Art Historical Self Portrait

Materials required

  • Pencils or graphite sticks, various grades from soft to dense.
  • Kneaded eraser.
  • Cheap drawing paper.
  • Tracing paper (optional, for exploring options)
  • Acrylic gesso.
  • Heavy chipboard.
  • Black and white acrylic paint.
  • Bristle brushes.
  • Water cups.
  • Brush cleaner.
  • (In the final stage we will add color using primary and earth tone pigments.)

Learning Sequence

001 Basic Facial Proportions. Begin by drafting the basic facial proportions. Be sure to use only graphite and kneaded eraser at this stage.

This is a general starting point for the human face, so in GENERAL, remember that:

  • The eyes are located approximately one-half the distance between the top of the skull and the bottom of the chin. (Most beginners draw the eyes too high up on the face.)
  • The eyes are approximately one-fifth the width of the face; they are equally spaced also. So, if you divide the face into five equal spaces from side to side, the eyes will be located in the second and fourth space. (Most beginners draw the eyes too close together or too far apart. They are also usually drawn too small.)
  • The bottom of the nose is located approximately one-half the distance from the center of the eyes to the bottom of the chin.
  • The top and bottom of the ears can usually be placed to align with the center of the eyes and the bottom of the nose.
  • The opening in the mouth is normally located a little less than half way between the bottom of the nose and the bottom of the chin. The width of the mouth is usually the same as the distance between the centers of the eyes.

These “rules” will get you started. Just remember that these are general rules and NO ONE has a general face… you’ll have to adjust your drawing as you make specific observations about your own face when you look in the portrait mirrors.

002 Personalize. Refine your sketch by looking in a portrait mirror and correcting details to better match your own face. Only concern yourself with facial characteristics… ignore clothing and hair for the time being. You will probably use your eraser a lot at this point.

003 Research. Research period portraiture and costume that interest you. Be sure to find out how costume reflected one’s economic and cultural status. Costume might also indicate what your job was. Try a Google search for “renaissance portraits” in the Images section.

004 Costume. Pretend for a moment that you have a time machine that will transport you back to the High Renaissance in Italy. What would your status have been? Your job? Based upon those ideas, develop a rough sketch of the clothing you might have worn.

005 Merge. Combine your two sketches. Continue to only use graphite so that you can correct for size and proportion as you work.

006 Research Places. Research two things: (1) Renaissance places and (2) one-point-perspective. You’ll create a one-point perspective sketch of the place you have been transported to. Renaissance artists used mathematical perspective to direct the viewer’s eye toward the most important part of an artwork… in this case, your portrait.

007 Background. Combine your background into your sketch. Enclose the background within an archway, a device that many period artists might have used to create a sense of depth.

008 Grisaille.  FIRST, GESSO THE BOARD AND TONE THE ENTIRE CANVAS MEDIUM GRAY. Transfer your drawing to the primed gray surface. Using only black, white, and grays, create a full tonal range grisaille painting. This is a technique used by period artists before adding color. (Note: my example is VERY rough just to get the point across… you’ll want to be detailed and accurate.) 

  1. “Tone” the entire canvas a medium gray.
  2. Outline most important contours in thin black lines of paint
  3. Begin with shadows – the two or three darkest darks (black and dark gray) throughout the entire painting
  4. Move to the highlights – the two or three lightest lights (white and slightly gray) throughout
  5. Add more mid tones and blend.

 Acrylic paint is opaque and allows you to paint over errors. This is an important stage to check for correct proportions and sizes – for instance, notice that the right eye is proportionally smaller than the left eye; it is also positioned incorrectly. Acrylic paint allows you to easily fix this type of error.

Assignment Extension. One extension idea is to remind students that they’ve taken a time machine back to the Renaissance. They are trying to fit in, of course…but it would only be natural they might have brought something with them back in time, perhaps something they care about, something that reveals information about themselves. In my Renaissance “Selfie” (above) I decided to be holding baseball cards from my youth. Hank Aaron and Bobby Clemente were two of my childhood heroes, and I will be reproducing those in this painting.

009 Color. Using the base tonal image to determine color values, begin to add earth tones. Keep objects closest to you crisp and “in focus, with lots of detail; emphasize warm colors here. Keep objects that are far away cooler, lighter, grayer, and with much less detail. Color should be added in transparent layers of wash, built up a little at a time. If budget permits, a glazing medium would be best.


Possible Timeline
1 day. Basic facial proportions (guided practice)

2 -3 days. Observational drawing (application, use mirror to generate a light self portrait sketch; head size and placement are predetermined for consistency and to replicate how a commission by a patron would be.)

1 day. Introduction to Renaissance (research into key ideas, humanism, and lead up to a segment of society that each student identifies with; research costume of that segment)

1 day. Continue to lightly sketch portrait, adding appropriate costume, hair, and fashion that identifies portrait as a member of a particular class, culture, profession, etc.

1 day. Continue Renaissance research (mathematical perspective is used to create focal point in compositions; archways are compositional devices that reinforce depth, layering, and focus) Roughly enclose the self portrait sketch in an archway (again predetermined to ensure consistency and to mimic the requirements of one’s patron.) and research appropriate background elements.

2 -3 days. Use the research information to inform decisions about designing the background: 1 point perspective, architectural elements, etc. – all of these should still be lightly sketched in. Sketches should be completed during this time.

3 days. Grisaille painting in acrylic: 

  1. “Tone” the entire canvas a medium gray.
  2. Outline most important contours in thin black lines of paint
  3. Begin with shadows – the two or three darkest darks (black and dark gray) throughout the entire painting
  4. Move to the highlights – the two or three lightest lights (white and slightly gray) throughout
  5. Add more mid tones and blend.
1 day. Introduction to atmospheric perspective (theories of color intensity, cool vs. warm, bright vs. neutral, sharp vs. indistinct imagery) and guided practice using acrylic paint.

3 – 5 days. Application of color acrylic paint. Product will be finished during this time.



Art History Research Assignment Front  |  Back

Summative Assessment Rubric Download


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