Chuck Close has always been one of my favorite artists. Not only do I love his strikingly inventive style of painting large-scale portraits, but I also love his story.
Close overcame many obstacles in his life, including learning disabilities and a spinal cord collapse that ultimately left him paralyzed from the neck down. Close remains in a wheelchair today and uses a brush-holding device to create his amazing portraits, but his handicap does not define him as an artist.
A well-known (and phenomenal) artist before his injury, Close simply adapted to his new set of circumstances and continues to create art at the highest level. One of the things that make him so amazing is the way he took every one of his hardships in life and turned it into something positively positive. I love that students can relate to him and find inspiration.
After watching a documentary about Close, I learned that he created portraits of loved ones with his fingerprint. I was really moved by these amazing portraits and it gave me the idea to have students create “Double Self-Portraits.” Students would draw large-scale images of themselves and use their own unique fingerprints to complete the shading.
After introducing the artist with a variety of resources, including a DVD Chuck Close: Close Up (L&S Video) and the book Chuck Close: Up Close, by Jan Greenberg and Sarah Jordan (DK Children; 1998), and some healthy discussion about his life and work, we start out with a lesson on portraiture and facial proportions. I take about two 50-minute class periods going through the anatomy and proportions of the human face while students draw a portrait along with me.
Once the practice portraits are complete, students are given a sheet of 18″ × 24″ paper and a mirror. They use the correct anatomy and proportions to create a large-scale self-portrait. As we draw the large portraits, we simplify some of the features. For example, students typically leave out small details like eyelashes.
I also ask students to draw their hair as a shape and then draw 10–15 lines to show texture and direction. I always choose a few students and use them as models to demonstrate how to draw different types of hair. I typically choose a girl with curly and one with straight hair, a girl with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and usually one boy with super short hair and one with longer hair.
Next, we review value and complete some value exercises including the creation of a fingerprint value scale and a partial portrait (see worksheet). Students tackle the fingerprint value scale first. I pour about a quarter size dollop of black acrylic paint onto a paper towel. Students use the paper towel to dab excess paint off of their finger, they begin with the darkest value first and then gradually reduce the amount of paint on their finger to create the lighter values. This is a great way for students to experiment with how much paint they need on their finger to get the correct value. The right side of the worksheet is a partial portrait to practice applying values.
Students will “outline” the pencil line in their portrait with pure black fingerprints, including the 10–15 lines that show direction/texture in their hair. I emphasize that we are fingerprinting, NOT finger painting. Students should never drag their finger across the paper, even if they have black hair it should still be printed.
Once the fingerprint worksheet is complete, students are ready to apply fingerprint values to their final portrait. I ask students to create the black fingerprint outline first. I like to have students begin with the easiest values first, saving the face for last (it can be tricky to create the lighter values).
We’ll start with the values in the hair. They are typically the easiest to apply. They should already have 10–15 fingerprinted lines that show texture and direction. Students will simply fill in whatever value is most appropriate for their hair color. After the hair, students will move on to the shirt, and then finally to the face and neck. Students should refer to their fingerprint value scale to determine which values are most accurate for the section they are completing.
When students begin working on the face, I advise them to add their lightest value first, regardless of their skin tone. It is challenging to control the lighter values. Students can always add more paint to darken the value later, but they cannot remove it. I also ask students to bump the value on the neck one shade darker than the face.
Once the faces are complete, we are ready to begin the background on a separate sheet of 18″ x 24″ paper divided into 3-inch squares. Measuring can be little tough for some students. I find that if we measure together as a group the grids are much more accurate. I will demonstrate marking off every 3 inches on one side of the paper, and then lower my yardstick to the opposite edge of the paper and repeat. I emphasize the importance of measuring and marking both sides of the paper and connecting the two marks for accuracy.
After taking a close look at the individual painted squares that make up Chuck Close’s signature grid pattern, students begin painting each of the 3-inch squares with the same technique. I require students to include at least three mixed colors in each square. Most students begin by painting a different color in each square as a background and then add mixed colors on top to create patterns.
Once both works are complete, students cut out the portraits and glue them onto the painted background. I ask students to cut around the fingerprints as much as they can to keep the integrity of the fingerprinted lines.
One of the things I love about this project is that everyone in my diverse group of learners can be successful at it. It’s so exciting to see students at all levels and abilities feel such pride in their work. This lesson also hits on many of the foundational elements and principles of art. You could easily adapt the painted background to include color theory, tints, shades, etc.
Middle-school students will …
• explore the life and work of Chuck Close.
• apply the techniques of Chuck Close to a large-scale self-portrait.
• create a self-portrait and apply correct proportions and accurate anatomy.
• create values using fingerprints and apply shading to a self-portrait.
• create a gridded composition by applying accurate measurement.
• experiment with color mixing.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Conceiving and developing artistic ideas and work.
• PRESENTING: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• RESPONDING: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• CONNECTING: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• 18″ x 24″ drawing paper, pencils
• Mirrors, yardsticks, scissors, glue, paper towels, baby wipes
• Acrylic paints, paintbrushes, water dishes, paint palettes
• Book: Chuck Close: Up Close, by Jan Greenberg and Sarah Jordan (DK Children; 1998)
• DVD: Chuck Close: Close Up (L&S Video)
Melissa Speelman teaches art at Sycamore Junior High School in Cincinnati.
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