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Grade 6 Water color Portrait Project

"I Used to Think I Couldn't Draw"
by Lorrie Emin, CSS Art Teacher

Our grade six art students are currently working on a watercolor portrait project involving a number of steps and components- from developing life drawing skills, transferring the work onto watercolor paper, creating a background, learning about color mixing and painting techniques, to actually painting the portrait.

When I decided to try this activity with them, I had very high hopes, but was a little nervous about whether or not my expectations were too high for them. In the past, I have done this project with older kids in grade seven and eight and at a later point in the year once many skills were established.

I must say that so far the grade six kids have surprised and impressed me with their level of engagement, effort and willingness to get outside their comfort zone and just draw!

For the drawing portion of the project students were asked to select a partner to draw. The students are responsible for providing each other with a great portrait to develop into a painting. This has made them accountable to each other both as the drawer and still-life model.

After a demonstration and some instruction, students were
sent off into the hallways with clear mylar, wet-erase markers and their partners to find a window. The first step of the project was to trace the lines of their model onto the clear mylar. This is a great drawing activity for kids on so many levels. It is motivating and exciting for them to be out of the class and drawing in a very public location with teachers, peers and admin stopping by to check out their work.

The clear mylar and glass provided a new and unique drawing experience...challenging, motivating and fun, while the wet erase markers made it easy to erase any mistakes and make corrections. Because the mylar was not the final product, but rather a step in the process, kids were very open to making changes to their work.

In doing this activity, the students were challenged to make the switch from left brain to right brain processes. The projet pushed kids to move beyond what they "knew" a face looked like and to focus on the lines and shapes of what they were looking at. They were forced to move beyond drawing what they believed they understood about the subject and into developing stronger eye/ hand connections, bypassing the analytical left brain and tapping into their more creative right brain.

This switch was evident in the focus the kids had and in the products they produced. Infact I was a bit surprised by how many times students came back to class well after the period had ended, stating that they had lost track of time (and didn't seem to notice the hundreds of students moving past them during class change). If not focused, they were certainly engaged!

Another cool aspect of this project was that it is such a great transition for kids this age to move from "tracing" into "drawing" from life. It straddles the line as kids are asked to simply look through the glass and trace the person on the other side. "Just follow all the major lines", is what I asked of them. They delivered.

This project has become a wonderful way for students to develop observation and drawing skills and to build confidence without the pressure of looking into a mirror or sitting across from the subject and wondering where to begin.

One of my boys made this comment at the end of a recent class. "I always thought I sucked at drawing." "And now?", I asked. "I rock it!", he replied. Wow. That's a pretty great endorsement. The pride that the kids have in their work is impressive and the drawings are wonderful.

Right now the students are just finishing the transfer of their drawings from the mylar to the water colour paper. I'm looking forward to moving into the painting process next.

Stay tuned!

UPDATE: After publishing this blog post, Lorrie was approached by two art teachers from another school in the province. The two teachers were excited about the project and wanted to talk to Lorrie about how to use her ideas in their classrooms. We set up a Skype chat, and Lorrie was able to answer questions about this project, and help two other teachers get started. Thanks so much to Jen Deyenberg for setting up the opportunity.

If other teachers are interested in the project, and would like to chat with Lorrie, please comment below.


Anonymous said...

very interesting. I wonder how I might adapt this to elementary, grade 5????

Anonymous said...

Hey, I used to think I was a lousy Art teacher! Then I discovered blogsand cool activities like this I can adapt to the needs my class!!

Anonymous said...

I am amazed at the interest level, participation expectation and the overall quality of work. Fantastic project. Great for any grade level.

Anonymous said...

This looks great!

Errin said...

Fantastic project. I'm going to try it too!

Errin said...

Just re-read Neil's post that led me to your blog. I teach art in a small rural school district in BC. We have 70% First Nations in our school. I have taught a few units focusing on First Nations art but would like to learn more myself. If you'd like to collaborate, let me know!

Neil Stephenson said...

Hi 'e'

I'm wondering if you can provide us with some contact info. It would be great to have you and Lorrie do some collaborating on First Nations art. You can leave contact info in a commnt: or email neil: neil.s (at) calgaryscienceschool (dot) com. Thanks!

Lorrie Emin said...

I am teaching a First Nations Inspirations class and I would love to collaborate with you. We are currently working on large scale (9 ft.) paper mache sculptures based on the totems of Pacific Northwest Coast Peoples. I would love to hear what you have put together and share ideas on future projects and possible resources. Please contact Neil.

dm5hats said...

Hello Lorrie: Here's the connection. My daughter and son-in-law are Neil's friends and now live in Toronto with us. They showed me Neil's blog.
I am an occasional teacher just starting a gr4/5 split LTO. 9 grade 5 and 18 grade 4. They are a very chatty group and do not take well to large group instruction. What mods would I need to do to make this work for this grade level? They just finished a Chagall art project using glue lines and chalk pastels on black paper. About 6 students did well on this.
I can be reached via Skype (dm5hats) or email

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