clay mask portrait lesson

Expressive Clay Portrait Lesson

Expressive Clay Portrait Lesson

If you are looking for a great secondary clay artwork, this expressive clay portrait lesson is my all time favorite!  Students get to learn the basics of clay while exploring expression and facial features.  There are so many directions to take and tons of artists to inspire your students. It is also a cost effective lesson that does not require much clay per student.

Do you have a short attention span like me? Here is a quick snapshot of each step to create a clay portrait or mask:

If you are more of a video person, this detailed video will show you and your students how to sculpt each facial features and add surface texture. It is great for reviewing steps and to give students a visual overview of the process. I use this as supplemental instruction, but it allows students to work more independently if they need extra help or review.

Classroom Tested Tutorial:

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Purchasing clay can be a stressful experience. The shipping costs can really add up and there are so many options to choose from. I love Amaco and Laguna, and  I recently purchased this other brand because of the price, and it has also been excellent.

Standard Ceramic 105 White Clay - 50 lb Amaco No. 25 White Art Clay - 50 lb

If you do not have a kiln, do not fear! I love this assignment because you can also do it with air dry clay. This clay feels almost exactly like kiln fired clay with classroom approved results.

Amaco Mexican Pottery Clay - 5 lb Amaco Stonex White Clay - 5 lb

Wooden tools are my favorite and I stock up whenever my school budget allows. Bamboo wooden skewers are a great alternative to needle tools when your class sizes or trust issues limit you. There are many brands to choose from, but Richeson and Kemper seem to hold up the best.

Deluxe Pottery Tools - Set of 27 Kemper Pottery Tool Kit

***This post contains affiliate links to products I truly love and use in my classroom. If you use these links to buy something I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

I like to start this unit sketching accurate human facial proportions.  We do some guided drawing using a free PDF resource I found online.  Since it is not my work, I won’t attach that file here.  Google “facial proportion guidelines” and show your students the ones that you like the most.

This video will also break down the basics of facial proportions. 

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After our guided drawing, students spend the rest of class sketching their own ideas.  They can distort or exaggerate facial expressions and fuse together human, animal and fantasy ideas.  This is such a fun and open ended way for students to explore portraits.  You can be more specific with theme or concept, but I usually let students explore their own ideas while emphasizing expression.

We start by wedging a handful of clay into a hamburger patty style oval.  Once the shape is somewhat oval and somewhat equal in thickness, we use the rolling pin a couple times to even everything out.  Sometimes students can tap it on the table or the palm of their hand to create their desired form.  Some prefer to use a needle tool or wooden skewer to cut out the shape of their head.


We then use paper towels to round out the clay and create a more 3-dimensional effect.  We lightly sketch facial proportion guidelines on the clay so students get an idea of where each facial feature will be attached.  I encourage students to think outside the box, but to sketch accurate proportions first before distorting them.  

expressive clay portrait

The scariest part for students is pushing in the clay to create eye sockets.  We do this together and I walk around the room to check on timid students.  It is important to do this during the first or second class period, before the clay starts to become more leather hard. 

Eye brows are an easy feature and I often start with them.  We roll little coils and then I aggressively supervise their score, slip and blend technique.  I have been known to pull off facial features to check for score marks.  I like to use slip instead of just water and we apply it with a paintbrush. 

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expressive clay portrait

Currently, I teach 45 minute class periods and I like to demonstrate a facial feature per day so students can focus and practice on one part of the face.  Once students get the hang of things it’s a great flow.  I like to include a few buffer days in between that I call “creativity and refinement days” to give students more independent work time.

The eyes are the trickiest facial feature, but only because attaching the tiny little eyelids can be tedious.  Once students are working on the eyes and mouth I really emphasize the importance of playing around with expression.  We look at a variety of artists that use the human face for inspiration and students love coming up with their own designs.

Art History Connections

Students love looking at Japanese theatre masks. They are so expressive and are impressively crafted. Even though they aren’t made out of clay students really connect to how the facial features are sculpted. We do daily Art History warm-ups based on the Feldman’s Method of Art Criticism so spark classroom discussion and analysis.

Kimmy Cantrell is a contemporary ceramicist that is really fun to contrast with the more naturalistic Japanese masks. His artwork is fun, abstract and allows students to relax about making a “perfect” face.

These warm-ups are such a great way to hit all of the national and state standards and are great weekly formative assessment grades. You will hear complaints about writing in art class, but the number of artists students are introduced too dramatically increases. So does their art criticism skills and appropriate use of art vocabulary. And hey, if I changed what I taught based on teenager complaints we would not get much done. 🙂

Display Options

A good tip I learned from the Amaco website is to attach two clay tabs with holes so that you can attach wire after it comes out of the kiln.  This helps students display their work vertically on the wall instead of just sitting flat on a table. I also have glued these to painted boards and hung those for display. Some table top easels will work too, it just depends on how sturdy they are.

Expressive Clay Mask Student Work

Here are some of my students’ work. I LOVE the creativity, expression and surface treatment variety. Students love this assignment and I never get bored with it.

Glazing or Painting?

There are so many great glazing and cold finish techniques for this.  We usually do acrylic paint because I have class sizes of 40 and glazes are so expensive.  While the clay dries out for the kiln (I am crazy so I do a two week minimum) we move on to our color theory acrylic painting lesson.  This helps the end result be successful because all students have tons of painting experience leading up to their clay portrait being fired.

This video helps my students play around with mixing neutrals so they can achieve their desired skin tone.

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A fool proof method is doing a metallic dry brush finish. This elevates clay and it guaranteed to be 100% successful no matter the ability level of the student.

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Chroma Molten Metals Acrylics - Set of 6 Colors Amaco Rub 'n Buff Metallic Finish - 1/2 oz, Antique Gold

The Chroma Molten Metals have never let me down. I use this product on SO many different artworks. If you are looking for a higher end result, these Rub ‘n Buff (yes, be prepared for side eyes when your students see this product name) are amazing. They are oil based and do have a strong smell, but a little goes a long way and the results are stunning.

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What are your favorite clay lessons? I’d love to hear from you!