Emotion Masks

The big idea.

We all wear “masks” everyday. In this assignment, learners confront our cultural and very social desire to hide our “real” selves. Through visual metaphor, we shall comment on the “public faces” each of us shows the world: the protective masks we put up between ourselves and the outside.


  • TLW create and mount a series of five photographic prints that combine images of self-portraiture. Each self-portrait will emphasize a visual examination of the artist’s own hidden emotions.
  • TLW write a 150 word art criticism about their completed photographic series.


Day1. Each learner will begin by selecting one emotion from the list below:

  • Anger
  • Despair
  • Joy
  • Calm
  • Agitation

Using the chosen emotion as a motivational device, the artist will initially become a performer, acting out the facial expression of the emotion. The goal for today is to create a closeup photographic self-portrait in which the subject intentionally exaggerates facial expressions that mimic their chosen emotion.

Specifically, the student artist pay close attention to the following details:

  • Photograph in black and white.
  • Make sure the image of the face is in focus and properly exposed.
  • Set the camera to the highest resolution.
  • Compose the image so that is a very tight closeup: the face should fill most of the photographic rectangle.
  • Work with a partner, lighting and a tripod

The student artist should shoot lots of options. The entire class period should be used for photography, allowing enough time at the end of the block to make a copy of images and to clean up.

Day2. Learners should review their images and select two or three for image clean up. Images should be selected for facial expression, composition, and sharpness. They should be adjusted in Photoshop for higher contrast. One possible consideration is to add a slight film grain, using the Artistic Filter.

Images should be set up to fit onto a 4 x 5 inch canvas at 300 ppi resolution. The size should be adjusted so that the face is approximately 50 to 80% of the student artist’s actual face size.

  • A good way to make sure you are using the correct size is to (1) create a new canvas [CTRL + N] that measures 4 x 5 inches at 300 ppi resolution; (2) copy your original image and paste it onto the new 4 x 5 inch canvas; (3) use CTRL + T to resize the image to properly fit onto the 4 x 5 inch canvas – be sure to hold down the Shift key while resizing.

The image should be set up with a 1/4″ white border and printed to a black and white laser printer. The printed image may be glued to card stock and then trimmed, leaving the white border. Attention should be given to the quality of the printed image: there should be sufficient contrast to see details from several feet away. The student artist should create a couple of prints in order to have options when photography continues next class.

Day3. The goal for today’s studio activity is to create a full color self-portrait in which the sitter is holding the print in front of their face. They should be positioned in such a way so that the camera will see the print as a continuation of the face, as illustrated in the color example above. We will refer to this second arrangement that includes the sitter holding a print of themselves as an “emotion mask.”

Specific considerations for creating an emotion mask:

  • The emotion mask should be photographed in color to emphasize the contrast between the monochromatic print and the color of the “real” world.
  • To give the prop some context, the sitter should be photographed fairly closeup, but not so tight as to crop out the sitter’s hand. The hand holding the print should be an obvious part of the image.

The student artist should try several variations and pay close attention to lighting, shadows, elimination of confusing elements from backgrounds, and – of course – image clarity… a successful emotion mask will be sharp and in focus to avoid confusing the viewer.

In Photoshop, the image should be sized and cropped to 8 x 12 inches. The image resolution should be at least 225 ppi and the color mode should be set to RGB. The student artist should allow enough time to save their correctly formatted images and to shut down the digital equipment.

Days 4/5. Student artists are by now familiar with the approach and process. They should now consider content and meaning. Learners should identify at least two other emotions and experiment with various ways to represent their hidden emotion in a public way. Images should be created following the same technical specifications used during Days 1 – 3. However, personal meaning should be emphasized as a means for visual exploration. For early finishers: If time permits, learners may write out on a clean sheet of paper the word representing the emotion illustrated. (For example, the word “anger” might be handwritten in marker, using the art-maker’s own writing for added meaning.) The word may then be scanned and superimposed or “reversed” out of the image. Student artists should pay particular attention to a meaningful placement of the scanned word.

The goal is to create a series of three images which the learner will print and mount for presentation on Day 6. Prints should be 4 x 6 inches and may be ordered from retailers such as Walgreens, Walmart, or Sam’s Club. They should be mounted to a single black mat board or poster board as illustrated below. (Students may also window mat their work if they choose.)

Day6. The finished prints and printed essays are due at the start of class today. Students will hang their mounted prints in the hallway for a group conversation and critique. Students will be given 45 minutes to select one artwork, make notes, and to write a 150 word criticism, due at the end of class. This short-form essay should be placed in the student’s Visual Art Photography file folder.


The short-form essay is a way to assess student artist’s understanding and grasp of the fundamental concepts undertaken with this assignment [10%]. The teacher will base formative assessment on (a) observation of process and practice [15%], (b) correct facilitation of technical requirements, craftsmanship and instructional procedures [20%], (c) ability to successfully adapt prior knowledge into new skill sets and conceptual strategies [15%], (d) creative application of formal compositional elements [25%}, and (e) purposeful implementation of meaning into image-making [15%].

Total value of this assignment is 200 points.