12 Ideas for Portrait Projects (Ep. 387)

We know students can be apprehensive when it comes to portrait projects, but we also know that they can create some wonderful work. In today’s episode, Tim runs through a long list of ideas for portrait projects, including some of his own personal favorites. Listen as he talks about smashing faces, discusses the power of in-person drawing, and shares some ideas for interesting and advanced portraits that might help engage your students.

Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links



Tim Bogatz:

Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today, I want to talk about portrait projects. Some of my favorite portrait projects. A couple of disclaimers before we dive into any of it. I’m not going to talk about how I teach portraits, and I don’t want to spend time talking about how we teach drawing eyes, or drawing facial features, and we can get into that sometime down the road if people are interested, but today is just going to be about sharing ideas. Also, I know portraits can be tricky. Some kids love doing them, some hate doing them, and I think it’s just a matter… A lot of the time, I think the issue at hand is it’s difficult to draw something you’re so familiar with, and when you are a teenager, you want to look your best. And if your drawing skills don’t necessarily match up with as good as your face looks, or as realistic as you want it to look, that can be really stressful.

And I think there’s a lot of apprehension there that comes from students not feeling like they’re good enough. They don’t have the skills to capture what they are seeing in the mirror every day. They don’t have the skills to capture the face that they’re familiar with, or make it look the way they think it should look. And they’re not wrong. Portraits are hard. So I have some ideas for portraits, especially for beginning students that kind of takes the pressure off. So we’ll discuss those as well.

Now, I know also people always ask about favorite artists to show when you’re teaching portraits, or artist examples that they can use. So just quick, a few favorites that I like and that my students usually respond favorably to. I love Kehinde Wiley, I love Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he’s the dude who does all of the portraits out of fruits and vegetables, paints them, very old school, but enjoyable. Kids really like just how weird and how fun it is. Amy Sherald, another great contemporary artist, Frida Kahlo, and then Kent Bellows, who’s a hyperrealistic graphite and colored pencil artist. Now, he’s from Omaha and I’m from Omaha, and so that resonates with my students when I show him. But check out his work, Kent Bellows, and see if you think your students might like him as well. So just a few quick suggestions there for artists since I know people are always asking about those.

And then like I said, I’m not going to talk about how we teach all of these parts of drawing portraits, but I will say that I like to have my advanced students do different exercises before we get into portraits, just so they’re a little bit more familiar with drawing all of the features, and sort of the ins and outs of all that. So just working on a sketchbook, draw 10 pairs of eyes and 10 noses and 10 mouths and 10 ears. Just getting familiar with those and noticing small, subtle differences in different people, their are different features, and just do that as prep work for what we’re going to be doing.

And again, like I said, if you want more detail of exactly what we look for, exactly what we do with those exercises and with the projects, let me know and we can talk about that in a future episode if you want. But today we’re going to just share a bunch of ideas we’re going to go through quickly, because I have a dozen different portrait projects that I want to talk about. I’ll just talk about them each very quickly. But I have those 12 projects divided into four categories, so I’ll tell you that when we get to each category. But all of these projects I talk about today are ones that are taught forever. Some of them are original ideas, some of them are unoriginal ideas, some are really common practice amongst art teachers. There’s some that I’m not even sure where they came from because you started them a long, long time ago. Like I said, we’re going to go through a bunch of them today.

So our first category, these are portrait projects that take the pressure off. So each of them that I talk about are ways that you can make it a little easier for your kids to draw, where they don’t feel like they have to be perfect. There’s hopefully not even an expectation of them being incredibly good. Just kind of help kids relax, just draw, like I said, they can work without feeling like they need to be perfect. So my favorite on that, something that a lot of people do, blind contour drawings and blind contour portraits. It’s so much fun to do those as long as you can embrace how much they’re going to suck, how much they don’t look like anybody.

And so I think that if you’re just sort of embracing the process, enjoying the process, and if you have a sense of humor that you can laugh at your own drawings, I think that’s great. And so what I like to do is have my kids do a bunch of blind contour portraits in class, and then maybe we take the two or three best ones, I usually do three, combine them onto a single page so you have three faces on the page, add color with a lot of different ways, whether that is actually coloring in the portraits, or just layering in shapes or overlapping designs for the background to add some color. And just making it look a little bit more like a finished work. But yet everyone knows going in that because those are blind contour, you have that expectation that it’s not going to be quite a classic portrait. It’s going to be something a little abstract, a little off the beaten path. And like I said, if you can enjoy and embrace that, I think that’s good for kids.

Second one that I love to do, this was an old lesson plan on AOW from, I don’t know, 2015, maybe like eight years ago. The smashed face portraits. And that’s where what I would do is, I’d get on the other side of a window, I would have the kids smash their face against the window to distort all of their features, and then we would take a photograph of the smashed face, and that would be the basis for the portrait. And use that photo as a reference, you can grid it out, you can just draw it as is, whatever kids are comfortable with, and just let them go. And you get these really, really weird looking portraits, but they’re hilarious. This was originally inspired by a photograph I saw from on Ana Mendieta, and it worked really well as a portrait. I thought that would be a lot of fun for a drawing.

So kids love that. And again, that’s another one where you take the pressure off because features are distorted, they’re smashed, they look very different. And so again, we don’t need to be perfect. You’re drawing something that’s a little out there, a little different, and kids usually seem to enjoy that. So just take a day, line them up, one after the other, smash your face against the window, take the picture, and then I just have Windex and paper towels and I just tell them, “Teenagers, you can’t help it, but you have gross faces.” Again, that humor may or may not work for you, I don’t know. But I think it’s hilarious. And just teenagers have oily skin. It’s a fact of life. So spray the window with some Windex, wipe it off, next person can smash their face. They spray the window, wipe it off, next person can match their face, photograph each of them, get them their photos, do some drawing. It’s a lot of fun. So smash face portraits are great.

And then third one, let me take the pressure off category here, eating portraits. Just pictures of people eating. And I tell kids to just think about two things. Number one, who they want to draw, themselves, a friend, a teacher, anybody in their life that they want to do a portrait of. But then you want to figure out what kind of food you want them to eat also. And so I have food in my desk that I’m happy to give out if people want to do that, or they can just take photos at home of people eating food, like spaghetti is always fun, a giant sandwich or burger usually makes for an interesting drawing.

But again, people shoving food in their face or dropping Goldfish crackers into their mouth, or whatever it may be. It’s always an interesting one, because you have something else that’s going to be sort of the focal point of the drawing, not the portrait itself. You’re still drawing some facial features, they’re still there, they’re a little weird because people are distorting their mouth and their face to take a bite of whatever, but a lot of people are focused on the food portion of that drawing. And like I said, it kind of distracts, it kind of takes away from the pressure of making a perfect portrait there.

And then one bonus idea in this category, Abby Schukei, a few years back, wrote a great article about Snapchat filter portraits. I’ll link to that in the show notes. But just talks about, again, letting kids play with filters on Snapchat or whatever other app that may be working for them, to distort their face, or beautify their face, or whatever other filters are out there that they want to use. They can kind of change things up a little bit and then do your portraits based on what’s done with those filters. So that’s a fun and easy one. Like I said, I’ll link to that article so you can read that. It’s a really good idea that, again, makes sure that kids don’t need to be perfect and gives them a great opportunity to create kind of an interesting portrait.

Okay, second category, I’m going to call this the show your skills category. And these are all ideas that I think when kids have developed some skills and they’re getting a little bit better at realistic drawings, this is good, I do these projects a lot with my second year students. So they’re familiar with the process, they have an idea of what makes for a good portrait, they have a few skills that have been developed when it comes to drawing, to putting things together realistically.

So first one is an animal portrait or a pet portrait. I love doing animal portraits. A lot of kids love to draw their pets or their friend’s pets. I’ve done it before where we will set things up where we’ve done a trip to the zoo and taken a bunch of portraits there, and that makes for some simple portraits there. But a lot of projects down the road, I’ve had kids who were volunteering at an animal shelter, do a bunch of photos there, and they could bring their friends in, help them take photos of some of the animals, the pets, that were there, I think that’s great. I’ve seen other teachers who work in collaboration with the shelter to do pet portraits, and then they give those portraits out to anybody who adopts that dog or adopts that cat. And so there’s a lot of cool things that can go along with that. But it also makes for just some great memories to be able to draw your own pet or your family pet or a friend’s pet or whatever, or even just drawing an animal that you think is interesting. I think that’s always kind of a cool thing to do.

And I never came up with a more tactful name for this, but I just called… Second idea here, I just always called them old people portraits. And I always thought about making it sound a little classier, a little nicer, but just direct and to the point. I wanted kids to do portraits of people who were of an older age. And we have a lot of discussions about how facial features change as you age. What do you look like when you’re 17? And then 37? And then 57? And then 77? Just how do things change? How do people age? How do your features get captured differently as you get older?

And again, we have done this with relatives, family, friends, we’ve also done it with a nursing home, and I’ve taken my advanced kids into a nursing home, they’ll sit and interview people who are there, and have discussions and listen to stories and draw portraits while they’re doing that, and then gift those portraits to those people. And it makes for an amazing experience. And so just thinking about things like that can be wonderful, where you can go with portraits or what you can do and how you can use art to make bigger connections, to have deeper meaning. And you don’t have to start with that. And you can just say, “Hey, find an older person that you find interesting, photograph them, ask them if you can draw their portrait, and take it from there.” But I believe it leads to a lot of great connections. And even if you don’t feel the connections are there, it adds a lot of visual interest. It makes for a really, really cool portrait. So it’s another one that I like a lot and kids seem to have responded well to.

And just kind of along those same lines, idea number three is just doing in-person portraits, where we’ll ask kids to have their friends sit for them and draw their portrait, either for practice or for a project. Or if there’s a study hall happening near the art room, see if you can get some of those kids from study hall to come in and sit for portraits. And you may or may not have your kids having discussions with them, it may just be a silent portrait, but you can also have discussions as well. And you can see a lot of cool connections being made there. And I think there’s an obvious connection, one other artist that I’ve really have been fascinated by recently is Devon Rodriguez. He’s on Instagram, he’s also on TikTok, you’ve likely seen him, very popular, but he will go onto the subway in New York City, and just draw people on the subway, and then gift them sort of that small graphite portrait. And he films their reactions.

It’s very cool, very heartwarming, love that stuff. Your kids have probably seen them too. And so I think that’s something that would be interesting to kind of show your students and build a project based on that. And I’ve also seen Devon doing something recently where he’ll sit down with somebody at a park and draw them, and then he’ll film that interaction, and you get a good view of the conversation they’re having as he’s interviewing them while he is drawing, but also the drawing that’s being done as well. So again, I think those are all really good hooks for students and just gives you a good idea of some things that you could do with some in-person portraits and how you can develop that sort of idea.

All right, next set of portrait project ideas. I’m going to call this just different enough, where these are fairly traditional portraits, but we’re doing something just a little bit different that throws things off and makes things a little bit interesting. One of them is pen portraits. Again, this could be an in-person thing as well, but yeah, just having them draw somebody else in class. I usually do this as a one class period thing, where you just take a ballpoint pin and a tall, thin piece of paper, let’s say 8×16 piece of paper, and just do a profile picture of somebody in class or someone that they want to draw, but it’s all done in ballpoint pin.

And so there’s a very interesting challenge that comes with drawing with pen. Do you do hatching or crosshatching? How do you shade? How do you develop those subtle shadows? How do you do nuance with a ballpoint pen? And it can be hit or miss. There are things that maybe don’t go so well, and some kids who do not enjoy what they end up with, but then you also see some kids that kind of take naturally to it and they can create some brilliant drawings. And then there are kids who are in between where maybe the first one doesn’t go too well, but they’re intrigued by the process, and they just kind of continue to develop those skills, continue to try things out, and maybe that leads to some other explorations or some other things that are done with pen that can be really interesting. So just a one-day thing, and I’ll give them 45 minutes to create an entire portrait with a ballpoint pen and just kind of see what comes of it. I think that’s an interesting one.

I also like cut paper portraits. So I think this is an interesting one, maybe a little tougher to describe in audio. But basically I ask students to do a contour portrait of somebody, we generally do head and shoulders just to fill the page, and then we fill in the background as well. And then we’d like to have some lines going to each corner of the page, each side of the page, whether that’s designs in the background, or you add pictures in the background, whatever the case may be. And then what we generally do is just that simple contour drawing and then we’ll cut around it.

And so you take an X-ACTO knife on black paper or on colored paper, you cut out the negative space and leave the contour drawing there, and then you have a very nice contrast between black and white. You cut out all that negative space, just leave the portrait, the background, the designs there, and it can create for a really interesting look. It’s a great challenge to get kids to think differently, to kind of think ahead for what they’re doing and process things differently and do all of that cutting and development and gluing and everything that goes along with that, that can be an excellent challenge for them. So I like the cut paper portraits.

And then finally, the just different enough, this maybe relates back to the smash faces or the eating portraits, I love doing unflattering portraits. Because we talk all the time about drawings and paintings that make people look beautiful. They idealize people. But what if we flip that script? What if we do portraits of people maybe not at their worst, but definitely not at their best? And I encourage kids to do self-portraits for this, which sometimes they enjoy doing and find fun, sometimes they don’t want to, but if they can talk somebody else into making an ugly face or doing a dumb pose or whatever is maybe not so flattering, and then turning that into an entire project. I think that can be quite a bit of fun. Again, photo shoots with dumb faces and fun things that you’re doing, and then use some of those photos as the basis for an unflattering portrait. And I think that can be a really interesting one.

And then finally, my last category here, just calling this one advanced stuff. And so these are ones that I do with my third and fourth year students. First one is a reflective portrait where I ask them to do a portrait of themselves or somebody else, and it has to include some kind of a reflective surface. And so I’ve seen some really cool ones just with windows, with sunglasses, with reflective goggles in the pool, but it can also be any kind of mirror. The back of the spoon, just think about all those reflective surfaces that are out there.

And then if you can create a portrait that incorporates that in some way, whether that be distorting the features a lot or just showing a reflection, or showing two or more of somebody, anything like that, just kind of give your kids that theme of reflection and just talk about all the possibilities and see where they go with it. And you can probably get some pretty good stuff. There are obviously challenges there with the way light and… All visuals get distorted and change when they’re reflected. That’s a good avenue of research as well. And just kind of see what you can develop out of those reflective portraits.

A next one is my favorite place. I love seeing students who can share a little bit about themselves. So I ask them to think about some of their favorite places and then create a portrait showing themselves in their favorite place. And there’s a lot of cool brainstorming that goes along with that. Sometimes their favorite place may or may not be great visually, they may or may not do exciting things there, but you can probably get enough to create a cool portrait out of it. And so it shows them something they love to do, somewhere they love to be, and kids are usually invested in doing things like that. So love the idea of my favorite place.

And then finally, doing multiple portraits on the same page. I used to do this project, I found it online a decade ago, maybe more, it was called multiples of me. And I’m sorry, I can’t credit who it came from. I honestly don’t remember. But it showed multiple self-portraits on the same page. And I thought that was very interesting, because it leads to a lot of good discussions about how kids present themselves in different situations, like who are you at school versus who are you at work versus who are you at home versus who are you in whatever extracurricular that you love to do. And just how things can change, and how all of us present different sides of ourselves to different people.

And so that can create a lot of great discussion, but also create some wonderful drawings. And so if you see a drawing with three or four of the same person doing different things and filling the background with different things that they’re interested in or they love or they do, that can make for some very, very impressive portraits. And like I said, it’s a great exercise to think about, to discuss and to put together onto a single page.

So there you have it a dozen, or I guess a baker’s dozen, when we throw in Abby’s portrait idea also, but just ideas for portraits that you can do hopefully in the coming months. And I would also love to hear from you. If you have other great ideas that you want to share about portraits, other interesting or creative ideas for portraits that you think are worth sharing, I would love to hear about them. And if you’re interested in talking more about the how of drawing portraits, as I mentioned in the beginning, and just how we teach skills, how we develop skills, everything that goes into setting up and brainstorming and putting together, and then creating some quality drawing portraits, let me know about that too. I’d love to do a follow-up episode if that’s of interest, and if enough people would find that valuable.

Now lastly, before we go, you may have noticed an extra episode popping up in your podcast feed last Thursday. That is the What New Teachers Need To Know podcast. Last week’s episode was all about what new teachers need to know in the first month or two of the school year. So you’ll see a few more episodes published on Thursdays in the coming weeks. We would love for you to share them with any new teachers that you think would find them helpful. We’re really trying hard to support new art teachers, to help them, get them involved with the art teaching community we have here, and we want to share resources that will help them be successful. So please pass those episodes along if you’re so inclined, if you know somebody who could use them.

Also, last thing before we go, we’ll have a mailbag episode coming from Amanda and me in a couple of weeks, so please feel free to send in any questions you have. But for now, please take away a couple portrait ideas from this episode that you can use in your class. Reach out to me if you would like more details on any of the ideas that I talked about, any of those lessons, or if you want to talk more about how, or if you have a mailbag question, or whatever else, just email me at TimBogatz@TheArtOfEducation.edu, and also feel free to reach out if you want to share anything else, or if you think more discussion on this topic would be worthwhile.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we will be back next week.

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.