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Portrait Sculptures

Grades: 3, 4, 5
Related Subjects: English - Language Arts, Visual & Performing Arts
Medium: Drawing, Painting, Sculpture
Class time required: 1 X 90 minute session
Author: SDMA Education Department

Student Example: Portrait Sculptures

Student Example: Portrait Sculptures

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In this four-session lesson, students will identify characteristics that they have in common with animals. Based on these similar characteristics, the students will create a self-portrait sculpture combining the body structures of different animals. The students will create the sculpture armature, plaster the armature, and then paint the sculpture. The students will also write descriptive paragraphs about their sculptures.


  • Sketchbooks
  • Pencils
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Paper plates
  • Plastic drop cloths
  • Plast'rcraft strips (Plast'rcraft II - from Bemiss-Jason - 20-lb. Carton)
  • Bowls for water
  • Scissors
  • Baby wipes
  • Acrylic paint (red, blue, yellow, white, and black at the very least)
  • Small paper cups for paint
  • Paintbrushes (small and large)
  • Paper towels
  • Hot glue gun (if necessary)


Westwall Part II: Migration

Westwall Part II: Migration
Barbara Westermann

Reclining Figure: Arch Leg

Reclining Figure: Arch Leg
Henry Spencer Moore

Figure For Landscape

Figure For Landscape
Barbara Hepworth

Toy an Horse

Toy an Horse
Marcos Ramirez


James Watts

Teachers Preparation

Session One:

  • Print the images listed above onto overhead transparencies.

Session Two:

  • Have the foil ripped into 12-inch pieces to facilitate passing out materials. Each student will need 4-10 pieces.
  • Practice creating the armature of an animal with foil so that you are familiar with the materials, thereby making it easier for you to explain to the students.

Session Three:

  • Cut the plast’rcraft into 12-inch strips to facilitate passing out materials. Each student will need 4-10 pieces.
  • Have plastic drop cloths to cover the students’ desks.
  • Fill bowls with water.

Session Four:

  • Pour paint into small paper cups.

Teaching Tips

  • Heavy-duty foil yields a better, stronger armature and less foil is needed when compared to regular foil from the grocery store. A large role of foil is available at Smart and Final for $30 and will last for several projects, if not years.
  • One 20lb. carton of plast’rcraft will last for several classes.
  • Plast’rcraft strips can be purchased online at www.enasco.com.
  • If sketchbooks are not available, students can make their own. Assemble 20-30 pieces of plain white paper together (preferably white construction paper) using staples, yarn, or other binding materials.
  • During Session Three, make sure that the students do not wash their plaster-filled hands in the sink because the plaster will harden in the pipes. Use baby wipes instead.
  • Before Session Four, send a letter home to the parents asking them to send their children to school in clothing that they can get messy, since acrylic paint stains.
  • During Session Four, if the students’ sculptures have fallen apart, use a hot glue gun to reassemble the pieces. This is best done before the students begin to paint.


Session One: Animal Characteristics
1. Begin a discussion with the students about sculpture: What is a sculpture? Where have you seen a sculpture? What did the sculpture look like? Are sculptures created from the imagination, real life, or both? Have students look up ‘sculpture’ in the dictionary, if necessary.

2. Show the students the transparency images. Use the following questions to guide the discussion about the images.
What do you call this type of art? (a sculpture)
What is the different between a painting and a sculpture? (can’t walk around a portrait and see the back of the canvas, sculpture is 3-D)
What does the sculpture look like?
Is the sculpture realistic or abstract?
If you could touch the sculpture, what do you think it would it feel like? (This is called texture)
What do you think the sculpture is made of?
How do you think the artist wanted you to feel when you look at this sculpture?
How is this sculpture similar to one of the others? How is it different?

3. Discuss the purpose of armature. Armature is the strength inside a sculpture. What is the armature in your body? (bones; they keep your skin in place.) Artists use armature as the bones in their sculptures.

4. Explain that in this activity, the students will be creating 3-D animal sculptures that represent themselves. The students will want to pick several animals in which they have similar characteristics. Start a discussion about animal characteristics:
• If you are quiet, what animal could you be?
• If you are loud, what animal could you be?
• If you are brave and fierce, what animal could you be?
• If you are intelligent, what animal could you be?
• If you are caring, what animal could you be?
• What characteristics describe other animals?

5. Hand out sketchbooks and pencils. Have the students make a list of the animals in which they have similar characteristics. Then explain to the students that their sculptures are going to be combinations of many of these animals, an imaginary animal. Then ask each student to make a rough sketch of how his/her self-portrait animal will look.

6. For homework: Have the students write a descriptive paragraph about their self-portrait animals, describing them in full detail (body parts, characteristics, colors, what they eat, etc.) If the students have studied habitats, have them include the habitats in which these animals could survive based on their body types and provide rationale.

Session Two: Foil Armature
1. Remind the students about the self-portrait animals they designed in the last session. Explain that in this session they will create the armature for their self-portrait animals.

2. Demonstrate how to mold the foil to create the animal body parts. Offer the following advice to the students:
• Try to keep the foil in one piece
• You can tear the foil to separate and make legs or arms, but do not tear the body part off completely. Try to make two arms or two legs on the same piece of foil.
• Don’t squish the foil as hard as you can because it will make your sculpture very small and skinny. Just squish the foil enough to make the shape of the body part.

3. Hand out several pieces of foil to each student. Have the students mold the armature of their animal.

4. Once finished, have the students place their foil armatures on paper plates, with their names clearly written on the plates, and store until the next class session.

Session Three: Plaster
1. Remind students of the armatures they created in the last session. During this session, the students will cover the armature with plaster strips. Guide the students in the following demonstration:

• Show the students what the plaster looks like. It should be cut into 12-inch pieces.
• To plaster the armature, you have to cut the plaster into smaller strips, about 1-inch thick. For small items, like feet and horns, cut the plaster into even smaller strips.
• The plaster is activated when dipped in water. Dip the entire strip into a bowl of water and let it drip-dry for a moment.
• Start from the bottom of the sculpture and work your way up. This will keep it from getting too heavy and falling over.
• Wrap the wet plaster around the foil, like a bandage, overlapping the pieces in 1-3 layers. You don’t want to wrap it too much because the thicker the plaster, the harder it is to dry and the sculpture will get too heavy.
• Once you place a piece of plaster on the foil, massage it on to the foil.
• Start and finish one body part at a time because wet plaster will not stick to plaster that has begun to dry (for example, finish one leg before moving on to the next leg.)
• Wait until the end to clean your hands. Use the baby wipes. Don’t wash your hands in the sink because the powder will harden in the pipes and break the sink.

2. Cover all of the tables with the plastic covers.

3. Hand out the foil armatures, plaster strips, scissors, and a bowl of water for every two students. The students will now plaster their sculptures.

4. Once the students are done, collect the plastered sculptures, and place them in a safe place to dry for several days. Have the students clean up their spaces and use baby wipes to clean their hands. Dump the bowls of water in the trash can, not in the sink.

Session Four: Painting the sculptures
1. Remind students of the sculptures they covered in plaster in the last session. During this final session, the students will paint their sculptures. Guide the students in the following demonstration:
• All students will be placed into pairs.
• All pairs will be given 5 cups of paint. You can mix the colors to create more colors. For example: red and yellow make orange, red and white make pink, etc. (if students do not know how to blend colors, go through all of the colors on the color wheel.)
• To make a color lighter, add white. To make a color darker, add a little black.
• Acrylic paint stains clothing, so try not to spill the paint.
• Since the sculptures are different sizes, there are two sizes of brushes for you to use. Small brushes should be used for small areas, like horns or creating spots. Large brushes should be used for large areas, like the body or legs.
• To apply the paint, dip the brush into the water and then dip it into the paint. To mix colors, blend the paints on the paper plate, and then paint it on the sculpture.
• To clean your brush, poke it in the water and dab it dry on a paper towel.

2. Hand out the sculptures, paint, paint brushes, paper towels, and water bowls. The students will now paint their sculptures. If necessary, have the students reassemble any broken sculpture pieces with the glue gun before they begin to paint.

3. Once the students are done, collect the completed sculptures, and place them in a safe place to dry. Have the students clean up their spaces.

4. Once the sculptures are dry, have the students display their sculptures and paragraph descriptions.


CA Content Standards

Third Grade Visual Arts:
1.1 Perceive and describe rhythm and movement in works of art and in the environment.

1.4 Compare and contrast two works of art made by the use of different art tools and media (e.g., watercolor, tempera, and computer).

1.5 Identify and describe elements of art in works of art, emphasizing line, color, shape/form, texture, space, and value.

2.1 Explore ideas for art in a personal sketchbook.

2.2 Mix and apply tempera paints to create tints, shades, and neutral colors.

2.5 Create an imaginative clay sculpture based on an organic form.

3.3 Distinguish and describe representational, abstract, and nonrepresentational works of art.

4.1 Compare and contrast selected works of art and describe them, using appropriate vocabulary of art.

5.2 Write a poem or story inspired by their own works of art.

Third Grade Language Arts:
2.2 Write descriptions that use concrete sensory details to present and support unified impressions of people, places, things, or experiences.

Third Grade Science:
3a Students know plants and animals have structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction.

3b Students know examples of diverse life forms in different environments, such as oceans, deserts, tundra, forests, grasslands, and wetlands.



Frohardt, Darcie C. Teaching Art With Books Kids Love: Teaching Art Appreciation, Elements of Art and Principles of Design With Award-Winning Children’s Books. Golden, Co: Fulcrum, 1999.

Hodge, Susie. How to Draw Portraits: A Step-By-Step Guide For Beginners With 10 Projects. London: New Holland, 2000.

Miller, Donald Richard. The Animal Art of Donald Richard Miller. Florida: HEP Press, 2004

Hirshhorm Museum and Sculpture Garden
An art education packet for teachers to use with students based on artists creating animal sculptures.


Kistler, Mark. Draw Squad. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Roalf, Peggy. Self-Portraits. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1993.

Rohmer, Harriet (Ed.). Just like Me: Stories and Self-Portraits by Fourteen Artists. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1997.

Taylor, Barbara. Animal Encyclopedia. New York : Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

Pacon Creative Projects
A quick way to make cute plaster creatures.

Lithgow, John. Carnival of the Animals. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004. After wandering off from a school field trip, a young boy falls asleep in the Natural History Museum and imagines his classmates, friends and family turned into a menagerie of animals.


Museum of Photographic Arts
Mingei Museum Timken Museum of Art

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