First Week Watercolor Portraits

Every year, my second graders paint a watercolor self-portrait.  It is truly my most favorite first week activity of all time.  After sharing this picture of this year's portraits on Facebook, a sweet reader asked if I had a blog post about them.

Well, it dawned on me that while I have shared my annual self-portraits many times, I've never really shared them exclusively in a post.  So, here goes!

Self-Portrait How to

Every year, I have my students paint a self-portrait during the first week of school (an idea I learned while student teaching many moons ago).  I hang these portraits in the room, for the entire year.  They really brighten up our space and they are such a joy to look at (this is a picture of my students' portraits from last year).

I am not an art teacher and I believe that kids should be encouraged to take risks, so when I task my students with painting their portraits, I pretty much let them "have at it."

Don't worry, it isn't a total free for all.  I do model the process and I also share examples from years past, like the ones shown below.  I just make it very clear that I don't expect their paintings to look like an actual photograph.  ;)

I always begin by pointing out how much of their body/self they will be painting.  I tell them to think about the pictures they see in their yearbooks and how those pictures only show people's heads and shoulders. I explain that they will include only their head and shoulders in their paintings.  I then show them examples from previous years (sometimes students move and they get left behind, so I have a few on hand).

Once the students understand what it is that they will be including in their portrait, I model the drawing process on the board.  I discuss how large the head should be in relation to the paper and show them what this looks like.  From there, I show them how I draw a neck and shoulders, hair, and facial features.  I apologize that I don't have a photo of this, but essentially, I model and narrate the process, one step at a time. 

And,'s the students' turn.  I give each student a piece of white card stock (8x10 inches) to work with.  Card stock is brighter and thicker than construction paper, and it just seems to hold the paint better, in my opinion.  Then, they start their drawing.

Sometimes, I have them draw the outline of their pictures with a black crayon (see below). When I do this, there is NO pencil involved. This helps them to really slow down and visualize before they draw because they know that they can't erase.

However, this year, I let them draw with pencil first and then they traced over their pencil lines with a Sharpie.  Why did I do that?  I have no idea, it was just what I decided to do when I was prepping the materials, but the end result was still fab!

Once the students draw the outline of their portrait, they get to paint!  Using watercolor is a tricky thing for many second graders. They have a hard time always gauging how much water to use, so a discussion about this (and a little modeling) ahead of time is a good idea.

Tip: No matter how much explaining and modeling you do, you'll still have a student or two that uses too much water.  Let them use a tissue to blot their paper if you notice this happening.

I lay the portraits to dry on the floor, in an out of the way spot. They dry within minutes here in the desert.  Once they are dry, I flatten them by stacking heavy teacher manuals on them overnight.  I could iron them, but my iron and I do not get along.  At all.  The next morning, I hang them up and admire the sight before me...all year long.  :)

At the end of the year, it's always fun to repeat this process.  You will be amazed at how much growth your students show.  Here are a few examples from last year.  Amazing, right?

We always get lots of compliments on our portrait display, and the kids are always very proud of them.  They love seeing if their parents can guess which one is theirs, and it's fun to see how many parents get it right!

At the end of the school year, I send the portraits home as a keepsake.  Many parents have commented how much they love them, and they are the perfect size for framing!

First week self-portraits are a great way to encourage students to take risks, have fun, and learn to use materials.  Beyond that, the students take great pride in their creations and enjoy them just as much as I do, and we have something truly magnificent (that they created!) to look at all year long.  :)

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing in detail about your watercolor portraits!!! I LOVE them!! I'm going to attempt these next week so they can be on display for parent orientation!! In the past I've done directed drawing with pencil sketches, sharpie lines and watercolor paint. My only hurdle is getting enough the good watercolors for everyone so the colors are vibrant like yours! I also love that you do a 2nd painting at the end of the year!! Thanks for the inspiration :) My first graders are going to love this project!!

    1. Yay! Best of luck to you and your first graders! They will have a blast, and I know you'll all end up loving the end result. Have fun!


  2. I always love to see how these turn out. I usually have mine up for Open House so the parents can try to guess which one is their child. It is hilarious to watch. Yours turned out great!

  3. I struggle every year with the students getting their skin color right. It is always too orange or yellow. Do you have any tips?

    1. In the last few years, I have switched to using the people colored crayons. Students use the crayons to color their portrait and then watercolor the background. I have been loving the results. :)


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