M.C. Escher Portraits

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I love teaching art at the middle-school level because I believe this is a critical time for students to experience success as visual artists. If they do not, they might give up on their participation in the visual arts for a lifetime.

If they do experience success and a sense of accomplishment, they could choose an art-related career or experience life with creative courage, insight and the joy of creative expression through the visual arts.

I am also convinced that to experience this kind of success, students must develop great drawing skills. Some students possess an innate ability to draw, but most do not and must therefore have good instruction.

In my career as an art educator, I have had a passion for drawing and painting myself, which contributes to the ability to break down understanding for my students. When students enter my classroom, they are continually challenged with drawing assignments from basic to complex. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards (HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd., Revised and Expanded Paperback Edition; 2001) has been a great resource and springboard for coming up with my own drawing lessons.

I have always loved teaching a lesson on self-portraits to my eighth-grade students. Portraits raise the bar and, when they are successful, convince the students that they really can draw.

Each year we explore the basic concepts of portraiture, but use different media, sizes and styles. I like to interject art history and study a particular artist, completing our portraits in the style or flavor of that artist. This year we focused on the work of 20th-century printmaker Maurits Cornelis (M.C.) Escher.

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MOTIVATION To initiate the lesson, students explored the work of Escher in M. C Escher, The Graphic Work (Benedict-Taschen Publishing; 1992) and through an Internet search for "M.C. Escher" for other material on the artist. Our particular focus was on Escher's 1943 self portrait. The portrait is a close view where he appears to be looking out of a round portal. The students would mimic this idea in their own portraits. We also took a close look at his tessellation patterns because the assignment included creating an original tessellation design in their compositions.

PREPARATION I used my digital camera to produce a black-and-white enlarged three-quarter view image of each student (8.5" x 11") for their visual information. I use photos of the students because of copyright/originality issues. I want to avoid having a piece disqualified from an art exhibit because of a copyright issue. I find that students give up on any ideas of being self-conscious as they focus on the drawing exercise. It is fine if the portrait is not an accurate likeness.

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PRESENTATION We use a cardboard template of an upside-down egg shape and trace lightly around to regulate the size of the portrait. The original egg shape will eventually need to be erased, so be sure to make it light. This will ensure a large portrait and discourages the natural tendency to draw too small. Students are encouraged to think about placement of the portrait image and overall composition. Together, we make some light general marks for facial proportion (eye level, width of eyes, nose and mouth placement, etc.).

Each day, I do a visual demonstration on my own self-portrait of the feature that we will draw that day (one day the eyes, the next day nose, mouth, etc. …