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Inner image.

I have always loved self portraits but most teenagers do not enjoy looking too closely at their own faces in an effort to replicate them. Thanks to a new digital camera, I was able to use this new technology to inspire students to take a closer look at their inner image.

Capturing an Expression

Prior to the self-portrait assignment, students had been doing leaf studies using white and black charcoal pencils on flattened grocery sacks. I acquired my new camera during this time. As students continued to refine their shading skills on medium-toned paper, I took pictures of them, one at a time, with an exaggerated facial expression that they felt revealed a part of their personality or emotional make up. The photo sessions took place in a separate area of the classroom, thus allowing students to ham it up a bit.

Grids and Gradations

From the three to six shots, each student selected a favorite, which I cropped and printed as a 4 x 6" (10 x 15 cm) black-and-white image. Students further cropped their photos to 3 x 4" (8 x 10 cm) proportionally and then divided the area horizontally and vertically into quarters, providing a grid of sixteen rectangles. Students repeated the grid on a sheet of 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) gray charcoal paper, and enlarged the photo one rectangle at a time using a No. 2 pencil.

After completing the pencil drawings, students began shading using black-and-white charcoal pencils, a kneaded eraser, and sparing use of a blending stump. While we started by using photos, students used mirrors throughout the shading process. Students finished backgrounds using a white shadow area around the image, blending gradually hack into black.

I worked individually with most students in five to ten-minute sessions based on a daily sign-up sheet. Gradually they became confident with their shading and required little help. I encouraged more experienced students to review and discuss their progress with me once or twice a week. We tacked up all the pieces in progress daily, and at the end of class we occasionally did a group critique.

Presentation and Reflection

We framed finished pieces in 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) silver rectal frame kits backed by foam board. To keep the pieces lightweight, we used twenty ml. acetate sheets in place of glass. We hung the portraits grouped together using double-stick tape and small finishing nails in between for support. This wall-size grid became a powerful focal point for the annual district art show.

Humor carried this exercise from beginning to end. Because students had used exaggerated and comical facial expressions, they were able to avoid self-consciousness and hypercriticality in reflecting on their efforts. The combination of realistic technique, large-scale proportion, and the element of humor attracted the attention of all viewers.

Students reflected on the process of enlarging and reproducing a picture accurately, shading using a graded range from black to white, and working from a photo and life simultaneously. They also reflected on what they learned about them selves and their classmates.

Nancy Mollhagen is an art teacher at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


Students apply media, techniques, and processes with, sufficient skill, Confidence, and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their art works.

Grid Portraits
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:High School
Author:Mollhagen, Nancy
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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