Why Staff Portraits Are the Perfect Project for December

staff portraits

I believe it’s important to teach our kids to use their talents and skills to bring joy to others. During the holiday season, merging this idea with the art of portraiture makes for a fun and meaningful lesson.

The lesson? Creating staff portraits!

staff portraits

When students are given the assignment to create a portrait for their favorite teachers, they are immediately excited. It’s a thrilling opportunity for them to create a portrait and honor a role model.

The steps are simple.

1. Introduce the Project and Gather Reference Images

Introduce students to the project. Have them figure out a way to get a photo of whomever they want to draw. One simple way is to scan one from a past yearbook.

Introduce students to the project and remind them to consider their past self-portrait lessons. It’s never a bad idea to reiterate measuring skills and the first few steps needed to create a portrait: line, shape, and value.

2. Review Portraiture Drawing

Have students revisit the lessons learned during past portrait projects including measuring skills and the elements of line, shape, and value.

Walk them through the process of drawing a portrait. When I teach portraiture, I start with the shape of the head, divide the shape into quarters, and then start with the six parts of the eye. From the pupil, iris, sclera, tear ducts, eyelid, and eyebrows, students are measuring and ensuring there is the correct spacing between the eyes and the sides of the head. Then they measure and place the nose, lip lines, ears, and neck. I tend to have students draw the hair and clothing last.

staff portraits

3. Begin Drawing

After reviewing, it’s time to start drawing. Have them either grid out their reference image or draw directly from it. Leaving this choice up to the students allows them the freedom to just create. I also allow them to select their surface material, size, and media, so each portrait is unique.

As they plan and work, have students consider the personal traits of the teachers, including the subject they teach. As they brainstorm, remind them to make a list and consider the symbols, images or colors that will work best to convey these ideas. Adding words or objects into the negative space makes it even more personal.

4. Ready Art for Presentation

Throughout the process, have students consider the way they want to mat the artwork and present it to their teachers.

It’s thrilling to watch students go through the process of creating these special thank you gifts for people who have had an impact on their lives. Making copies of the work and installing it in the hallway can also encourage teachers to push a little bit more to be the teacher kids want to honor.

I personally did not do this lesson every year, but each time I did, it was quite powerful.

Lesson Extension

If you have some students who really get into this project, consider an extra credit assignment where students create portraits of each administrator at your school. We had nine (yes nine!) administrators, and the kids came running! We eventually had to pick names out of a hat as we assigned the principal and his assistant principals to our top students. The results were amazing!

staff portraits

Students did their research and found these assistant principals actually used to teach, so they added elements of the disciplines they taught, and the portraits came to life.

We surprised the administration with framed and matted portraits presented at our staff holiday party. Each student wrote a special note on the back of the work as well. Several of the administrators cried they were so touched by having received such a special and personalized gift.

Over the years I have begun to realize the more our students can share their talents, the better it is for everyone. My students feel blessed to share their artistic talents, and the recipients are always touched beyond words that they are receiving such incredible gifts.

So, during this season of giving, consider having your students share their talents and skills and together we can continue to make this world a more beautiful and artful place!

Do your students create art for others?

How are you teaching your students about the art of portraiture?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Debi West

Debi West is one of AOEU’s adjunct instructors and a former AOEU Writer and NBCT art educator. She loves sharing with others and enthusiastically stands behind her motto, “Together we ART better!”

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