From Realism to Abstraction: The Picasso Portrait Challenge

Julie Shaffer is a docent at Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. This is her second semester volunteering with Art Sphere. She loves yoga, artisan ice cream, post-modern fiction, and art history.  Julie wants to cultivate a love and appreciation of art in young children.

What is a portrait? What makes up a face? How many eyes, noses, and mouths are on a face? Can we break those rules? We explored these topics with the students at Fishtown Recreation Center this week with a lesson on Picasso’s Cubist style of portrait paintings. The students were skeptical at first, but once they agreed to suspend reality, creativity abounded and they embraced Cubism with zest.

Begin with Realism. Realism in art is when the artwork is an accurate and detailed depiction of nature or life. It’s what you might see in real life. Here, our subject matter was portraits. We began with a brief discussion about the features that are part of a human face — two eyes, one nose, one mouth. 

Next, distort reality.  To begin our descent into abstraction, the students created collage portraits using magazine cutouts of eyes, noses and mouths. Skin-toned crayons provided finishing touches. The result was a “mostly accurate” portrait with mixed up features. In simple terms, we discussed how Cubism is a style of art that used simple shapes to portray a subject from more than one viewpoint at the same time. The key idea was that the artist was not trying to make something that looked like real life.

Finally, go full-blown abstract. The students were ready to channel their inner Picassos. In a directed drawing lesson using oil pastel crayons on paper, we demonstrated how to create a Cubist portrait in the style of Pablo Picasso.

Step 1: Using a black oil pastel, draw the biggest oval you can on the paper. 

Step 2: Draw a vertical line to divide the face in half. The less straight the line, the more interesting your portrait will be.

Step 3: Draw at least three eyes, two noses, and two mouths on either side of the face.

Step 4: Finish with additional features such as hair, ears, eyelashes, facial hair, etc.

Step 5: Time to add color . . . be creative!

Step 6: Name your portrait, or leave it untitled. (Many of Picasso’s portraits are simply referred to as “Untitled”). 


Smile and say “Pablo Picasso!” Our young artists really shined and expressed creativity, individuality, and much silliness when creating their portraits. These preschoolers exhibited attentive listening skills during the directed drawing lesson and also a great amount of patience in waiting for each step. After completing each drawing step, they held up their black oil pastels in the air and waited until their peers finished too. Then the group as a whole moved onto the next step. We have found that this method helps children from racing to be the first one done and more importantly, causes them to apply an artistic eye by reflecting on their art and continuing to refine it with more color and details.

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