“The eye is the jewel of the body.”


The tittle of this blog post is a quote by one of my favorite poets, Henry David Thoreau.  I felt that it was a good way to introduce the challenges of portrait drawing with middle school students…whew!

I have always loved doing self portraits with kids of all ages.  A few years ago when I was at a different school,  I was stunned at the backlash from my middle school students when I started a portrait unit with them.   Given the opportunity to bring in their own photograph or snap a quick selfie, did not change their wrath.  Their disdain truly puzzled me…I mean are we not living in the age where taking a million pictures of ourselves and posting them social media is the new norm?  Obviously I was missing the boat, taking pictures=cool, but drawing self-portraits=instant death to the teacher….

So in order to stop the outrage and tears, I quickly did some cropping to their photographs,  to my unit, and decided we would draw the eyes only.  Thank goodness the idea was met with far less resistance and in the end the kiddos created something beautiful.

Fast forward to this year, my second year at MDCS, I thought it was time for a portrait unit.  When considering my approach to the unit, I had a very loud aggressive voice in my head screaming: “ONLY THE EYES!”  Well I listened to that voice, and the unit went much smoother, no tears and no death threats…in fact at the end of the unit I noticed some feelings of pride…YAY!

So here we go….

Materials for the unit:

A black and white photograph of each students eyes.  I took close-ups of their eyes and cropped the. I let each student give me the OK and then I printed them.

rulers and yardsticks

medium weight drawing paper

various types of charcoal


Why eyes?

While eyes are not a complete self-portrait, they still give the students the opportunity to express themselves.  As an object for teaching drawing, eyes give students the opportunity to practice close observation and draw all the tiny details that make eyes unique to a person.  Drawing eyes also gives students the chance to create different elements and principles of art and finally it challenges them to create something 3-D on a 2-D surface.


The students started off looking at their photographs and noticing all of the different values, shapes, textures and forms that make up their eye.  Then we measured the photograph and cropped it so it would be in whole number measurements (i.e. 7 inches rather than 7 1/4).  This is important for the grid.  Students make a grid on their photo so they can enlarge their eyes and use the grid as a drawing map.  When measurements are in shole numbers, its a lot easier.  Give some time for this…it’s pretty amazing how using a ruler can create so many crooked lines….Their grid squares were 1 inch x 1 inch.


Next, we do some math…yep MATH!  My biggest paper is 24 inches wide.  Students counted how many squares they had horizontally and vertically.  In the example above it would be 3 x 6.   Students take each number and multiple it by 2,3 or 4…which ever number will get them closest to 24 inches, but not over.  In the example above, it would be 4.  Doing this gives them the dimension of their paper.  So the paper for the eyes above would be 3×4 and 6×4 or 12 inches x 24 inches.  That means the dimension of each grid square is 4 inches x 4 inches, therefor; these eyes would be enlarged 4 times the size.  The photographs I printed out were much bigger.  Printing them bigger makes it easier to grid and draw their eyes.

**A few tips for drawing the big grid:  use 4H pencils to keep lines light and have students measure their grid size at the top, middle and bottom of their paper (3 spots), this helps to get straight lines.

Once they drew the grid on their photograph and their paper, students took some time to experiment with values using the various types of charcoal.  They spent time creating gradations in order to make things look 3-dimensional.  This was super fun to see them try different things.

Then it was time to start on the drawing….I heard very little groaning….YAY!  They drew their eyes lightly with pencil, going square by square, using the grid as a map.  They then started shading……






Concepts that were tricky for students included: getting the correct shape of the eye, shading the small parts of the eye and drawing eyebrows/lashes.  They did a lot of practicing and experimenting to get it right.  In the end, each pair of eyes were dramatically different.

I will add some pictures of the fished product in a couple of days.  In the meantime, take care and thanks for reading!


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