Back to School Self-Portraits September 01 2009

By 11:00 on the First Day of School, I've sweated through my shirt, eaten most of my lunch and have consumed the entire contents of my 32 ounce water bottle. And I have to go to the bathroom, but lunch isn't until 11:45.

The First Day of School is crazy, and I actually look forward to the afternoon, for which I plan a relaxing art project. Since so much of the First Week of School is all about students introducing themselves, a self-portrait is a great Back to School activity for the first day.

Take the first 10 minutes to set up behavior guidelines. I like to talk with kids about how the art supplies should be treated, and also discuss what they will do to clean up. I also discuss the directions for the art project that I have written down on the overhead or chart paper that they can refer to while they're working.

Art projects can vary from the simple (of which I am most comfortable) to complicated study of artists, line and color (of which I am uncomfortable). These self-portrait lessons are ordered from simplest to most complicated to account for different levels of comfort.


Use your computer program to make a 1" margin in think black line around the edge of a document, and print off a copy on basic white paper for each student. The self-portrait goes in the center and the edges can be decorated. Use pencil to sketch first, then crayons or color pencils to finish.

Classic watercolor

 Hand out 8 & 1/2" by 11" watercolor paper to each student. Have kids draw a 1/2" to 1" margin around the edges of the paper. Use watercolors to create a self-portrait, and color in the white background. Use a different medium to decorate the edge - a good example of this is for students to put three adjectives about themselves written in black marker in this space and then watercolor over it. Mount self-portraits onto construction paper.

Oil pastels

I'm not much of an artist, so I just discovered oil pastels in the last couple of years. They are awesome! Have students use them to create their self-portraits on construction paper. Another option is for students to create their portraits on aluminum foil for more zing and pep, then mount on construction paper and display. 


Glyphs are basically symbols, and using them on a self-portrait turns a basic drawing into a puzzle to figure out. Students create their self-portraits by following directions on a legend.

You create the legend. Use construction paper, and students cut out the shapes and use the colors according to the legend. Make it as simple or as complicated as you want. Here are some examples:

Background Color (construction paper) - Purple = Prefer Dogs, Blue = Prefer Cats, Orange = Like Both
Face Color - Yellow = Have Sisters, Black = Have Brothers, Red = Have Both
Nose Shape - Triangle = Spring Birthday, Circle = Winter Birthday, Square = Fall Birthday, Rhombus =Summer Birthday
Nose Color - Purple = Prefer Summer, Blue = Prefer Winter
Other categories to consider are hair color, hair length (long or short), eye shape, eye color, lip color, and ears or no ears.

If you decide to display these works of art, don't forget to include a copy of the legend mounted along with them.

(I can't take credit for The Big Salad in this case - I must give credit to my teaching partner, Ruth Wallin, for introducing me to this idea).

A self-portrait is great for the afternoon, when everyone is tired and hot. Consider turning the overhead lights off, and play soothing music softly in the background. Provide something simple, such as a First Day of School wordfind for those who finish early, and hang up the finished products to prepare for Back to School Night!