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Teaching Portraits

Whether you love it or hate it, portraiture is an important and sometimes required unit for art educators to teach. Here is a realistic drawing approach for teaching portraiture to students in your art classroom.

You Need a Drawing Process for Teaching Portraiture

When asking students to draw portraits, we are asking them to do something quite challenging. They have to think about shapes, and forms, and values, and symmetry, and asymmetry, and textures, and sometimes even color! This is SOOOOOO much.

Don’t make them think about everything all at once! Give them a process that allows them to think about one part of their portrait at a time.

This is not to force students to give up their creativity. Rather, it is so students can learn one way of drawing portraits that is consistent so that the steps can be practiced and improved upon.

Think of Cookies

Imagine if you wanted to learn how to cook, but every time you went into the kitchen you had to make a completely different recipe using completely different techniques. That would feel so overwhelming!

Now, Imagine going into the kitchen and learning how to make cookies by following the same process 5 times in a row.

Let’s say the first time you forgot to add an egg, and your cookies came out super flat and gross. Then the next time you go to make cookies, you remember the egg and are super happy with your results. It’s an edible cookie!

Maybe by the 3rd or 4th time, you start tweaking the recipe to meet your preferences. You take out the nuts, or add some chocolate chips. By now you have the experience you need to do so without ruining the good parts of the cookie that you want to keep.

By the 5th time you go through the process of making the same cookie, you have created the perfect cookie for you, exactly to your preferences.

But this perfect cookie for you could not have existed if you didn’t have a process to follow to begin with. You first mastered making a tasty cookie, and THEN started making your cookies unique.

Portrait Study by Mandy Theis, Charcoal on Paper, 2019

Your Drawing Process Needs to Make Sense to Both You and Your Students

Ok, so you agree you need a process because you both like tasty cookies and want to teach students to make portraits that they are proud of.

But how do you come up with one?

First, you have to decide what kind of portraiture you are teaching. Line drawing? Value drawing? Color painting? Each of these needs its own approach.

The most important aspect of teaching portraiture is to make sure you are giving instructions for ONE, and ONLY ONE approach. You can always teach an additional method once students have mastered the first portraiture technique.

In order to teach portraiture effectively to your art class, your chosen approach needs to make sense to them, which is something easier said than done.

Make a Drawing Process for Your Portraiture Lesson

However you currently teach portraiture, think of a way to simplify it into chunks that are digestible and chronological. Break down the portrait drawing process into smaller and smaller pieces until students feel like “Hey, I can do that!”.

Here is the process I use to teach my students portraiture:

  1. Find the height vs width of the entire head
  2. Find the biggest shape of the head
  3. Find the division between the hair and face
  4. Draw the line of symmetry of the face
  5. Use lines to indicate where the ears meet the side of the head
  6. Use horizontal lines as place makers for the top of the eye socket, bottom of the eye socket, bottom of the nose, top and bottom of the upper lip, and bottom of the lower lip
  7. Refine the eyes using only lines
  8. Refine the nose using only lines
  9. Refine the lips using only lines
  10. Find division between lights and shadows
  11. Shade shadow shapes one flat value
  12. Shade the rest of the head

(Want access to in-depth lesson plans that teach portraiture? Check out our FREE Lesson Plans and Ateliyay! Curriculum)

Avoid Overwhelm

Put restrictions on what part of a portrait students can work on in each lesson. This keeps them from getting overwhelmed by trying to get everything in. Break it down into simple steps where you ask them to think about one aspect of their drawing at a time.

For example, have them start by finding the height vs. width of the head, then the overall shape of the head.

*Hint* Humans have a LOT of different shapes of heads. Is it squarish? Roundish? Pointy on the bottom? Flat on the bottom? What IS the biggest shape of the head?

*Hint #2* There is a big ole ball in the back of your head that is wider than most peoples’ faces. This is the biggest part of the head, and one that students often miss.

Think Big to Small

When drawing portraits, students always want to rush into making eyelashes before they even know the shape of their head. A general rule that I always emphasize in my classroom is to think big to small. If a student is working on eyelashes, I will ask them which is physically better, the shape of the hair or the eyelash. This helps redirect them to working from the big ideas first before placing smaller ideas.

Make Multiple Drawings

Just like making cookies, students need to practice drawing portraits multiple times to figure out their mistakes and make improvements. They need the time and space to learn what is actually a very complex and challenging skill. Students show significant growth in drawing portraits when they are able to practice an understandable series of steps at least a few times.

Portrait Study by Mandy Theis, Charcoal on Paper, 2017

Conclusion

To teach portraiture well, you need both an understandable, teachable process and to give your portraiture unit enough time to be learned by your students without overwhelming them.

They joy of seeing students’ faces when they pull off a portrait that is better than anything they ever thought they could do is a great reward for the amount of time and energy that goes into planning effective portraiture lessons.

Happy portraiture teaching to you all!

What is your process for teaching portraiture? Let me know in the comments below.

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