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Self-Portraiture Problem-Solving

At Whitfield visual artists develop studio techniques as well as an understanding of how to approach art-making as a problem based process—an approach that comes into play when creative problem-solving in any discipline.

Recently, freshmen in Design Overview combined the Elements and Principles of Design to learn about visual aesthetics and their own ideals pertaining to beauty as they were challenged to create contemporary self-portraits.

They began by experimenting with drawing exercises in line quality, mark-making, and variation then utilized photography and line systems to create contemporary self-portraits.

New to Whitfield this year, Visual Arts faculty member Curtis Erlinger shares, “The self-portrait project is a great way to find out who my students are at the beginning of the year—in the act of making drawings, I learn a lot about their creative process, ideas, and personality through their portraits.” One of the goals within the Visual Arts department is to help students understand the creative process and how they function within it.

Before taking their photographs, the class studied different aspects and examples of portraiture and considered how each potential view (frontal, profile, and three-quarters) conveys information to the viewer. “For example, a frontal view portrait may be considered as intimate, institutional (DMV), or even confrontational, while a profile view projects a more introspective, silhouetted, or vulnerable tone,” said Mr. Erlinger. “The Renaissance audience would immediately know how a three-quarter portrait would convey the class or betrothal of the sitter. This information may be lost on us, however, as a contemporary audience, we still feel the emotive effect of Mona Lisa’s gaze, and we can understand why the hopeful, aspirational, three-quarter view was utilized in Shepard Fairey’s famous campaign portrait for Barack Obama.”

After class discussions, Mr. Erlinger encouraged his students to consider how they wanted to represent themselves to the viewer. The introspective portrait project encouraged students to explore their own identity and representation—they considered how they wanted to communicate and be perceived by a broader authentic audience.

Students also reviewed the techniques and work of contemporary artists Chuck Close, Kara Walker, Ernesto Caivano, and Kerstin Kartscher.

Directly on the black and white print-out of their portrait, each student drew a pencil grid and used it as an overlay to divide their photo into half-inch squares. By using the grid to break down their photo into small incremental units, the process of drawing their portrait on a blank sheet of paper became more manageable. “The grid serves as a way to translate and to separate a whole into more digestible and understandable parts,” said Mr. Erlinger. “Oftentimes the more restrictions we have as artists, the more we are challenged to problem-solve. Using the grid becomes almost like a game or a puzzle. When you give students boundaries, they use them to problem-solve and create different and new strategies.”

Students appropriated information from their photographs to their self-portraits by creating patterns of different line systems which leads to beautiful results of creative play and experimentation.

For Sarah Schott ’23, the project was both challenging and motivating. “I ran into a couple of roadblocks along the way and at times I just wanted to quit working with the grid squares,” said Schott. “But, ultimately, this project pushed me to be really creative. In the end, I was proud of myself for sticking with it!”

The portraits are currently on display in the atrium outside of Whitfield’s Dining Room.