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Chalk and Tempera Primary Portraits


I’ve been doing a different Kinder portrait for the last ten years of teaching art. I love mixing things up and experimenting with different combination of media. This year, I combined my favorite tempera paint with chalk and oil pastels. This might be my favorite combo of all!




I use one of three techniques for drawing portraits in Kindergarten. All three are outlined in my Fun with Portraits PDF. This year, I used the free-drawing (letter “U”) technique as this year’s group of Kinders collectively had a greater skill set than other years. This is hard to gauge but after doing 5 or 6 projects with the groups already, I can tell just how independent the children like to work. Some years, my sweet kinders need a bit more help. If this is the case, I use an oval template to help the children get started with their portraits. When the group as a whole is slightly more capable, I like to use the letter “U” approach. This means using a basic line and shape method of drawing.


Use an oil pastel on white 12″ x 18″ sulphite paper to draw the letter “U”, add a neck, shoulders, ears, hair and finally the features. Take a look at my Primary Portrait experiment for more details on instruction. My big objective for Kinders is to recognize that the shoulders extend from the neck and not their head!


Use a palette of liquid tempera paint to paint the shirt, background and skin color (in that order). This marks the end of day one. When the background dries, paint hair.


As always, I love to outline with oil pastel. Gives everything a bit more definition and helps minimize unwanted lines by allowing them to recede under the paint.


Use chalk to color in eyes, mouth and cheeks. I decided to use chalk to color in the features as the chalk is much easier to control. The kids loved the smudging of the chalk and had lots of fun painting with their fingers. Some children used the chalk to add details on their shirts and backgrounds.

Portrait making in Kindergarten should have reasonable expectations. I do not expect children to draw their exact likeness. In fact, I don’t use mirrors or talk too much about how to draw their shape of eyes and mouth. If I can get the children to draw two eyes, some type of nose and a mouth, I consider the lesson a success. If the children draw a neck and extend the shoulders from the neck and not the head, I consider the lesson a super success! Some children will obsess over a certain feature, like this little guy on the left. He was really into the eyes and kept going round and round. Who’s to stop him? The little girl’s portrait on the right started off with her shoulders protruding from the head. You can see how she added more lines and then painted her “mistake” away. We do a lot of this in my art class.


This portrait project was a true joy to instruct. The kids loved the entire process and the results were so lovely and individual. I know many parents will be in tears when they receive these precious gems in their child’s end-of-the-year portfolio.

What about you? What is your favorite medium for portrait making?


 Full lesson plan plus eight more portrait lessons available in Fun with Portraits Guidebook PDF Packet:




  1. Love the results of this lesson! Wonderful, colorful portraits full of character!


    March 25, 2013

  2. What a great lesson Patty! Thanks for all your step by step instructions.
    When you use chalk pastel with the younger students, how do you keep them from getting chalk dust all over?

    Sarah J

    March 26, 2013

  3. Please add this to your portrait package! I love, love, love this and will try it with my kinder and first grade students in April. I appreciate the pdf versions, you are amazing.

    Kim Floyd

    March 26, 2013

  4. How do you discuss skin tone? Do you just have a bunch of various of tan, peach, light brown and let them choose? Do you talk about it at all? I work in a primarily white school, with a small amount of ethnicity variation….I’m never sure if I should talk about skin color or not…because its an all kindergarten building, and sometimes I feel like I should suggest that they find a color that sort of matches their skin (Or else ONE kid will get on a green monster kick and the rest of the class wil join in).


    March 27, 2013

    • Great question. I don’t make a big deal of skin color and usually tell the kids to find a shade similar to their skin. But this time, I suggested that if the kids were having trouble finding a match, they could take a bit of paint and brush it carefully on the back of their hand. As soon as I said this, I immediately felt that I may have started a massive body-painting session. But actually, the kids did what I said and applied (very carefully!) the paint to their skin to see what color was best for them. It really was the cutest thing.
      My school has every color of skin so kids realize that colors are different.

      Patty Palmer

      March 27, 2013

      • HA! I actually like the idea of LETTING them put one stripe on the back of their hand. Its getting close to the end of the year and I usually do a self-portrait project in April. We’ve done two back-to-back tempera painting projects, so this lesson would round everything out so nicely, using their prior knowledge and incorporating a variety of materials that we have used this year. I was dreading doing a self-portrait project with crayons after teaching them so much about painting, this actually has me looking forward to it. Thanks for the great lesson!


        March 28, 2013

  5. I was wondering how you organize and distribute paints. Do you teach the kids how to clean their brush in water and dry it? Or do you have all the paints at each table with one brush per color , or maybe skin colors at one table and shirt colors at another table and background colors at another? When I teach the kinder kids about cleaning with water and drying the brush before going to the next color, they tend to not dry the brushes and their paints get all watery.


    March 30, 2013

    • For this lesson, I placed a 6-well palette of skin tone colors (3) plus a few tubs of specially mixed tempera mixed paints on each table group to share. Children painted their faces from the paint in the palette and the shirt and background from the tubs. I placed 4-5 paintbrushes in water containers on each table as well. I don’t use sponges to dry the brushes, just tell the kids to swipe their brushes on the placemat to dry. This works well enough.
      I don’t do this with every single painting lesson. It just depends on how much I need to control the order of the paint, etc.

      Patty Palmer

      March 31, 2013

  6. I really enjoyed reading how you get your students started with their faces in your portrait projects. I am glad to see I am not the only one that has tried many different techniques to help my students with their faces started. Your U idea is a good one; I like to use kind of a pizza idea. I demonstrate this as my students are drawing on their paper line for line. I have my students draw a long line two inches from the top of their paper. Then at the bottom of the paper I have them draw a much shorter line maybe three inches long. I then have them connect the lines with light lines that will be erased latter. This gives them kind of a strange looking piece of pizza, and we know kids love pizza. We then draw darker lines outside of the original lines that are now rounded and I inform them this is the beginnings of their face. I look forward to reading more of your blogs.


    July 3, 2013

  7. Do you outline with black oil pastel yourself after the children have worked on the portraits? These turned out great. I am getting ready to start my first year teaching art at a small private school. Will be visiting your blog a lot!


    August 30, 2013

    • No. I never alter or touch a child’s artwork unless I damaged it somehow! Allow the children to outline. It’s what makes all the portraits unique.

      Patty Palmer

      September 3, 2013

  8. I love your lessons! We’ve done the lesson on Kandinsky and Pete the cat / perspective. Side note: Until a few weeks ago when we did your Pete the Cat art lesson, we’d never read about Pete. Now my six and eight year old are HOOKED on Pete!! Right now, that’s all our six year old has been reading for school. Thank you for that wonderful introduction. 🙂

    The kids have loved the lessons for our home-school. Each Friday our ‘extra’ lesson is art. The kids always look forward to Friday’s, let me tell you! I remember art when I went to school and it was always, always my favorite subject (still is).

    I just bought your portrait package II and am looking forward to introducing new concepts to our girls.

    Thank you so much for your work! We value it and you greatly!!


    Anne 🙂


    December 26, 2013


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