How to Leverage TikTok Superstar Devon Rodriguez to Inspire Your Students

Devon subway sketches

Note: Be sure to review all resources and preview all artists before determining if they are appropriate to share with your students.

“Excuse me, I drew you.” Cue shock and awe. This scenario is commonplace in the realm of Devon Rodriguez, the artist and TikTok sensation whose paintings and drawings of New York City subway riders have captivated audiences worldwide. Tap into the Devon Rodriguez magic in your art room for fresh and exciting ways to engage your students’ innovation and creativity. 

Did you hear? Devon is the featured presenter for the Winter 2024 NOW Conference! You won’t want to miss it—hear Devon talk about the stories behind his portraits, why he believes in the power of portraiture, and the lessons your students can learn from his work.

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Meet Devon Rodriguez

Devon Rodriguez
Image courtesy of Devon Rodriguez

Devon Rodriguez is a New York City-based artist and TikTok sensation with a community of over 32 million devoted followers (and counting!) Hailing from The Bronx, his passion for art began with graffiti at a young age. At age 13, he switched his focus to a safer artistic medium—realistic portraiture. While at the High School of Art and Design, he started painting portraits of subway passengers. Sculptor, John Ahearn, took notice of him and ended up creating two busts of Devon. Devon also created a painting of Ahearn. Both artworks qualified as finalists for the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. 

Devon started creating the acclaimed portraits we are familiar with once he could ride the subway post-pandemic. His confidence on camera and his ease at conversing with anyone paired with his insane rendering abilities led to viral and global attention. Today, Devon continues to create, opening his first solo show in New York in September 2023.

Devon’s work showcases a fresh perspective on portraiture and bridges traditional and contemporary artmaking. His art encourages exploration, celebrates individuality, and connects students with the modern digital age.

Devon subway sketches

Capture Devon Rodriguez’s talent and energy with these exercises. Introduce time-sensitive and sharable portraits to spark innovation in your art room and beyond.

On the Clock Artmaking

Just as Devon Rodriguez captures his subjects in the bustling chaos of urban life, timed artmaking challenges students beyond what they think they are capable of. By empowering artists to swiftly convey their vision, you encourage spontaneity and hone the ability to capture the energy and emotion of a scene. Timed artmaking is a valuable tool for students to experience the thrill of rapid creation and appreciate the beauty of fleeting moments.

Here are some “On the Clock” artmaking ideas to uncover the power of brevity:

  1. Ready, Set, Draw!
    Assign students a short time frame to draw an everyday fixture from your classroom. It can be a desk or even your cherished potted plant. The emphasis is on spontaneity and capturing the subject’s essence within a limited time frame.
  2. Mystery Timer
    Encourage quick thinking and observation by sharing a secret signal with half of the class. These students will sit for a partner to draw them. After a predetermined time, give the signal for your “in-the-know” students to stand up and walk away. Then, switch roles.
  3. Minutes Masterpiece
    Take your students on an artistic excursion to a different classroom, recess, or lunch area to practice drawing people in action. Have your students anonymously draw someone they encounter and challenge them to complete their creations within a set timeframe.
  4. Portrait Roulette
    In this fast-paced exercise, students pair up and have five to ten minutes to draw each other. When the timer goes off, the partners switch, even if they haven’t finished their portraits. Repeat this process as many times as possible during your class period.

elementary portraits

Strictly Portraits Artmaking

Devon Rodriguez’s ability to breathe life into the vibrant New York City street characters through his intricate sketches mirrors the tradition of portraiture. His authentic, almost photographic depictions reflect a deep connection between art, culture, and the human experience. In the same way, guiding students to create portraits can allow them to explore the depth of human expression and emotion and tell a story with every stroke of their brush or pencil.

Here are some “Strictly Portrait” artmaking ideas to revitalize this art tradition:

  1. Sketch & Interview Your Principal
    Channel Devon Rodriguez’s signature interview style by inviting a guest (principal, nurse, custodian, etc.) to your classroom for a “Sketch & Interview” session. Show your students a clip from one of Devon’s videos to inspire them. Students brainstorm questions to ask ahead of time. Prompt your guest to share stories while the students paint their portraits.
  2. Portraits with a Twist
    Each student draws a partner but adds a secret twist representing something unique about the subject. Whether it’s an interesting hairstyle, a quirky hat, or some distinctive accessories, these twists add personality and intrigue to the portraits. Explore the Experimenting with Portraiture Collection in FLEX Curriculum for even more innovative ideas.
  3. Sketch to Paint Portraits
    Devon Rodriguez’s journey as an artist includes a background in oil painting. His solo show, Underground, also features breathtaking oil paintings. Take your students on a similar journey and guide them as they go from sketching to painting. 

“For the Talk” Artmaking

The practice of sharing his completed portrait with the subject is a cornerstone of Devon Rodriguez’s renown that resonates deeply with his audience. Encouraging students to show their drawings to their subjects can elevate the portraiture experience and make it more meaningful. Portrait sharing enables students to receive immediate feedback and fosters a deeper understanding of the emotional impact their art can have on others.

Here are some “For the Talk” artmaking ideas to foster social connection through art:

  1. Portrait Pen Pals
    Bolster cross-class connections and school spirit and give students a photo of someone from another class to draw. After a few classes, arrange a time for students to meet in your class and swap portraits with their “pen pals.” Debrief the experience with a discussion.
  2. Sticky Note Hall of Fame
    Celebrate the diverse faces that make up your school by having students create portraits of students and staff on sticky notes. Visit various locations for students to draw their subjects (like in the Minutes Masterpiece exercise above.) Then, assemble the final sticky notes into a display in a prominent spot for all to appreciate.
  3. Someone Special
    Encourage your students to bring in a photo of someone special to draw. Review the basics in the Portraiture at the Secondary Level Pack in PRO Learning to set your students up for success. Add intrigue by displaying these portraits shrouded in black at your next school art show. Students can unveil their masterpieces to their special person and revel in the response!

people looking at portraits

With a bit of innovation, it’s easy to breathe fresh air into your classroom with Devon Rodriguez’s unique approach to art. Whether you host a portrait roulette, paint and interview your principal, or assign portrait pen pals, let the spirit of timed artmaking and sharing final portraits elevate your students’ creativity and excitement. Your classroom will soon become a vibrant hub of artistic exploration, just like the bustling subway platforms that inspire Devon.

For more TikTok artists to bring into your curriculum, browse this list.

Which Devon-inspired activity will you try with your students this week?

How do you make portraiture relevant in your curriculum?

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.


Mariana VanDerMolen

Mariana VanDerMolen, an elementary art educator, is a current AOEU Writer. She enjoys teaching for creativity, with a focus on ELL and therapy in a process-based art room.

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