Art Lesson Plan: Cut Paper Portraits

Cut Paper Portraits

Submitted by: Brenda Robson, First Baptist Academy, Dallas, Texas
Unit: Technology - Self-portrait -Design - Color
Grades: 6-8

(Good for high school See Aurora Ninth Grade - scroll down)
Alternate Lesson Plan: Expressive Self Portraits - Oil Pastels, Bunki Kramer, Los Cerros Middle School. See Lesson Plan on Portfolio Web Site. Middle School through High School.
Alternate Lesson: Digital Portrait Screen Printing by Connie Ferguson
Alternate Lesson: Reduction Linoleum prints - or Multiple plate linoleum pints
Alternate Lesson: Digital Scratchboard Portraits - Jeannie Sandoval
Extension: Use digital photographs to create full value pastel portraits.
A Different Kind of Cut Paper Portrait - by Marvin Bartel


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These examples were from a mixed class of 8th through 12th graders


Objectives: Students will

  • Observe values in an image - determine five levels of values

  • Draw self-portraits using a grid - integrate math skills

  • Compare how artists get ideas - See how artists use technology in a work of art.

  • Compare and contrast styles of portraits through time. Gain appreciation for the work of John Singer Sargent

  • Develop shading skills through a self portrait value study

  • Work an idea in multiple media - translate drawing to cut paper "layers" - problem solving skills in determining values in colored paper

  • Demonstrate craftsmanship in cutting and gluing portrait.


Drawing Paper. 80#
Drawing Pencils. #2, Charcoal. or Ebony Pencils.
Masking Tape.
Rulers. - Grid transparencies (optional)
5 sheets of quality construction paper-5 values chosen from value chart (provide multiple values of many different colors - Tru-Ray Construction Paper. is a good brand- Fadeless paper works well too)
clear overhead projector papers (even clear Acetate. will work - or Dura-Lar Film. - Sharpie Fine Point Markers.)
X-acto Knife. - cardboard cutting boards (scrap Mat board. works well)
Prang Glue Sticks. (Prang has been suggested as a good brand that sticks)- NOT PURPLE - or non-toxic rubber cement (Tri-Tex) [NOTE- We tried to find a non-toxic rubber cement on the internet and could not find any. Tri-Tex appears not to sell any. We're not sure how toxic Elmer's Rubber Cement. is.]
Digital photo of student with a strong light source (take these prior to lesson)


Posterize, value, contrast, color plan (and all the vocabulary associated with color planning)


Andy Warhol Celebrity Portraits
Rob Kelly - Cut Paper Illustrator
Portrait artists from Artcyclopedia
John Singer Sargent
Daniel Greene Oil Portrait Painting Video. [Not many copies of this left]

Portrait of Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent. (Poster)

Lady Agnew Of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent (Poster)

The Beatles by Andy Warhol (Poster)

Marilyn Monroe, Red by Andy Warhol. (Poster)

.Note from Brenda: I first saw a portrait at the State Fair of Texas that had gray values only in torn paper mosaic style that impressed me. (See example in Expression Magazine - Check example just in case it goes offline). I thought about elaborating on the idea with my middle schoolers. The first thing I did was to do a Google search and didn't come up with much. Then I discovered a cut paper illustrator named Rob Kelly.



  1. Show students a selection of portraits - including many self portraits. Select example that show some strong contrasts and a gradation of values. Portrait by the Fauves are good to get students thinking about expressive color - subjective color. Look at the work of John Singer Sargent - discuss values - find value gradations in his portraits. Compare to the more bold portraits of Warhol, Fauves and Rob Kelly.

  2. Show work of Rob Kelly - talk about the different color plans that were chosen. Which ones do you think are most successful? (It would be  great to have the students explore his site independently - work up a Web quest for this portrait unit. Incredible Art Department is interested in lining to your Internet lesson).

  3. Demonstrate grid process - transferring digital print to larger paper.

  4. Review - demonstrate value shading - show a variety of techniques. Students develop some of their own style for shading.

  5. Demonstrate - translating five values to colored paper - show a variety of combinations and color plans.

  6. Demonstrate steps to cutting portraits from construction paper or fadeless papers.

Note from Brenda: We studied Sargent because he is my favorite portrait artist but you could use any realistic artist who uses strong values.  Stress the importance that if the Value is correct, the Color doesn't matter as much.  Although the most successful color choices were the ones stayed true to skin tone at least. (From Judy - I personally like the Rob Kelly ones that showed expressive use of color and Brenda's work fro the previous year - shown above - better)


Teacher Preparation:

Take digital photographs of students during a previous project. Use a strong light to get some high contrasts. Work through a sample yourself to work out the "bugs" that you might foresee - Try to think like a middle school student as you do your sample. You know your students. Brenda ran their photos through Photoshop - contrast and color saturation section. I would recommend having the student do this step when you take them to the lab to view Rob Kelly's work online. View Kelly's work first -- then open their own photograph into Photoshop (Photoshop Elements - PhotoDeluxe - whatever you software) and manipulate the image - THEN if students do not get finished with this step - do it for them - but at least they have had the opportunity to try it. Here is an example at level 6 (by Kris Fontes) You may want fewer levels: Woody Duncan used cut paper filter in Photoshop Elements - his students had some trouble working with that option (maybe too many layers?)

Procedures to Posterize Student Photograph:

  1. Posterize - reduce values to student digital photos. How to Posterize - from Grace Hall, Jeannie Sandoval and Kris Fontes. You could use the digital camera or scan a color photo into Photoshop (or other software - the process is similar in all photo editing programs). Open file for student image.

  2. Click  "Image" and go to  "Mode" and change the photo to "gray scale". Click OK when it asks you about discarding color info.  That makes the image black and white.

  3. Then click on  "Image" again and go to  "Adjustments," scroll to "Brightness and Contrast" and click on it.  The more contrast you put in it, the fewer shades you will get in the final image.  You may want to play with that until you get what you need, click OK when done.

  4. Click "Image" again, scroll to  "Adjustments" again, and scroll down to  "Posturize" and click on that one. Play with the numbers on this one too, to see what gives you the best contrast.  You may even need to go back and re- adjust the brightness and contrast to get it to posturize the way you like.  Here is an example at level 6 (by Kris Fontes) You may want fewer levels: If this is too many layer/levels - try four or 5.

  5. If you don't like the background, or something in the composition, just use the magnetic tool to cut out what you want to keep, and paste it into a new format.  Don't forget to paint the background in before pasting the cutout portion in. When it  "Posturizes" it breaks up and simplifies the image to look a more  "painterly" and a little more like a silkscreen pattern. This is a great way to make a cut paper stencil silk screen print. More subtle shading/values can be added to the screen using block -out like LaPage Glue if you wish.

  6. Print out manipulated image 8 /2 x (or try a larger size)

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Studio Procedures for Students:

  1. Do a value study in 5 boxes showing lightest to darkest in ebony or Charcoal Pencils. and #2 pencil. Discuss value changes by looking at a value chart if possible.

  2. Have the kids grid their photo and then the drawing paper.

  3. Draw faces using the grid method and try to isolate any dark value areas by outlining it lightly.

  4. Erase grid lines and fill in any lines necessary for an outlined face. Out line any values much like a paint by number drawing. Reduce or enlarge to suit, make many copies (Start be making 5 each to save on paper.).

  5. Shade the original with 5 values. This is great to hang alongside the finished cut-paper portrait.

  6. Pick 5 shades of construction paper that may compliment the hair color, eye color, etc. If they used their value scale, putting the colored paper next to one of the values and squinting, they could discover it's value by finding where there was the least amount of contrast.

Notes From Brenda:
I stressed that the skin is usually warm and shadows are usually cool. One redhead, Morgan, started with her hair because that was a large part of her personality and made her easily recognizable. It was a red orange shade for the hair (value 4) and background color. Then she picked a warm gray color for the next lightest color in her hair which also was her skin color (value 3) and a black for the darkest color of her hair, clothing, nostrils, mouth, eyelashes and shadows - (value 5)

The lightest shade, a very light pink (value ), was used for highlights on the face and the whites of the eye. Then (value 2) was chosen to be a transitional color between the lightest pink and the warm gray on the face and hair. The picture doesn't show what a nice pink it was.

I tried to stress that the darks on a light face that are important are the eyes, nostrils, line of the mouth and sometimes the shadow underneath the lower lip. (depending on the child of course; i.e.: dark eyebrows) I found African American the easiest to do because a whole shadow side could be dark and then the rest subtle from there. It is quite dramatic.

  1. Returning to the copies. Number the areas like a paint by number. Then make a small number on the colored paper to keep from getting confused.

  2. Then run these through a copy machine on 2-3 sheets of transparent overhead projector paper
    (If you are on a tight budget- try just one transparency - OR have students trace the lines on clear acetate using ultra fine point Sharpies)

  3. Using the copies, start with largest area of color like the #3 of Morgan. Cut out the color by taping the copy to the construction paper and cutting through both carefully with X-acto on cardboard. Stress cutting away from oneself! (If the bell is about to ring, be sure and paper clip any loose edges together or put in an envelope or Zip-Loc baggie). Save some of the larger photocopy pieces to use later.

  4. Using a clear (un-copied) piece of overhead transparency (or acetate) as the first layer, place it over one of the outlined copies of the face. Glue the value to it in it's correct spot. Like filling in paint by numbers. Set aside. It may help for each student to have a cardboard mat for carrying their work in progress. With clear tape - tape outlined photocopy - clear acetate (or transparency) - and tape outlined transparency on top as overlay (the outlined transparency is use to line up small additions).

  5. Choose the next value and decide whether it can be laid on top. For instance: value 4 on the hair and neck was cut out in the very same way and pasted on top of the transparency. Then it becomes like a Mola. You can paste the next color on top or cut away and paste the whole on a color. For instance: value 4 in the background is a result of cutting the whole head out after it was finished and pasting it on top. Each value is different as to whether it should be pasted on top or used as a bottom layer. This is definitely one you have to do yourself first to understand. One girl did a whole face and a the end learned the trick of cutting an area away and then pasting it on the next lighter color she wanted. She said "AH-HA" and did an entirely new piece very quickly. That's why it is nice to have plenty of the outline copies around. You will cut them up and use them for placement, etc. (some of the larger pieces can be saved to reduce the number of photocopies necessary for each child)

    The transparent outline copies are for lining up the places the shapes go once you cut them out such as an eye, nostril hole, etc. You can lay the transparency over your art and put glue on the teensy little shape, put it on the end of an X-acto knife and carefully place it underneath the transparency in its correct spot.

    Check the placing of the shape by lifting and lowering the transparency for any adjustments. (If students lose their transparent outline - you may have to make another)

  6. I found that repeating the values in the framing set these off beautifully much like Molas. Brenda Robson

  7. Critique finish work. Have students write what they learned about color and value as a result of this lesson.

Evaluation: (create a rubric to suit your needs)

  1. Did students successfully use grid to draw self portrait from a digital photograph using grid technique? (some have done this lesson working from directly from digital photograph)

  2. Did students show an understanding of values and translate black and white value to color?

  3. Did student show understanding of coloring planning - use of color to show emotion (subjective color - or objective color)? does cut paper portrait show a variation of values? Highlights and shadows?

  4. Did students show craftsmanship in cutting and gluing?


Adaptations: Design in Color


Adaptation - Simplify using fewer layers. See Jeannie Sandoval's Digital Scratchboard.

Seventh Grade Design in Color

Brenda did this as a design project for 7th grade. Values were simplified to 4 layers. These were also done with cut paper - but tempera would also make a good lesson in value study and color mixing. These example focused on monochromatic (individual images) and analogous colors (as a group). You can adapt the color selection to suit your needs. Student can go directly to the cut paper using photocopies of the photograph.

Submitted by: Sarah Wegenast, Aurora Middle School (Ninth grade student work)
Unit: Technology - Portraits - Color
Projects: Cut Paper Portrait and Value Study Painting

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Images from Aurora Middle School Web Site.
See Web site for larger images and more examples.

Paper cut-outs (left image):

The purpose of this project was to integrate technology with traditional art forms. Students photos were taken with a digital camera and the software Photoshop was used to change it to 8 values and printed " x 7". Students used X-acto knives to cut the different values from construction paper. The pieces were then glued on oak tag to create their self-portrait cut-outs. One of the colors of the portrait may be repeated as the background color.


Value Study Painting (right image)

The purpose of this project was to introduce color values by blending one color of paint with white and black to give a variety of value changes. Students photos were taken with a digital camera and the software Photoshop was used to change it to one color value. Students used Acrylic Paint. to mix and paint their self-portraits.



John Van Hamerveld 60'S TRIP

Alida Post of Post Art Group has offered to help Art Educators. I am showing this image as a means to help silkscreen teachers. This image is copyrighted and is just shown here for study. It is not to be copied without permission from Post Art Group or John Van Hamerveld

Silkscreen tips - follow same procedure to manipulate photograph.

See work of Richard Duardo (Archive)
See Jon Van Hamersveld (Archive)

When it "Posturizes" it breaks up and simplifies the image to look a more  "painterly" and a little more like a silkscreen pattern. This is a great way to make a cut paper stencil silk screen print. More subtle shading/values can be added to the screen using block -out like LaPage Glue if you wish.


To use for silkscreen - cut one stencil with the largest value - a light color. You may want to print the entire negative space first using a silhouette of the portrait. Print the largest value first - cut medium tones from another stencil - register and print. Cut the darkest value last and print. Wax paper works fairly well. You may also try clear acetate. Connie Ferguson used the paper itself - this tend to break down after multiple prints.


Example shown at left can be done with three paper stencils and LaPage block out. Tack on stencils with masking tape. Ink will make stencil stick after first pass of ink (use this a proof to help line up other stencils.. Carefully remove tape - stencil will stay n place for the duration of your edition. Keep editions small so prints can be done in one class period.

Some additional notes on the cut paper portraits:


From Woody Duncan:

My students started on my version of the cut paper portraits today. As I said earlier, I think I'm cheating enough just using the Photoshop software to find the edges of values for my students. So today they laboriously began to draw those areas while looking at the photo.


Tomorrow I will use a Xerox machine to make several copies of their drawings. They will cut up the copies of their drawing to make templates for the various colors/values of paper we have in stock. I did pick up some multicultural construction paper to use as well. I hope they have courage to use various colors as well. As was said earlier, It's the value that matters not the color.


My plan is to shoot digital photos of each seventh grader. To edit them with Photoshop Elements to increase the contrast and then use the "cut paper" filter to create a model for students to get the idea from. Woody found this was too difficult for 7th graders in the way he approached it. He got some great results but many had hard a time.


From Brenda Robson:

Just like Woody surmised, I shot pictures, put them into Photoshop, used cut paper and strong value adjustments then printed.

We watched a Daniel Greene portrait painting video that talks about values. The kids then did monochromatic freehand value studies in pastel to isolate the values and understand them. I had a private portrait teacher tell me "if the value is right, it doesn't matter what color it is". (kind of  like the post-impressionists or expressionists). I never learned that while pursuing Graphic Arts, so it stuck with me.

We then "cheated" (Brenda used the printed photographs this year) and put clear acetate (or transparency) over the photocopy and hand cut each value from the color of their choosing with X-acto knives using a photocopy as pattern. Once you cut a value (say all of the black parts) you glue it down on the clear layer with a copy of the photo underneath - to know where it goes. Like a puzzle, it can get confusing if you don't pay close attention to what value you are working on. It is tricky in the respect of what color goes on first. We started with black then glued it down. The next uncut photocopy is your guide. Then we went to the next value. It could go directly on the front but sometimes it is easier on the back, depending on each portrait. I tried to hone in on no more than five values.



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