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Art Lesson: Paint Yourself, Paint a Friend

written by: Nicole Hilsabeck • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 8/19/2013

Using the famous self and peer portraits by Van Gogh and Gauguin, your students can get to know each other through the art of portraiture!

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    Objective: Students will create expressive self and peer portraits.

    Materials: Three pieces of pastel paper, pastels (oil or soft), masking or painter’s tape, boards, mirrors or self-portrait reference photos

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    Lesson Procedure:

    Step One: Teacher will share examples of Self-portraits by artists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, who briefly shared living and painting space in the town of Arles in Southern France.

    Briefly demonstrate the dimensions of painting facial portraits, diagraming the proportions of eyes, nose, and mouth, showing tilt of the head, and emphasizing warm and cool sides of face. This is an introductory activity; the teacher should keep the portrait guidelines should as simple as possible so as not to overwhelm students (unless it is a more experienced group with portrait drawing experience). Students will be given a limited amount of time to paint, so the teacher should encourage them to work quickly to get the basic facial features and values in without worrying about details.

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    Vincent van Gogh Self PortraitPaul Gauguin Self Portrait
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    Step Two: Students will be asked to first create their own self-portraits, allowing about 20-30 minutes of sketching time. Students may use mirrors to look at their faces (for a Van Gogh style), or bring in a “selfie" taken with a camera to use as a reference (for a Gauguin style).

    Step Three:

    After the self-portraits are complete, the teacher will introduce the portraits that Van Gogh and Gauguin painted of each other during their time in Arles. Students will note how each artist gave his unique touch to the portraits.

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    Paul Gauguin (Man in a Red Beret) by Van GoghVan Gogh Painting Sunflowers by Gauguin
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    Students will be asked to sit with partners randomly assigned by the teacher. Students will go through two painting sessions: one as an artist, and one as the sitter. After students decide who will paint first, the teacher will start the timer and allow the students to paint for 20-30 minutes. When the timer goes off, students need to quickly switch roles and begin the second painting session. Students should not be asked to share their paintings until both sessions are complete.

    Assessment: The teacher will give students time to share their self and peer portraits with each other, noting what they experienced as positives or negatives during the painting experience.

    Extension: Teacher should encourage students to gift their peer (or even self) portraits to their session partners, as a way of enjoying the creative bond they shared during the experience. Students might also benefit from additional time to add to their self or peer portraits to give them a more finished look so they can be displayed or collected in a portfolio.