Limner Portraits

I wanted to share one of my successful Elementary lessons (I currently teach 5-8 so I don’t often remember to include the grades below that. This is a painting/drawing unit for 3rd and 4th grade.

When I student taught (under a great art educator named Lechtenberg), I had the chance to participate in some great lesson planning.  I also had the experience of a life time.  One of my favorite parts of this experience was when my Cooperating Teacher said “I’m going to make you come up with your own unit.”  I had already completed my Teacher Work Sample (if you aren’t sure what that is, boy you’re in for a treat another day) and taught 3 original lessons at my last placement.  Some student teachers would say “bu-bu-but” except I’m not some – I was thrilled for a challenge.  Coming up with a unique, creative and original lesson can be hard – especially with technology sitting at our fingertips and we can simply just search for lessons and adapt them to our needs.

So this was a great challenge – and I was ready for it.  I knew I wanted to do something with art history and portraiture but not necessarily the typical self portrait.  Without trying, I stumbled upon a news article about Limner Portraits and the unknown artists behind them.

Anyone who doesn’t know what a limner portrait is, it’s basically a face in the hole concept and I am fascinated by them.  Limner portraits, some artists known, many not – are portraits done by unskilled painters.  There are historical accounts of artists who would travel from town to town, painting families’ portraits for what money they can get.  Some limner artists were known to have paintings already created with the only area unfinished being the face – making the process quicker and therefore more money coming in because they could do more portraits.  Oh, to live in that time! And meet so many people.

One of the reasons we can tell that limner portraits are more unskilled is because of their sense of disproportion and similarities to one another.  A lot of the paintings are so similar it is hard to believe that they present the real likeness of the person.  Royal families were wealthy enough to hire a proper painter.  As you can see, some of the obvious reasons the painting was not 100% realistic can be seen in the size and position of certain details.

So, taking on the challenge, I tried to get creative with thinking how we could adapt this into a 3rd-4th grade lesson.  Simple; I would have students pair up (collaboration!) and brainstorm what portrait they would pick out from someone’s wagon if they were to get their painting done.  The ideas that begin flowing are endless – and students actually came up with our lesson idea – they wanted to make their own limner portraits but instead of painting themselves onto the background, they would simple cut a hole and take pictures behind it (“like they have at carnivals, Miss J”).  Perfect-this just meant that we had to have some great deal of butcher paper.

Roll out the butcher paper and have students trace themselves (like a crime scene, haha).  From there, have students pencil in the details of what they would want to be seen as in history (an athlete, a diva, a singer, a firefighter, a mutant alien – let them be creative).  Supply some skin tone colored paint and start by letting them paint in the skin tones.  After that, have them start adding the colored aspects of their details.  Ending with them cutting out the area for the face; hanging them up in the room or hall way and having a photography day where students have the chance to take pictures in any background that they want.  It is so much fun for them – and it is a great collaboration project because students, especially at that age, really have to work together to make everything cohesive.

In the last five years, I have seen similar ideas cross the art networks – of course we all think alike! What fun this idea is and it’s fun to see all the different takes on this great little piece of art history.

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