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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Art Lessons for Less Verbal People: painting self-portraits

~ this post is dedicated to (and prompted by) Raymond, Kevin's brother and #1 art fan, who reminded me that lately I've been neglecting the blog ~

This has been a very creative spring for Kevin and Adam. I've been wanting to share what we've been up to, but have been so busy doing art that there's been little time left over to write about our artistic ventures and adventures. In keeping with the creative mindset, we're not going to worry about timeline, and lessons will not be presented chronologically, but instead will be ordered by the whims of my right brain.

Note: when teaching art to students (of any age) who are less verbal, it's important to show more than tell. I use a technique I call "Follow Me" (modified from teaching strategies described in Mona Brooke's excellent book "Drawing with Children") to introduce new art media and techniques. For more on this method, take a look at this video from our YouTube channel:


And so, we start at the most recent project, self-portraits.

According to my art teacher (at the Ottawa School of Art), one reason for starting portrait painting with a self-portrait is that the face is very familiar to you. Often artists will create complicated set-ups of easels and mirrors to make it possible to paint on a canvas and refer to the "live model in the mirror" without moving around. We simplified this process (and eliminated the need to stay in one spot) by using the "mirror photo" function on the iPad.

Here's Kevin's iPad photo that he used as a model (we set up our photo so that the source of light was clearly from one side, to simplify the light and shadow):

Next step was to have Kevin do a spontaneous drawing of himself from the photo. When he did this, he made himself in "cartoon" form (which is how he frequently draws himself and family members in our language exercises):

For the next step, Kevin and I drew a side-by-side "guided" drawing, where I brought Kevin's attention to the lines, contours and shadows on the actual photo of his face. This is the "planning" drawing he produced:

Then we started in with paint on canvas. Following the method of my own painting teacher, we made a "paint sketch" with yellow ochre (no pencil lines to paint over later). Then we blocked in the shapes of skin, hair, shirt and background, as well as the areas of light and shadow. By the end of our first session, this is what Kevin's painting looked like:

You can still see some of the yellow ochre sketch lines around the eyes, eyebrows and mouth. With acrylic paints, it takes more than one layer to get vivid colours - this project was the first time that Kevin left a painting incomplete with a plan to finish it the next week (we made this clear before we started painting, so that he was prepared to leave it half-done - another important art lesson tip is "no surprises").

The next week, we added more layers of paint, more details, more light and shadow. And here's the completed self-portrait that Kevin painted (I love the personality that comes through in this painting!):

Adam was involved with some Picasso lessons (more on that in a later post), and so did his self-portrait later in the spring than Kevin. Here are the stages of Adam's self-portrait, and you'll see that although the teaching method was the same, Adam's style and personality results in a different type of finished painting:

One final note:
always very interesting to me how my "model" drawings and paintings are somewhat mechanical and bland, but the drawings and paintings produced by my students have personality and quirkiness and life to them ...
I'm giving "visual instructions" and they're expressing themselves with art ... so cool
Stay tuned for more lessons (how am I doing Raymond?)
......... Sheila B


  1. Yoooo sick blog post Sheila, I appreciate the dedication! It's great to see how you documented the artistic process. Kevin and Adam are definitely distinctive in their painting style. I'm really digging the purplish colour on Adam's neck, as well as the shading on Kevin's Adam's apple. The pair of them are both great at painting eyes as well; I can't speak for Adam's work, but those are unmistakably Kevin's irises.

    I'm staying tuned for more lessons - especially the Picasso one.

  2. Glad you liked it Raymond! ... Sheila