Teachers all over the world have students draw self-portraits all the time, but have you ever wondered if there is a way to take the learning up a notch?  Why should we use self-portraits in a fluffy way when there is so much potential for deep learning there?

In today’s episode of Teaching with Creativity, I’m going to help you see why and how you can use self-portraits on a deeper level with students.  I will share 4 really great reasons to use self-portraits. Plus, I’ll walk you through 5 examples of different kinds of self-portraits students can make with ideas to integrate math and English language arts.  I promise – this will change how you think about using self-portraits in your classroom.

This is a great episode for any teacher who has ever used (or thought about using) self-portraits in the classroom.  As an art teacher with a regular classroom teaching background, I know that there is ZERO time for fluff in instruction. These ideas will help you weed out the fluff and TAKE IT UP A NOTCH with self-portraits.  Let’s do this!


Teachers all over the world have students draw pictures of themselves all the time, but have you ever wondered if there is a way to take the learning up a notch?

In today’s episode of Teaching with Creativity, we’re talking about the why and how of using self-portraits on a deeper level with students.



Hello and welcome to Season Two of our show, Teaching with Creativity.  I’m your host for today’s show, Amanda Koonlaba, content specialist at artsintegration.com– your digital learning hub for arts integration and STEAM.  I’m so glad you’re here!

Today we’re going to be talking about the why and how of having students create self-portraits in your classrooms. Now, I’m going to share a few self-portrait lesson ideas, but I also want to share a few reasons why it is so great to have students create self-portraits. Additionally, I’d like to give you a few ideas of what students can do with self-portraits to integrate other content and learning.

The reason I wanted to share these things about self-portraits is because I know teachers all over the world have students draw pictures of themselves all the time. A lot of times I see teachers using it as a first day of school activity or some other fluffy activity. My question, though, is why should we use self-portraits in a fluffy way when there is so much potential for deep learning there?

Okay. So, let me be just a bit more structured. First, we are going to talk about why students should be creating self-portraits in our classrooms. Then, we will talk about a few different ways students can create self-portraits. Finally, we will talk about integrating some other content standards with the creation of self-portraits.

So, let’s go ahead and talk about a few reasons why creating self-portraits is important for students.


First, self-portraits are, by nature, introspective. If educators want their students to get to that point of self-efficacy, or the point of having hope that they can change their circumstances if they choose to do so, then we have to teach them to be introspective.

Now, artists often use self-portraits as a way of expressing various aspects of themselves and their identities beyond the surface of their physical appearance. This gets into the use of symbolism. Students can create a self-portrait using symbolism to communicate who they are as an individual. I love to link this concept of visual symbolism to theme, main idea, and details. I’ll show you an example of that in just a moment.

Another reason students should create self-portraits is that the concept works for all ages. A kindergartener can create a self-portrait and so can a senior in high school.

Finally, self-portraits integrate well with other content. There are mathematical concepts to creating self-portraits as well as ELA concepts.

That will move us into the next part of this vodcast. But, let’s just recap quickly.

Four reasons to use self-portraits in the classroom are:

  1. Self-portraits are introspective.
  2. Self-portraits allow students to express their identities.
  3. Self-portraits work across all ages.
  4. Self-portraits integrate well with other content.


I have gathered up a few self-portraits that I’ve used with students over the years. Now, I’m going to actually show these on the vodcast, but I’ll also do my best to describe each so that you can visualize what I’m sharing if you are listening to this as a podcast. However, I hope you’ll come back to actually see the video later if that is what you are doing.

Most of these that I’m going to share are highly abstracted. I like the idea of using abstracted self-portraits with younger students because they seem to always feel a lot of pressure when they are trying to create a realistic self-portrait. Abstraction takes some of the pressure away.

This first one is modeled after Modigliani’s work. We always look at some of his portraits and talk about commonalities. Then, the students model their own work after his. Some commonalities that we focus on are the long skinny neck, angular nose, pursed lips, blank eyes. Students have to learn to blend colors to get the skin tone they want. They have to express their identity through the hair. I have a lot of students that want to make their hair resemble their actual hair. I also have a lot of students that want to change it. Some will tell me they want to have pink hair when they grow up so they will use that color on their portraits. This project works great with black construction paper. They draw on the construction paper and trace it with glue. Then, they use crayons or chalk to add color once the glue has dried.

Okay, this is another self-portrait that was done on a canvas. It has a newspaper background with a little girl holding some balloons, a bird. And she is wearing a yellow dress. The students had to look through newspapers and find something that interested them for the background. This student found an article about the community theatre. So, you can see some remnants of that article and figure out she likes the theatre from this work. This idea of symbolism works here. She is holding balloons which, if I remember correctly, symbolize her thoughts on being free. This was completed in 2012, but I remember her saying she likes the idea of releasing a balloon and it being free. The bird sort of has the same symbolic meaning. The difference between the bird and the balloons is that the bird has free will to go where it needs to go and the balloons don’t. So there’s this sort of two sides of a concept being shown here. The balloons are on one side of the girl and the bird is on the other. It represents how she feels about her life. Then, the yellow dress just reflects that yellow is her favorite color. This was created at an art camp that I taught. This was an older student who gifted me with this canvas. So, to recap, this was done on canvas with a newspaper background, painted with acrylic paint and sealed with glue.

All right, Here is another one. This is actually the example I made when I was trying to work out the process for teaching this to fifth graders. So, this is a picture of me. This is exactly the steps I took with the kids as well. I took a selfie and printed it in black and white. They took selfies and we had them printed in black and white. I painted a sort of bland background with a sponge on tagboard. Then, cut myself out and glued it to the background. Then, I had to come up with a symbol that represented me. I chose an artist’s palette because art is such a big part of my life. I drew it added color and cut it out. Then, I glued it over my face. I really had to think as I was working on this about how I could draw this symbol and cover most of my face but leave my eyes visible because that is what I thought would look best. This project was modeled after Magritte’s Son of Man. That’s the one where the man in a suit has an apple in front of his face.

The next two are highly abstracted. The students had to colors and patterns that they felt a connection to. They used various materials such as yarn, this white stuff is a mop that the custodians gave us. It had never been used. There’s Duck tape, construction paper, paint rollers, watercolor, crayons, etc. I show these last to bring us to the final part of this vodcast: integration with other subjects.


On the first three examples the symbolism was a bit more obvious. I always use these to get the students to write personal narratives. They’ve already go the symbolism built in. They just have to put words to it.

The symbolism in the last two is not as obvious. These can be used to write similes and metaphors. This eye has two parallel lines. The student might write: my eyes are train tracks in my hometown. This one has all kinds of colors on the skin of the face. The student might write: My skin is like a rainbow, many colors coming together as one beautiful whole.

In math, there’s a ton of measurement students can do to create self-portraits. You could have them do any of these projects on grid paper and find the area. I love this abstracted on for measurement. They can measure these lines across their eyes. They can measure the nose, the mouth. You could also give them a set of parameters like the nose has to be between 6 and 8 inches long. Then, have them figure out how to draw it.

So, I hope you can see now that self-portraits can be SO MUCH MORE THAN FLUFF.  I’m always here if you have questions and am always happy to connect. I also love it when people reach out to share their own ideas or how they’ve used something in their classroom. The digital world can feel a little lonely sometimes, but it doesn’t have to. Wink wink!

Don’t forget to subscribe to our channel, share this with someone you think would benefit, and leave a comment below.  The best discussions and insights come from you!

And remember: you deserve to thrive as an educator.  Let your creativity shine through.  Thanks so much for watching – I’ll catch you next time on The Teaching with Creativity Show.