Create Art on Day One With This Fool-Proof Lesson

I used to agonize over the first day of school: Who wants to hear a thousand rules and procedures from every teacher? Who wants to go through his or her classroom rules eight times? UGH! Getting kids to make art on the first day is so much more fun for everyone, and can be a much more memorable way to teach art studio habits and procedures.

Here is my fool-proof lesson.

1. Have students make mini-self-portraits.

Cut pieces of paper to 4” x 6”. This will keep the lesson short and make it possible to display the portraits (see Step 5 below). Have students draw their self-portraits on the paper with no instructions. Think of it as a pre-test for the whole year. As the year goes on, you can have students make more of these. Finish up the year with a final portrait as kind of a post-test. That’s right! We just planned your last lesson too!

2. Teach some color theory.

Assign each table a different color for management purposes. Set out crayons or colored pencils in analogous color schemes that match the colors of the tables. By doing so, you can teach a little color theory and some great vocab words like analogous and monochromatic right away.

This lesson is a great way to start the year. If you’re wondering what other activities you might do, you’ll want to take a peek at the First Day Activities PRO Learning Pack. Lindsey shares specific ideas to excite students on day one through choice, simple routines, and organized stations.

3. Talk about art room choices.

Kids invariably will groan a little about their limited color choices. This is the perfect time to talk to them about choices in the art room. Sometimes they get to make choices and other times you will make choices for them. The better they get at art skills, the more choices they can make on their own. Highly motivating!

4. Practice art room procedures.

Rather than just telling students about the rules during work time and clean up, you can have them actually practice these procedures right away. Having them model appropriate and productive behavior in an authentic task is much more effective.

5. Create an awesome display.

Once all of the portraits are complete (we usually use two to three class times, depending on the age of the students) display them as one giant ombre school portrait. It’s a great opportunity to discuss community and collaborative art practices!


I’ve found this lesson to be totally fool-proof and a ton of fun for everyone involved!

What are some other lessons you use to kick off the year in the art room?

Do you jump right into art making or spend time going over the rules first? 

Sarah Dougherty


My name is Sarah Dougherty, and I teach elementary art in a large urban district in central Iowa. I love working with our diverse population of K-5 students to bring art to their homes, communities, and everyday lives.


  • Mr. Miller

    This is great. I always start my school year with a quick little project. Each piece is then used to create a whole-school Art Installation. I was thinking of this exact same idea (self portraits) only drawing them on Post-it notes.

  • Dawn M.

    School Arts had a great article last August about doing a Post-It-Note installation. I did favorite foods and am doing favorite activities this year. I tear off 2 post its off and attach them to a 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 sheet of paper. This keeps the top post it as sticky as possible. I also us the “super sticky” post its which are a bit more $ but worth it. The post its make an impressive display.

    • Guest

      I did a post-it project the first day of school, inspired by the School Arts Magazine. It was my first year teaching too! The kiddos thought it was cool to draw tiny. The theme was…”What did you do over the summer?”/Users/acrane/Desktop/IMG_2925.jpg

    • Guest

      I did the post-it installation project on the first day of school. The theme was ” What did you during summer break?”

  • Susan Bivona

    I have done these self portraits with my kiddos! Here’s my suggestion…go to your favorite office supply store, STAPLES and purchase the unlined 5X7 index cards, no cutting and they work perfectly!

    • Great suggestion, Susan! Thanks!

  • Clara Crosby

    I did this lesson with my 600 k-5 students. One day lesson! I got the idea from Here is a photo and there are more photos on my facebook page at

    PS I will never waste that first day with boring rules and procedures again!

    • YESSS! Loving this! Thanks for sharing!

  • sjc

    Fabulous idea! Thank you!

  • Catherine Polcaro

    This “portrait quilt” is a great idea and it works out well for providing a great display for Back-to-School Night! I have all my K-5 students (about 375) do a 3×3″ self-portrait in crayon, and I include the school’s faculty and staff as well… nice for community building! I hang it outside the Art room for Back-to-School night and it’s been a big hit with parents. It gets moved to the Library for all to enjoy for the rest of the school year. The Media Specialist tells me that the kids really do enjoy looking at it all year long as they discover portraits of other teachers and friends they did not notice at first!

  • Cmccann

    I’ve combined the two latest articles. I made a cartoon video of my rules and routines at Even middle school kids are mesmerized by the anime characters. And it made my “talk” take only 5 minutes! We get right into art making with teaching some zentangles. The kids LOVE learning a new skill and feel successful at it, especially those who say “they stink at art”. Definitely a win-win!

  • Kiara

    I love this but portraits was my big focus last year…what are some other themes that the whole school could do?

  • Kiara

    I love this but portraits WERE my big focus last year…what are some other themes that the whole school could do? (Yes I know grammer! :P)

    • Does your school have a mascot? Each student could interpret the mascot. Does your school have a theme this year? If it is “dream big!” or “Believe!”, students could visually depict their idea of this goal or a goal of their own. What about the first letter of their name? What about unique patterns, like quilt squares? There are so many ways you can go with this. Personally, I think that you can never have too many portraits! Good luck and make sure you share your work with us. We’d love to see what you create!

  • Natalie

    I’m planning on something similar as well! Doing blind contour drawings with Sharpies of self portraits, then quick watercolor washes and details with colored pencils. Mixed media right off the bat! I teach middle school and we have 80 minute blocks, so plenty of time for expectations and art making…Then displaying them around my little art door alcove.

    • Crystal B

      I love this idea! I usually do blind contour in a similar way with my HS students… but I think this would be fun with my new 7th graders!

  • C. W. Artsy

    I absolutely love this idea. I just got a position at a charter school and I start in 2 days. Oh, this my first official job as a teacher. With very little time to lesson plan for my first week this will be so helpful.

    • C. W. Artsy

      Newsflash! This lesson was a HUGE success. It left a great first impression on my new co-workers and almost all of the 700 scholars I teach enjoyed it. I have a good idea of what classes need help with color basics, line variations, cutting, pasting, the list goes on. I was able to adjust the level of difficulty and use it for all my classes (grades PreS-3). This tip was such a blessing. Thank you soooooo much. =-D

      • HOORAY HOORAY HOORAY! That is phenomenal! So glad you got your year off to such a great start.

  • Kerri

    Thanks Sarah for sharing this fantastic idea!

  • Donna Staten

    Thanks Sarah and AoE for this idea! I had seen the project on several blogs but would have never thought to do it the first week of school. Since I label my 6 grade levels with ROYGBV, that’s how I assigned the colors. The kids loved it and were so excited to “do something” the first day of art class! With so many students, the portraits stretched across the whole length of our cafeteria. It’s definitely a keeper!!

  • That looks awesome, Donna! I’m all for more “doing!” Thanks for sharing, I love it when readers post photos with their comments!

  • Erica

    Wow! Thanks for the great idea!! Anyone have an idea for a title for this display/project!

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  • Jeff Lahr

    As a first day assignment, do you have a “fear factor” among students? Do they ask about grading? I teach middle school students and would love to start with this project, but I can see a lot of the insecure students drawing smiley faces and calling it good.

  • Kara Dare

    Just figured out how to cover the ugly green non-magnetic chalkboard with out getting in trouble! Thanks Sarah!

  • Lee

    I am SO going to do this at my school! I teach HS and have to show “growth” and this will be a great pre-test! The perfect size!

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