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“Valuing” Self-Portraits | Arts & Activities
Feb 2018

“Valuing” Self-Portraits

“Valuing” Self-Portraits

used to do this project with acrylic paint and have mixed the different values, but I was looking for a way to simplify this project for my students. Then I discovered gray-tone pastels. A box of them contains a white and a black pastel, along with four shades of gray from light to dark—more than enough gray values for this project.

Click on Image, then Adjustments, and then Posterize.

To start this project you need to take a close-up digital photo of each student’s face. You then need to use a bit of Photoshop® on the digital images. The digital photo needs to be broken up into distinct value shapes. Photoshop can do this with the option called “posterize.” To get there in Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Posterize.

The posterize option reduces the many colors of an image to just a few, making the image resemble a paint-by-numbers picture. The large patches of color can have a dramatic graphic effect. When you convert the posterized color image into black-and-white, you will see that the few patches of colors become a nice gray scale. When you select posterize, you need to select the number of shades. I’ve found what works best is to choose three, sometimes four, which results in nice black, white and grays for this project.

Once you posterize and gray scale the picture, the next step is to print it, I print the pictures on our school’s copier, and I use the largest paper the machine allows. I enlarge the picture onto an 11″ x 14″ piece of copy paper, you will have to experiment with your school’s copier to get it just right.

Now you are ready to transfer the photography onto a piece of light gray construction paper, which will be one of the grays needed for the value drawing. I use a 12″ x 18″ piece of construction paper (we will trim off the extra when the drawing is finished). To transfer the photograph onto the construction paper, you will need to turn the photograph and completely cover the back with pencil lead, which will allow the photograph to be transferred.

Students then tape their photograph onto the upper corner of their construction paper. The tape will be a hinge allowing them to lift the photograph on and off the construction paper several times. Then, with the photograph down, have them first trace around all their white shapes; ballpoint pens seem to work best for tracing shapes. The white shapes are colored in with white pastel, and the photograph is put back down over the drawing.

Next, trace the next-lightest gray shapes. This next gray may be the color of the paper, which you would not have to color or it might be the lightest gray pastel in the box. Keep doing this until all the gray shapes are colored—lightest gray to the darkest gray. Generally the picture has only three or four grays in it. Black shapes are the last to be traced and colored.

For the background, I wanted to keep it in the same value theme, but with a color. I have the students pick one color (monochromatic): a light, medium and dark shade and color the background from dark to light radiating out from their self-portraits.

This project takes patience and craftsmanship working with messy chalk pastels, but it helps students gain a better understanding of the value scale. And, perhaps best of all: they amaze themselves that they can draw their self-portraits so well. 

Middle-school students will …
• explore the Photoshop image adjustment technique called “posterize.”
• understand the element of design value.
• learn how to work with chalk pastels.
• draw a self-portrait using chalk pastels.

• 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.

• Digital camera
• Gray-tone chalk pastels and chalk pastels in a variety of colors
• Photoshop®
• Photocopier
• 12″ x 18″ light gray construction paper

Hugh Petersen recently retired after 35 years as an art teacher. This lesson is from his tenure at Phoenix Middle School in Delavan, Wisconsin.


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