Senior Self-PortraitsThe senior year in art culminates with the students creating a self-portrait. It is a challenge for them to distance themselves from their own likeness enough to become objective observers. We touch on how each face is unique, and that our idiosyncrasies are what makes us recognizable from others. For example, is one eyebrow slightly higher than the other? Perhaps you have a slightly crooked smile? If the students can learn to recognize their unique physical characteristics, then they have accomplished the first step in portrait painting.

We begin the class by exploring the material of oil painting through some preliminary exercises. Students choose a color to tone the canvas, and then use that ground color as the mid value of their faces. The next step is to photograph each student, as we work from these photos to create their final portraits.

The first technique that I introduce to the class is called “grisaille,” from the French for “grey.” We create the entire face in tones of grey. This serves as the underlying shadow layer, which will shine through the subsequent layers of paint. If done correctly, the underlying grey will make the shadows of the final portrait appear cool and realistic. Once the grisaille is complete, the students build up the flesh tones using the “glazing” technique. This is achieved through the slow build-up of numerous layers of translucent oil paint. This technique allows for the skin to have a luminous glow, while also allowing the grey shadows to shine through.

This project is not only technically challenging, but it also asks the question,”How do I present myself to the world?” Not only do the students strive for a physical likeness, but to convey the unique inner life of each individual.