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A cameo appearance.

On a recent trip to the Amalfi coast of Italy, I stopped in a town called Sorrento, where there is a cameo workshop that is open to the public. As I watched the artisans carving their tiny masterpieces, I thought there must be a way to adapt this technique to an elementary level. I created a method that utilizes a delicately drawn self-portrait in a lower-relief format. With light sepia-toned highlights and fine black outlines, the artwork takes on an authentic cameo appearance.


Cameos are low-relief portraits that are traditionally carved out of large conch seashells, although other materials, such as stone or metal, may be used. Thus, Lincoln's head carved on a penny is considered a cameo. Cameos are typically worn as jewelry in the form of a pendant, brooch or ring. The process dates back to the 500s A.D.

To introduce this project, I shared photos of my trip to the cameo workshop and samples of cameo jewelry, which piqued the fifth-grade students' interest. There are many pictures, as well as background information on cameos, available on the Internet. Students were interested in the delicate carvings, details and facial expressions. We compared and contrasted them to self-portraits by several artists, including Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. I pointed out to students that although most cameos are profiles, we wouldn't be able to see that viewpoint in our classroom so we would draw full faces instead.

Next, we reviewed the process of creating a self-portrait, and used mirrors to practice drawing. We talked about where eyes, noses and mouths are placed, and proportions. (See portrait diagram.) I gave students an oval tracer, measuring 5" x 3.5", to make sure all the faces were a good size for the paper. I demonstrated how to draw different hair lengths and styles, encouraging students to take liberties with clothing and hairstyles for a more authentic cameo appearance; however, they were allowed to use current styles, as well. Students completed their practice sketches, going over the pencil with extra-fine permanent marker.

The next class, we revisited our cameo sketches and reviewed background information. This session students would draw the final versions of their self-portraits on a heavier paper. They again used the oval tracers to make sure their faces were a good size for the paper. We reviewed placement and proportion, and discussed any problems they had drawing features during the previous session. We also talked about hair and clothing styles-what worked and what didn't. After drawing in pencil, students outlined in extra-fine permanent marker and erased all pencil lines.

Next, I demonstrated how to add the sepia chalk. We used a scrap piece of paper as a palette. I gave students several shades of brown chalk, and they made "puddles" of each color on their palette. Then, they rubbed a cotton swab into the chalk to lift a small amount of color and gently rubbed it over the black marker lines. I stressed that less is more, and they should not over-color the portrait. The sepia chalk gave the portraits a very antique, cameo appearance.

Finally, students cut out their portraits very carefully and mounted them, using sticky foam "3 D-O's," onto the bronze cardboard or paper. Then, they practiced simple designs, and drew them on black cardboard or heavy paper. They used metallic markers to create a border simulating metallic filigree.

These low-relief self-portraits created quite a stir when they were in the hall showcase. We put them on plate stands for a more sculptural effect, and they received rave reviews! Our fifth-graders truly made "cameo appearances"!


Upper-elementary students will ...

* create self-portraits in a cameo style.

* create relief sculptures.


* 9"x 12" practice paper and heavy drawing paper

* Oval tracers (5" x 3.5" at top, narrower at bottom)

* Mirrors

* Extra-fine permanent markers

* Gold or silver metallic markers

* Pencils and erasers

* Scissors

* Glue sticks

* 11" x 16" brown tag board or construction paper

* 12" x 18" black tag board

* Sepia chalk

* Cotton swabs

* Paper scraps {about 3" x 3")

* 3 D-O's, cardboard or foam-board scraps

* Photos or samples of cameos



1. Draw or trace an egg-shaped oval.

2. Draw guidelines to:

* divide the face in half vertically and horizontally.

* divide the bottom in half horizontally two more times.

3. Draw ellipses for eyes, an "L"-shaped nose, and an "M" for the top lip, with a curve for the bottom lip on the horizontal guidelines.

4. Add irises and pupils to eyes, and eyebrows.

5. Draw small curves for ears just below the "eye" line.

6. Draw outlines for the hair, both inside and outside the egg shape.

7. Erase all guidelines.

8. Extend the sides of the face downward to make the neck.

Joan Sterling is an art teacher at Hickory Woods Elementary School in the Walled Lake (Mich.) Consolidated Schools, and is coauthor of "Art by the Book," published by Pieces of Learning (
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Author:Sterling, Joan
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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