Curriculum Corner: The Colors of Beauty and Self-Portraiture

In this month's Curriculum Corner, Lower School art teacher, Sheila Ghidini, discusses the art and beauty of skin color.
The Colors of Beauty and Self-Portraiture
by Lower School Art Teacher, Sheila Ghidini

Artists often use self-portraits as a way of expressing various aspects of themselves and their identities beyond the surface of their physical appearance. Racial identity—including the relationship between race, color, and beauty—is often present as a central theme in these works. Children also can use creative expression as a way to deepen their understanding of the distinctive nature and potential richness of racial identity.
First graders have been looking carefully at themselves and the different shades of their skin in their classroom and in the art room. In a series of recent classes, they have developed self-portraits that not only represent themselves through drawing, but also utilize their skin colors. One entire class was spent exploring mixing skin colors. Each boy mixed up a large quantity of their skin color that will not only be used for their self-portrait, but will also be used for a series of other projects about themselves. The color mixing process involves constant trial and error, continually testing their colors against their own skin, adjusting the ratios of reds, blues and yellows until the mixture is as close to their own skin color as they can make it.
The boys were amazed to find that all skin colors came from the same three primary colors of red, yellow and blue--those magical colors they learned about in Kindergarten, from which all colors are derived. (Black and white are optional in this color mixing process.)
Students looked at self-portraits by other artists. Students deepened their views of themselves and their own identities through these observations. Other artist self-portraits and portraits that we observed were by Frida Kahlo, Kerry James Marshal, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, all artists from diverse cultural backgrounds. Boys noticed that much information is conveyed through these portraits that goes beyond a simple surface representation.
After completing their self-portraits, students looked at and talked about the results. Skin color, race, and racial identity are more complex than one simple word can describe. Hopefully, these observations will help students understand that words we use to characterize race are not accurate descriptions of skin color. From looking at and talking about their self-portraits, the boys learned that people come in many shades and variations. They learn that one is not better than the other.
The finished self-portraits will be displayed outside the first-grade classroom, along with some other explorations into skin, eye and hair colors.

If you have questions about this month's Curriculum Corner, please contact Sheila Ghidini.
Vocabulary (Taken from Teaching Tolerance):
Color [KUHL-er] (noun) the natural appearance of something, including how bright it is and what shade it is.
Skin [skin] (noun) the outer covering of a human or animal body.
Skin color [skin KUHL-er] (noun) the coloring of a person’s face and skin.

Race [reys] (noun) one of the major groups into which human beings can be divided. As a social construction, it relates to the grouping of people based on shared physical characteristics, such as skin color, often for the purpose of creating the perception of a superior race.
(Note: There are many different ways to define the term race. We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson—and the other lessons in this series—is for students to come to individual and collective understandings of the term that make sense to them and satisfies their personal, developmental, and communal needs.) 
Beauty [BYOO-tee] (noun) the part of a person—or thing—that makes us like how he, she, or it looks.
(Note: There are many different ways to define the term beauty. We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson—and the other lessons in this series—is for students to come to their own understanding of the term and concept.)
Perspective [per-SPEK-tiv] (noun) a way of looking at things.
Portrait [PAWR-trit] (noun) a picture of a person done by someone else.
self-portrait [self-PAWR-trit] (noun) an image of one’s self done by one’s self.
Identity [ahy-DEN-ti-tee] (noun) the sense people have of themselves, who they are, and what they feel is most important and defining about them.

Cathedral School for Boys

1275 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone 415-771-6600
Fax 415-771-2547
Located in San Francisco, CA, Cathedral School for Boys is an independent elementary school for boys in grades K-8. Our mission is to provide an excellent education through intellectual inquiry and rigor that is centered in the Episcopal tradition and is respectful of and welcoming to people of all religious traditions and beliefs.