Secret Identity: Self-Portrait in Costume

Artists have been creating self portraits for many years. And drawing ourselves in a fantasy costume is even better. Sandburg Fourth Graders and DCS Middles (a 3rd/4th grade class) drew their self portraits in a costume of their own design.

First we drew a basic face lightly in pencil, paying attention to getting the proportions of the features correct. I talked the students through drawing a life-size oval, adding lines on each side for a neck, then almond-shapes in the center, one eye-width apart. Halfway to chin is nose tip, halfway from nose to chin is center of lips.


Then we circulated around the boxes of hats, sunglasses, scarves, belts, vests and shirts. Everyone looked in the large mirrors and combined the elements until they expressed themselves in a costume.

Then we returned to our basic drawings and began to add our costume shapes to our self portraits. Continuing to look in the mirror, we added hair and eye color, individual features, and then color with crayons and markers.

I brought masks, vests, shirts, even a wig or two, even though I knew it meant washing everything between classes ( I currently teach art lessons to four elementary school classes.) As our time is always limited (One Hour Art) all costume pieces could be worn over the students’ regular clothes.

We used large wall mirrors propped up around the room, and small makeup mirrors on the desks.

The mystery and fantasy that appears in these self-portraits is so interesting. Without much time to think about it and with limited costume elements on hand, each student created a totally original alter ego.

Ink on our Desks: Monoprints to Altered Prints

Printing with elementary school students - yes it’s a bit wild. There’s something liberating about applying ink directly to the top of your desk; usually there’s some pressure to keep it clean and tidy. This really a Two Hour Art project, as the prints must dry thoroughly before collaging.

To make the monoprint, we used brayers to roll water-soluble printing ink directly onto our cleared-off desks. With cotton swabs, brush handles, and gloved fingers we drew quickly into the ink. Putting a piece of contrast-color paper on top, we rubbed it gently all over and gently pulled up to reveal our print. I found that having the students wear nitrile or latex gloves prevented the impulse to make handprints. 
Usually only one print (mono = one) can be made this way, sometimes there is enough ink for another one.
Because the image we draw in the wet ink is reversed in the print, it was requested that no letters or numbers be included. But some of us wanted to practice backwards-writing.
The ink dries fast, so we can put a new color on top for the next print without cleaning the desk. The layers of colors show through as we scratch into them, adding depth and mystery.
The prints are set aside to dry thoroughly. I mounted some prints to large sheets of colored paper.

Hour Two.
Our next session: using a ruler, we drew parallel lines dividing our prints into strips, then numbered them. We used our scissors to carefully cut the strips apart, then laid alternating strips of two different prints on two large contrast-color sheets of paper.

Prints with a strong image were kept whole and mounted. “Failed” prints that seem to be all texture, blurry or uneven are good candidates for collages, but combining two distinct images is interesting too. There’s something thrilling about cutting up two pieces of art to make two entirely new ones. Some artists traded and donated prints.  

Gluesticks were used to attach the strips to form two new altered, or changed, prints. Some students then created more altered prints with different-sized and shaped strips and pieces. An important step is mounting (I used a stapler) prints to a large contrast or complementary color sheet, to frame it and intensify the color. Presentation is vital! Then all prints are displayed on the wall.
Some altered prints are serene and quiet, some are jazzy and excited.


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Greece, Turkey, Bali, Vietnam, Tasmania. That’s just today, I could have a new list tomorrow, so many interesting places.

Pop Portrait in collage and acetate

"Knit Beret" and "The Start"    This ends up being a kind of self-portrait because your clipping choices are unconsciously revealing. Why are we so anxious about showing our art to others? We can’t help expressing our personality when we create art, it can be scary to show that real self in public.

   Recycling old magazines: before you toss them in the green bin, choose large photos of faces. Try to get interesting ones, not just celebrities and makeup ads. Now cut out selected words and phrases: actions, descriptive and linkers. No brand names, too limiting. Last, cut or tear out photos of textures and colors that catch your eye.

   Place a large piece of acetate, clear strong flexible plastic, over a large face photo and trace the main lines with a permanent black marker. Acetate used to be sold for the old overhead projectors, so it’s getting a little rare. Any clear tough plastic will do, be creatively recycling.

   Tape tracing on white paper at top only, you want to be able to lift it. Collage textures and colors to your liking underneath line drawing so they appear appropriately. Suggesting your feelings about the person, their history, attitudes, the way they dress - all is possible.

   Now add a few choice words; place them on the drawing sheet or the paper, whatever seems most effective. Add some color to tie it together.

100_3201 The Start on Flickr.Self Portrait Collage, How i Did It to follow

100_3201 The Start on Flickr.

Self Portrait Collage, How i Did It to follow

100_3207 KnitBeret on Flickr.Collage Self Portrait - how-to to follow

100_3207 KnitBeret on Flickr.

Collage Self Portrait - how-to to follow

Watercolor Tips - especially when working with kids

I give a few  pointers when I teach young students about watercolors. Of course, the same applies to adults.

Treat your brush with respect. It’s your tool, you’ll paint better with a good brush. Never leave it standing on its head in water; rinse it, give it a shake and lay flat when not painting.

Find a brush that has a good point, like a goatee, use it to paint details and fine lines. Form the point gently with your fingers. 

Treat your paints with respect, keep them clean, rinse and shake brush before going to a new color. Moisten with a spray mister, swipe color off the top, paints should be creamy. Never dig or scrub. Clean your mixing area with a paper towel when you’re done.

Change water often, especially when it’s adding a color of its own.

Use good quality watercolor paper, as good you can afford. It will make all the difference. Fabriano Artistico Studio is excellent student grade paper. If making a pencil drawing to plan your painting, don’t erase. Also never scrub with your brush, it’s destructive to paper, brush and art.

Know when to stop! When color is complete, lay flat, let paper and paint do their magic on their own. Leave at least one third of the paper unpainted, including white paper sparkling out between brushstrokes.

Sounds like a lot of “don’ts”! Watercolor is about learning restraint. Less is more. Once you form the habit, you’ll be very happy painting in watercolors. 

Original art by Deb Knetzger. Step-by-step art projects for kids and adults that take about an hour.
All projects designed and tested by Deborah Knetzger.