Portait Studio: Kehinde Wiley, Frida Kahlo, & Pablo Picasso
This class was all about artists who do work with portraits. Each artists style is radically different and it allowed the students to learn three different styles of portraiture — a skill that can be daunting to any artist. To keep the students from worrying too much about painting themselves we used photographs of each of them for the activities. If you want you child or student to work on painting or sketching themselves then you can do any of the activities but replace the photographs with their own artwork! For our purposes we focused more on the backgrounds and additions to the portrait than the figures themselves.
Our first artist is Frida Kahlo who was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1907 and died there in 1954. She grew up during the Mexican Revolution and she and her mother often tended the wounded soldiers in their home. This experience affected her art both in its work with death and injury, which she saw firsthand at a young age, and the way her work fits into the Mexicanidad movement.
Kahlo had many health problems throughout her life which can be seen in her art and the way she uses it to explore her identity. Kahlo contracted polio as a child which left her with a shorter right leg than left leg. As a teenager she was in a bus accident that left her with a broken leg, arm, and pelvis. She had to convalesce in her bed for almost a year after the accident and this was when she began painting. Her parents put a mirror above her bed so she could look at herself while she painted. Khalo did many self-portraits throughout her lifetime and said:
“I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.”
We talked about that as a class, were we the people we knew best in the world? And do we know ourselves better than anyone else could ever know us? With this in mind we looked at Khalo’s self portraits as an inside look at what it was to be Frida Kahlo — a way for her and for us to explore her identity.
Kahlo’s work also falls under the surreal movement — though she rejected the classification saying: “they thought I was a surrealist but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” However, most people still classify her work as surreal and that is how we understood her work as a class. Surrealism is a movement in which artists attempted to express the unconscious.
The unconscious is what is happening below the surface of what you can feel and hear and smell and think. We talked about our senses and how those are conscious things that our brain understands. The unconscious can be understood by thinking about dreams, the things that happen in them aren’t real and they often don’t make sense because they are just a jumble of things in our minds that we aren’t actively thinking about. Kahlo did not paint her dreams but her reality and surreality seem closer together for her than they exist for other people.
Kahlo also painted about her identity. She was a part of the Mexicanidad movement — a celebration of indigenous Mexican culture. In the painting above, The Two Fridas, the Frida on the left is wearing a traditional European dress and the Frida on the right is wearing a traditional Mexican dress. These two Frida’s were the part of her that she was expected to be and who she really was. She always wore traditional clothing wherever she went to show her art all around the world to make sure they knew about her Mexican heritage and how much that was a part of her identity.
For our Frida Kahlo activity we printed off a picture of each student’s head and shoulders and had them make a surrealist collage. We cut out pictures from magazines and also had colored pencils and scissors so they could add whatever they wanted to to their portrait.
They could cut their picture out and put it on a magazine page or a plain piece of paper. They could leave it black and white or just leave it plain. We also printed out an anatomical heart for each student to add some quintessential Frida Kahlo symbolism.
Our next artist is Kehinde Wiley who was born in 1977 in Los Angeles, CA. His mother wanted him and his twin brother to stay off the streets when they were growing up so she enrolled them in weekend art classes when they were 11. Growing up and going to museums Wiley felt that he never saw himself on in the paintings of royalty and noblemen. So, he decided to find black and brown models on the streets of New York and other cities around the world and paint them with the respect and honor not historically given to them (we watched from 0:20 to 1:50 of this video where he talks about why he paints what he does). Wiley paints the backgrounds of his portraits with rich almost tapestry-like detail and colors. It takes the models away from being in a specific time or place and it gives a richness and color to the paintings — which is especially important since the models stay in their modern-day clothing.
We had a great discussion as a class about why he would only paint black and brown people and why it would be important to him to portray them as royalty. Something he talks about in the video is that his art answers the question “who deserves to be painted,” and we decided as a class that the answer to that question was everyone! Everyone deserves equally to have a painting done of them — not only royalty.
For our activity we took pictures of each student and asked them to pose like royalty. Wiley has his models look through books of old portraits to find poses they like and want to emulate, which you could do as well. We then printed the pictures in color since Wiley’s work is photorealistic and we cut them out. Then the students each got a canvas that they decorated like a Wiley painting using colors that made them feel powerful. When the paint dried we used mod podge to adhere their photo to the painting.
The results were incredible! When we told them to pose like royalty every kid straightened their back, put back their shoulders, and stuck out their chins. We loved seeing what made them feel powerful and important.
Our last artist is Pablo Picasso who was born in Málaga Spain in 1881 but he lived most of his life in Paris and died there in 1973. His father was an artist and noticed his passion and skill for drawing and had him receive formal training from the age of 7. His painting styles changed throughout his life but he is best known for his cubist and surrealist paintings.
Cubist art shows an object or person from all perspectives at the same time. It also takes apart an object and analyzes it based on its shapes. The painting below, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon was one of Picasso’s first paintings. However, the people he showed it to back in 1907 when he painted it hated it! They were shocked by the style and the faces of them women — it did not look the way they thought art should look. So, Picasso put the piece away and didn’t show it to anyone else for years until people were more accepting of this style of cubist art.
The painting below, painted 6 years after people were too shocked by Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, is a cubist study of the shapes on a face. It is called Tête, which means Head in French, and is an extreme example of completely deconstructing and then placing back together the pieces that make up a face. This is a great piece for students to interpret and say which parts of the face they think each shape is — everyone has a different interpretation and they are all equally correct!
For our Picasso activity we took a close up picture of each students face and then had them cut out the different pieces of it: cheeks, eyes and eyebrows, forehead (with hair if they wanted to), chin, mouth, nose, and ears (if they could be seen). Then we had them place their faces on a table and played a game of Musical Face! We had them walk around the table to music and when the music stopped we called out a face piece and they would take it from the face in front of them. We went around until they each had all the pieces they needed and then they glued the faces to a piece of paper in whatever configuration they liked — it didn’t have to look like a face in the end!
They had so much fun switching their faces around and seeing who got their eyes or nose and how they could put it together in any way they wanted to! We have also done this activity in the past by painting or drawing face parts on small pieces of paper and then mixing them up and putting together a Picasso-like face that way without using an actual picture of the students.
This class helped them learn about portraiture without the fear that comes to every student who has to draw or paint a person. By using pictures of the students we got to focus more on meaning, intent, and style while still making beautiful personalized art.