2-D Design Portfolio: Expanded Contour Self-Portrait

Print this page
beginning of content:

Objectives/Outcomes of this Activity


  • gain awareness of how artists have expanded upon the contour drawing.
  • develop a contour line drawing into a more complex visual statement.
  • become familiar with asymmetrical balance by creating a composition in which line is balanced against other elements (color, texture, pattern).


This assignment assumes that students have previous experience in contour drawing. An appropriate prerequisite assignment would be to have the student do three contour self-portraits (size 18x24 inches): one in a dry medium, one in a wet medium, and one expressive or distorted in the student's choice of medium. These could be done as homework or in class. Encourage your students to consider interesting poses, composition, and clothing.

Familiarize your students with the drawings of Egon Schiele, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and David Hockney, as well as with portrait drawings by contemporary artists. Artists often add elements to embellish and develop contour figure drawings into more complete, expressive statements:

  • Schiele enhances the agitation of line by adding angular brushstrokes in the background. He draws attention to expressive hands and face by adding color.
  • Toulouse-Lautrec, particularly in lithographs, plays strong, lyrical lines against bold areas of flat color.
  • Hockney is a master of economy and contrast. He renders part of the figure in color, omitting the rest or suggesting it with a few lines. He leaves the viewer to complete the negative space. Hockney also combines observed information with cartooned or abstracted shorthand information, forcing the viewer to reconcile the two.

Begin by describing the expressive and compositional aspects of one or two of the drawings. Then actively engage your students in analyzing the images.

Images for Reference

Egon Schiele

  • Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, 1913, gouache, watercolor, and pencil
  • Self-Portrait in Lavender Shirt and Dark Suit, Standing, 1914, gouache, watercolor, and pencil

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

  • Reine de Joie par Victor Joze, 1892, lithograph
  • May Milton, 1895, lithograph

David Hockney

  • Mo, 1967, colored crayon
  • Celia in a Black Dress with White Flowers, 1972, colored crayon
  • Gregory, 1978, colored crayon


Students develop one of their own contour self-portraits beyond a line drawing by juxtaposing the linear elements of the drawing against one or more other elements such as color, pattern, texture, or collage. The added elements may serve to emphasize expressive aspects of the figure drawing, or they may create a dynamic asymmetrical balance by activating negative spaces in the drawing. The drawing should become a compositional conversation between line and the added elements. To be successful, the contour line often needs to become heavier, more forceful, or more deliberately expressive.

If students have done previous contour self-portraits, they may choose to develop one of them further for this assignment. They may also start fresh on a new drawing. You can assign this as homework over three to four days or a weekend. Working at home leaves students greater flexibility with issues of setting, costume, modesty, and working schedule. It can lead to more interesting results.

Materials and Resources

Allowing an open-ended range of media makes this assignment richer and more successful.

The format is 18x24-inch white drawing paper, and standard media might include pencil, ink, colored pencil, watercolor, gouache, and a variety of collage material.

Use a paper that is heavy enough to tolerate liquid media. Taping the paper down on all sides prevents the "warping" that can result when liquid media are applied unevenly. Students using ink should have large-size pen nibs to create bold lines.

Vocabulary and Concepts

Line quality: The "personality" of line, its expressive character; for example: lyrical, agitated, nervous, graceful
Asymmetrical balance: Visual balance that occurs when dissimilar elements achieve equivalent visual weight or eye attraction
Negative space: Unoccupied areas or empty space surrounding the objects or figures in a composition


The assignment ends with a one-period class critique. It can be organized to discuss each piece individually or to address general questions, such as:

  1. How is balance achieved in the drawing? Is it a comfortable balance or a tense balance?
  2. What does the portrait say about the subject? How do line quality and other elements (color, texture, pattern) create meaning or expression?
  3. Describe the mood created by the piece. What factors (color, drawing, composition, light) contribute to creating that mood?
  4. Is there a definite focal area or multiple points of interest?
  5. How does the eye travel through the piece, and what is the character of the movement within the work?
  6. Do you see a piece in which the artist made a particularly adventurous or creative decision?
  7. If you were to do one thing to improve a chosen piece, in what direction would you push it?

Before grading, allow students three days (outside of class time) to revise or further develop their work based on suggestions from the critique.

Students receive a written, narrative, evaluative comment on their work, as well as a grade. Grading criteria include:

  1. Observational skill in using contour line
  2. Development of an asymmetrical composition balancing line with other visual elements
  3. Content as evidence in the intention and expression of the work
  4. Willingness to explore and take risks
  5. Resolution and completeness of work

Examples of student work:

Authored by

  • David Welch
    Albuquerque Academy
    Albuquerque, New Mexico