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Portraiture: A Study of the Greek Gods | Arts & Activities
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Feb 2016

Portraiture: A Study of the Greek Gods

Portraiture: A Study of the Greek Gods

When working from a cart in the elementary school system, I have found that collaboration is the key to effective research-based projects. Not only is this saving you time in a schedule where you see the students once a week for a 25- to 30-minute time frame, but you are also helping to reinforce subjects learned in the students’ regular classrooms.

I have worked closely with our sixth-grade teacher on multiple assignments for quite a few years. One of my favorite collaborative lessons is the history unit on Ancient Greece and the Greek gods. After reading the chapter on Greece, teaching the basics about the location, lifestyles, history and cultures, Mr. Maltby assigns each student a Greek god to research and write an essay about.

Before they compose the paper, they must compile a list of 20 facts pertaining to that specific god—things like animals associated with that god, characteristics of that god, symbols or attributes belonging to them, and virtues that the god was said to represent. Sometimes students were even able to find visual traits that god was known to possess. This list is then used to set up the background and specific details needed to start a visual portrait of that god.

I like to introduce portraiture at the second-grade level with the basic full view of the face. I continue this every year, adding more detail until fifth grade, where I incorporate the three-quarter-view portrait into the class.

During the first two weeks of the unit, while Mr. Maltby reviews the history and students compile their lists, we review both the full and three-quarter view portrait studies, using a step-by-step breakdown. This helps returning students review from the previous year and gives new ones the information needed to work at the same level as the rest of the class. By the time both views are reviewed and the list of 20 facts is completed, it’s time to start our Greek god portrait drawings.

We start by dividing our paper in half with a very light pencil line. I explain that the finished drawing is to be a head-and-shoulder portrait of the god. We discuss how the oval of the head should be on the top half of the page and the shoulders should start at about the half-page line. I find it important to go over how the size and width of our shoulders is in comparison to the oval of the head.

It is also important to explain that your armpits are the width of your arms away from the top of your shoulders. Without this reminder, many students at this age want to make the line of the arm continue all the way to the line of the shoulder. Clothing is discussed and I demonstrate a few ways to draw a toga-like garment, both with draping around the neck and over one shoulder. Students now have the basic form drawn and are ready to give their study some personality specific to the Greek god they researched.

The selected gods vary in their importance in history and the information available about them. When it came to the more well-known gods like Zeus and Ares, students had a decent amount of information to draw from. Students with lesser-known gods, such as Hestia, had to be more creative in their approach to the drawing.

With the gods that had a lot of visuals with the research, I really stressed the importance of making the picture your own—not a copy of the drawing in the book. “Just like the book’s illustrator did, you are giving your viewer what you think that god or goddess looked like.” I told them.

Using their facts lists as a reference, the students drew in a background and then finished their drawings by coloring them with colored pencils.

Through this multidisciplinary experience, students strengthened their research skills, learned about Ancient Greece and the Greek gods, produced some good-looking drawings and, perhaps most important of all: they came away knowing that their ideas matter.


Gillian, “Selene.”



Caitlin, “Ares.”



Katie, “Eos.”



Chase, “Helios.”



Makenna, “Zeus.”


Upper-elementary students will …
• research Greek gods.
• list characteristics and symbols specific to different Greek gods.
• understand and compose portraits of the human face in proportion.
• create a drawing with symbolism.

• Creating: Conceiving and developing new 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.

• 11″ x 14″ drawing paper
• Graphite pencils, erasers, colored pencils
• Handouts of human facial proportions

Sabina Bolinger teaches art K–12 art Madison Elementary and Madison Jr./Sr. High School in Madison, Kansas.





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