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Self-Portrait Project Connects Art Pre-Portfolio Students with Professional Artist

With graphite pencils strewn across the wooden table, students in the Upper School’s Art Pre-Portfolio course worked in quiet concentration as they glanced back and forth between black and white photos of themselves and their own realistic renderings. The class, guided by special guest and professional artist Sean Lee, spent four weeks marking out the borders of their facial features and shading in their drawings. Upper School visual arts teacher Emily Capkanis developed this intensive self-portrait project after connecting with Sean, seeing his work (he’s represented at the Arcadia Gallery), and asking him to co-teach a few classes on self-portrait realism. She envisioned the sessions as “a great opportunity for Art Pre-Portfolio students at Calhoun to engage with an artist on the rise, especially those who want to pursue art beyond high school.” The broader purpose of the class, offered for the first time this year, is to introduce art school-bound students to the portfolio curation process. In the course, students “select their primary medium, explore the theme of their work, and research works from other artists for inspiration as they develop their primary collection."

Three photos of students working on self-portraits in art class.

The self-portrait process began with a photograph of each student, which served as a guiding template for their drawings. The photos were taken using the Rembrandt lighting technique, with one side of the subject’s face illuminated and the other cast in shadows. Next came constructing the outline. As Noelle B. ‘24 describes, “Sean was really helpful during the first stage of the drawing, which he called blocking-in." He had a lot of expertise to share, including the practice of utilizing a pencil as a measuring tool, which Noelle credits with helping to “make sure that [her] proportions were correct.” Once the initial structure was in place, students spent class sessions shading in their portraits with a variety of graphite pencils. While focusing on shadows, Anais G. ‘23 also received guidance on defining a terminator line, or a line for the start of an intense shadow. “Sean really helped me with shading….He helped me work on drawing my lips and taught me lessons on simplicity,” Anais writes.

Three photos of students working on self-portraits in art class.

The final results are captivating – their hyperrealistic quality, complemented by the dramatic contrast between light and dark, draws the viewer in. Reflecting on their time working with Sean, Noelle says the project allowed her to “expand [her] realism and portrait skills,” while Anais had an “amazing” experience and learned a lot, including techniques she will continue to use in her artwork. The self-portraits, which can be added to students’ growing portfolios, symbolize the forward-looking spirit of Emily’s overall concept for the class – connecting students to the art world while preparing them for their future after Calhoun.

View the completed self-portraits:


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