark Bradford, Jeff Sonhouse, Susan Rothenberg, Arturo Herrera, and more. Students borrow photos from one another to create meaningful compositions, use clay to make elevated serving pieces, incorporate postmodern principles into mixed-media self-portraits, and much more.