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Far and away the most fun and success I've had with self-portraits with
these students involves using the "little-bit-strange-but-not-overly-weird"
symbolist point-of-view from the self-- portraits of Mexican artist, Frida
I had the pleasure of living and teaching in Mexico for five years, and
bringing a little of the atypical Mexican artistic viewpoint back to my
students is fun. Along with the realistic self-portrait experience, students
get a lesson in some symbolist subtlety. The completed work of art is then
framed with a typically "Mexican" embossed "tin" frame.
Frida Kahlo is probably one of the world's best-known female artists. It's
fairly easy to find books about her life and her art, which focuses strongly
on her self-portraits. The unusual thing about Kahlo's work is that it
combines a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt surrealistic/symbolist view
(that my students find irresistible) with her own very unique personal
and religious beliefs. This assignment focuses on her more realistic, yet
strongly symbolistic work.
We spend a lot of time talking about Kahlo's life and Mexican culture.
Death, life, her health, love and nature are all strong themes in her work.
My students especially enjoy trying to find meaning in the people, objects,
animals and plants which she places around herself in her compositions.
Her jewelry, clothing, even her own hair, become meaningful symbols.
Comparing other surrealist and symbolist work (or indeed her own more
surrealistic paintings) to Kahlo's more "realistic" self-- portraits, we
find that some of her pictures are more subtle than others in their
Some are so subtle in fact, that the casual viewer may not notice her
hair "growing" up the canvas like vines, her necklace made from a thorny
plant stem, or the small skull and bones delicately painted in the center
of her forehead-all these being clues or symbols of deeper meaning.
Not only are feelings to be found in the symbols of her pictures, we find
different moods portrayed in the compositions and use of backgrounds. In
one portrait, we may feel claustrophobic from the giant leaves crowding
in behind her which block out the sky. There's an uneasy feeling from the
green-eyed stare of a black cat in an outdoor scene. A lonely feeling echoes
from a completely empty room where Kahlo sits alone, painting a portrait
of her doctor with a paint palette made from a heart.
Why did Kahlo sometimes use subtleties and sometimes use strong surrealist
techniques to express her feelings? Did the more surrealist pictures contain
stronger feelings, or did she simply wish to "hide" those strong feelings
in the more subtle self-- portraits?
Have you ever wanted to tell somebody something about yourself and at the
same time hide it? How could you convey a strong feeling or message in
a subtle way through a self-- portrait?
CONVEYING MESSAGES We begin our exercise by asking ourselves some questions.
What feeling(s) or message(s) might we want to convey in a self-portrait?
Is there something about ourself that we want the viewer to "sense" about
us, and yet hide in some way? How could we alter our appearance very subtly
to achieve this goal? Could we use other objects in some way to help convey
our message? Might we arrange a background that could enhance the mood
of the self-portrait?
Armed with these questions, my students begin their search for answers
through their own self-portrait. We begin with some thumbnail sketches
of the initial idea and explore the personal symbolism that the students
might like to use in order to convey a message about him or herself in
a subtle manner.
Most students choose to use the very traditional self-portrait head, neck
and shoulders, although I don't discourage them from using the whole body.
Students may use mirrors or a photo of themselves, or both. Make sure your
students are thinking about everything from the pose they take and clothes
they wear to the objects and background they choose.
Encourage students to do several sketches using different poses, objects
and backgrounds to convey the same feeling(s). For example, loneliness
could be portrayed in an empty sky or bare-walled background. Confusion
may be portrayed in a crowded, disorderly collage of objects around the
artist. Facial features and clothing can be altered. Remind your students
that although we may be portraying strong feelings, we want to subdue or
"hide" these somehow from our audience.
After students choose their best idea, they will draw and paint the final
composition on either canvas board, canvas paper or watercolor paper. We
have used both watercolor and acrylic successfully. This assignment lends
itself to almost any media that you and your students want to use. We
do this assignment after a realistic exploration of self-portraits, although
it could also lend itself to realist self-- portrait study. The wonderful
aspect of this assignment is the variety of ideas and compositions that
your students can choose.
After finishing the self-- portraits, we take a look at some embossed
frames. These can be found in tin, copper, pewter and other metals. You
will probably be able to find some small, inexpensive, colorful examples
of embossed tin frames in most import stores that sell work from Mexico,
Central and South America. Some embossed frames are brightly colored with
a thin coat of paint and others are monochromatic.
What your students will not fail to notice is their texture and pattern.
Framing our portraits is not an "extra," but actually an integral part
of the composition. Now is the time for your students to pick out some
shapes in their self-portrait and run, run, run right out to the very edges
of the frame with these!
Before framing however, we mount our self-portraits onto durable, larger
mounting, matting or tag board-you can even use scrap cardboard. It doesn't
really matter, because it will all be covered up with a beautiful, shiny
frame. It works best if the frame backing is at least 4 inches bigger than
the artwork on each side.
Next, get out all those little pieces, squares, ends of rolls and rolls
of aluminum or copper you've been saving up. This is your chance to use
it all! We usually use the copper, gold- or silver-colored aluminum as
this allows students to later add India ink "antiquing" or acrylic paint.
Encourage students to find shapes, objects, and ideas in their portrait
that they could extend as patterned embossing out into the frame. Students
can draw and emboss on their pieces of metal from the back, front or both,
depending on the effect that they wish to create and the durability of
the paint on the metal.
Be careful of rubbing too much on brightly colored aluminum from the front,
as the color tends to rub off easily. A short demonstration of how to use
wooden tools (in a pinch, small and large craft sticks and dull pencils
do just fine) is all that is needed if your students have not tooled metal
I remind my students to honor the limitations of the materials. Don't press
too hard unless you mean to have holes in your frame! We use the 38-gauge
aluminum foil because it is easy to cut with regular scissors and to emboss
with whatever wooden tools we have handy.
Glue the pieces onto your cardboard backing with rubber cement. We have
found rubber cement to work the best and be the most durable (yet forgiving
in the event of foil misplacement) of all adhesives for the foil gluing.
When working with rubber cement, though, be sure the room is
Some students choose to piece together a frame in a style reminiscent of
a patchwork quilt. Several have even cut out shapes in the foil, painted
in between foil pieces, and glued things onto the frame. Others choose
a more "traditional" format: four sides with one piece to each side. Some
frames remain rectangular and others are more free-form.
I encourage students to keep their self-portraits in mind while embellishing
their frames and to not overdo. The frame should be the "icing on the cake"
of the composition-complementing the portrait.
The results of our self-portraits whether subtly strange or strangely
pleasingly personal. These add a real flare and style to our hallways and