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Portraits Without Pencils: Rethinking Drawing Instruction in Your Elementary Art Class


Picture an important person in your life. Could you capture the shape of her eyes, the slope of her nose, and the curve of her grin in a drawing? From Leonardo da Vinci’s renowned muse to Pierre Auguste Renoir’s rosy portraits to the striking realism of Chuck Close, the human face has been an alluring and challenging subject for artists throughout history. Acclaimed artists are not alone in their interest in portraiture. Young children often depict real or imagined people in their drawings. However, just as many adults might be intimidated to pick up a pencil and draw a self-portrait, children too can be overwhelmed by this task that they so frequently face in art class. By introducing portraiture early and in developmentally appropriate ways, students can gain the confidence and skills to capture one of their favorite subjects—people.

While the drawing skills required to depict the human face are developmentally advanced, they can be introduced at a young age if techniques are broken down in order to build this complex skill incrementally. I have found that traditional pencil and paper drawing can be intimidating to young students, especially to those with weaker fundamental drawing skills. When teaching portraiture using pencil and paper, I witnessed many students sit frozen, at a loss for where to begin. Others made timid graphite marks barely visible on the page. Some erased, and erased, and erased until holes appeared where their drawing once was.

I thought to myself—How can I teach this skill in a more accessible way? I found that when I taught foundational drawing strategies in a less traditional methods, students were less intimidated, more engaged, and more fluid and loose with their approach. This translated to their drawing techniques in future artworks. Teaching portraiture using a variety of artistic methods can introduce students to important skills while engaging them with an exciting new process. Gaining mastery of simple techniques equips students to draw freely to represent their world and imagination. Here are some fun ways to teach your students about portraiture without ever picking up a pencil.

Breaking Down Complex Skills

It is important to remember the abstract nature of drawing when teaching young children. I used to introduce facial proportions using a diagram handout that demonstrated how to draw two almond-shaped eyes in the middle of an oval face. One of my second graders responded by drawing eleven tiny round eyes at the very top of the oval template. This was his genuine attempt to translate the complex visual information into his own rendering. This was one of the many experiences that led me to create opportunities to practice fundamental drawing skills using more simple and concrete methods.

Before beginning any art unit, it is important to identify what skills or knowledge you want your students to learn. There are so many techniques that can be taught to improve skills in portraiture, that I suggest selecting only one or two new skills at a time. For my elementary students, I have typically prioritized three strategies in my curriculum: accounting each part of the face with accuracy (two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two ears, neck, hairline); applying appropriate facial proportions (starting with simply teaching that eyes are situated in the middle of the face); and observational drawing to depict the shape of each feature. By introducing these concepts early and practicing them across a variety of situations, students’ ability to draw or depict people representationally will mature and develop over time.

Not all learners can process abstract information using only visual cues. In traditional school settings, teachers often rely on visual aids like posters, diagrams, and teacher-modeled instruction. By varying your presentation method (how you teach a new concept) and exploring a variety of media, you will be sure to engage visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. For children, the physical and tactile is often the most natural way to tackle a new concept. Balling up two clay eyes and physically sticking them in the middle of a slab makes a challenging task more concrete than it would be with pencil and paper. The following lessons offer new strategies for teaching drawing skills using methods other than pencil and paper drawing. These strategies can be adapted for a variety of thematic units to give your students exposure to portraiture skills throughout your elementary art curriculum.

Kindergarten Collage: Learn the Parts of the Face and Basic Proportions While Exploring Collage Techniques

Rationale: Arranging paper shapes to depict accurate facial proportions can be much less intimidating than drawing. Students love the hands-on nature of collage, and I love how this multi-step process allows me to chunk skills within the lessons. By breaking this process down into simple steps, students can explore complex skills to create a collage portrait.

Process: Students will mix colors to create realistic skin, hair, and eye colors, cutting representational facial features, and arranging features using accurate proportions. Students will combine painting and collage to create self-portraits through the following lessons.

Lesson 1: Mix Colors and Paint

For this lesson students can mix colors freely to create realistic skin tones, hair colors, and eye colors. Create paint swatches by painting on inexpensive cardstock. There is no need to worry about remembering who each paper belongs to, because they can be shared for the next lesson. Model this process of paper painting to students, and save your examples to add variety to your students’ collage materials.

Lesson 2: Shape and Cut

The motion of curving scissors to create the perfect nose or mouth is a drastically different process compared to drawing, and it gives students the opportunity to practice fine motor skills. Prompt your students to consider the shape of each facial feature. Model the process for cutting out each feature, and then give your students plenty of time to practice until they have successfully cut out each feature. At this age, you can expect to see shapes that are wonky, asymmetrical, or tattered. Remember that the goal for this lesson is to create a shape to represent each facial feature. I recommend using a template for students to trace and cut to create a large oval for the face. Encourage all efforts, and offer support as needed.

Lesson 3: Arrange and Glue

Use mirrors or a diagram and ask your students to observe the position of each facial feature, emphasizing that the eyes are positioned in the middle of the face. Practice placing each feature in its place on the oval face using collage materials. Give your students plenty of time to arrange the features of their portrait before distributing glue to make their composition complete.

Lesson 4: Final Revisions

Spend this work session adding final details such as hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, personal traits, clothing, or accessories using oil pastels or crayons. I am always pleasantly surprised when I prompt students to add these personalized touches, and have had students depict birthmarks, earrings, a special hairstyle, eye shadow, and even biceps in their finishing touches.

Second Grade Sculpture: Explore Ceramic Slab Techniques to Model Facial Features and Master Facial Proportions

Rationale: When children work with clay, they demonstrate an intense and lively engagement with the physicality of the material. The malleable clay makes portraiture less abstract. There is a special satisfaction that students experience when they feel the form and weight of their finished clay sculpture in their hands. They feel as though they created an object or artifact, which can feel more real to a child than marks on paper.

Process: Students will learn to roll a slab and cut it into an oval shape. Students will learn modeling techniques for forming facials features. After practicing placing features using accurate proportions, students will learn how to attach pieces of clay to slab using score and slip technique.

Lesson 1: Intro/Slab-cutting

During this lesson, students will learn to roll an even slab and cut it into an oval shape. This reinforces the knowledge that the human face is not a perfect circle, which is a common misconception for young children. Students can use an oval template or a modeled strategy for creating an oval. These oval slabs will be used in the next work period. Slabs can be stored until the next period (up to two weeks based on my experience) by wrapping the slabs in wet paper towels, then plastic wrap, then labeled with the student’s name.

Lesson 2: Clay Modeling

Students will learn to score and slip to attach eyes, nose, mouth, and ears to their slab. Emphasize the importance of placing the features in the right proportion with the face. A diagram can be helpful to demonstrate where each facial feature is situated on the face. I emphasize the eye placement in the middle of the face, as students often depict eyes unrealistically that the top of the face. I point out that the ears align with the line of the eyes, and that the nose sits below the eyes, followed by the mouth. Teach students how to roll simple coils to create shapes, and introduce other modeling strategies based on your students' abilities.

Lesson 3: Glaze

Whether it is ceramic bisqueware fresh from the kiln, or firmly set air-dry clay, your students will be delighted to see their sculptures that are now ready to glaze or paint. Use the method that you prefer to complete these sculptures. For this lesson, I like to have students select a color that represents their personality or mood to use to glaze their sculpture. This gives me the opportunity to teach them the techniques for applying multiple coats of glaze while not glazing the bottom of the sculpture. The monochromatic treatment gives a polished look without competing with the details of the sculpture. If you are not working with a kiln, acrylic paint will work just fine, and a coat of clear glue on top of the dried paint creates a shiny surface comparable to traditional glaze.

Wire Portraiture: 5th Graders Loosen Up to Create Gestural Wire Portraits

Rationale: As children get older, they develop an increasing interest in realism and can become frustrated with their drawing ability. They often become intimidated and tight in their approach, drawing very small, lightly, or rigidly. I have observed students become obsessed with perfection, which leads them to erase much of their work out of dissatisfaction. Using wire to create a gestural portrait gives older elementary students the chance to loosen up and focus on the big picture without agonizing over tiny details. Playful drawing exercises serve as a warm-up for this relaxed approach.

Process: Students practice drawing freely to create portraits of their classmates using contour drawing and blind contour drawing. Students apply this fluid approach to a new medium to create a wire portrait.

Lesson 1: Contour and Blind Contour Drawing: Introduce the process for creating a contour drawing and a blind contour drawing. Model each process, emphasizing that you do not lift your drawing instrument from the page to create a contour drawing and that you do not look at your drawing when creating a blind contour drawing. For this lesson, I like to cover students’ work tables with paper so that students can draw on the tables. When using black butcher paper, we draw using white chalk. With white butcher paper, we use black markers. This brings an element of fun and allows students to create multiple drawings around their area.

Lesson 2: Calder Character Portraits in Wire: Alexander Calder invented a process of sculpting with wire that he called "drawing in space." He used this process to capture the spirit of people that he observed by creating gestural portraits. Sharing some examples of Calder’s whimsical portraits will prepare students to create their own wire portraits. Model the process for creating a portrait using wire, highlighting the similarities with creating a contour drawing, as both processes involve one continuous line. Instruct your students how to handle wire safely, and give each student a long piece of wire to work with. Allow students to explore this new material freely, problem-solving and inventing their own processes for transforming the wire into a portrait.

Lesson 3: Gallery Walk and Critique: Taking the time to share and discuss finished work gives students the opportunity to process the work that they have done and feel validated. Students gain new insights and ideas from each other during formal or informal group critiques. Students can display their wire sculptures on a crisp white paper at their tables. Alternatively, you could spend time creating a formal base using wood, painted cardboard, or another hard surface. Invite students to participate in a gallery walk, taking time to look closely at each wire portrait. This will prepare students to discuss their work further in the manner that you choose for a formal or informal critique.

Non-Traditional Drawing Activities for All Ages

There are many ways to shake up your traditional drawing lessons, and often it is as simple as changing up the materials. Consider swapping out pencils for something novel and exciting for your next drawing lesson. Use shaving cream and have students draw on their desks or tables. Just spray a little at each student’s workspace. They can spread out the foam and draw freely using only their fingers. Students absolutely love this exploration, and it will leave your tables sparkling clean. Use modeling clay to create portraits by rolling, bending, and arranging coils on the table. Students can easily explore line with this engaging material, and then ball it up at the end of the practice session.

Skill-Building and Confidence

Teaching skills and techniques in simplified, engaging, and kid-friendly ways creates a culture that embraces learning, risk-taking, and the mistakes that come with trying new things. Practicing foundational skills in surprising and engaging explorations will prepare your students to be successful with traditional drawing techniques in the future. Students may recall what they learned about facial proportions with clay and apply it to a sketch. Their loose practice with line to create wire portraits may inform their drawing style. You may find that with their new skills and confidence, students will not shy away from picking up a pencil for your next drawing lesson.


Written by Danielle Dravenstadt

Danielle is an artist and art educator in Alexandria, VA. She specializes in student-centered learning, arts integration, and contemporary best practices.