A Portrait Project with a Twist

“We’re making portraits,” explained Middle and Upper School Art teacher Marianne Brand as her Class 6 students popped into the Zoom room on a recent afternoon.

To kick off what they would soon find to be an unusual project, each student first selected a famous portrait to sketch. They were free to choose any work that piqued their curiosity as long as it was a head-and-shoulders format with either a straight-on pose or one in which the head was turned at an angle.

To help them decide, Ms. Brand compiled a list of legendary portraits by masters including Frida Kahlo and Johannes Vermeer as well as pieces by modern artists like Kehinde Wiley.

Yet, before the Chapin artists put pencil to paper, they had another important decision to make. Adding a layer of fantasy to this otherwise realistic assignment, Ms. Brand announced that her students’ distinctive portraits would all share an unexpected component: the human heads would be replaced by animals!

The students were again encouraged to think as inventively as possible when settling on their particular animal, keeping in mind that their chosen creature needed to echo the original portrait’s configuration. The goal was not to poke fun but for the students to consider striking pairings and similar qualities.

For example, a portrait of a slender person in profile might be replaced with a fawn glancing sideways. Ms. Brand gave them plenty of examples to consider.

Working from their homes, the students opened their sketchbooks and eagerly got to work. Some continued the drawings they had begun during the last class. A few others were beginning again after making mistakes or changing their approach. Calculating how to start a portrait, Ms. Brand noted, can be quite challenging.

“The hardest part is trying to get the composition down,” she said. “I ask my students to draw a line in the center of the page and across the middle. That helps them figure out where the face is on the paper.”

With an image of their famous portraits nearby for reference, the students sketched their versions in pencil. Only after the pieces began to take shape did they enhance them using colored pencils, Ms. Brand’s preferred medium during this year of hybrid learning. These Class 6 students, who alternate between in-person and virtual weeks, keep a supply of colored pencils both at home and at school.

As they settled into quiet work, Ms. Brand allowed the students to turn off their Zoom cameras, reminding them that she was available to answer any questions or offer advice. From time to time, a voice rose up from the checkerboard of boxes.

“Ms. Brand, can you help me find the right white?” one student asked, holding up her sketch of a fox. After studying the part in question, Ms. Brand helped her see that the white in this portrait actually comprised a host of other colors like yellow, blue and tan. Another student wondered how to represent the textured paint in her piece. “Use the side rather than the point of the pencil,” Ms. Brand advised. “And try to mix the colors.”

During the next meeting of Art 6 (which ended up being virtual after the blizzard temporarily closed 100 East End Avenue), the students made excellent progress on their animal portraits, demonstrating remarkable skill, cleverness and determination.

“Who wants to share?” Ms. Brand asked the group toward the end of this productive session. One by one, the students showed off their impressive works-in-progress, first screen-sharing a picture of the original image, then holding aloft their creatively reconfigured portraits.

One lifted up her witty Cézanne-inspired portrait for all to see. “I chose a pig head,” she said, which offered an interesting complement to a man in a suit. In another’s talented hands, Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” became an equally vibrant “swan with a hat.” A third student transformed Frida Kahlo’s iconic self-portrait into an animated monkey, surrounded by lush greenery.

Before they knew it, this immersive class came to an end. As they closed their sketchbooks, gathered up their colored pencils and waved goodbye to Ms. Brand, these Class 6 artists were likely looking forward to their next class meeting and yet another opportunity to ignite their imaginations.