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Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family

Artist Unidentified
Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family,
circa 1824

Collage Family Portraits

Visual Arts Lesson

Students will be able to:

  • Describe and interpret the family portrait The Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family.
  • Understand portraiture and how artists use composition and include details to provide information about the subject.
  • Understand how portraits represent the cultural values of the time.
  • Develop skills and understanding of how to draw portraits, including the human face and body proportions.
  • Develop skills in collage and create a collage family portrait that includes a background and significant objects.


Teacher Reflection 1

Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family (one 45-minute class)

  • Ask students what they know about portraits.
    • What is a portrait?
    • Have they ever had a portrait made of them or their family?
  • Introduce the Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family portrait to the class.
    • Who is featured in this portrait?
    • Do you think they are from the same family?
    • How are these people related?
    • Where are they sitting?
    • What kind of furnishings and objects do you see?
    • What kind of clothes are they wearing?
    • Are the clothing styles modern or old-fashioned?
    • When do you think this painting was made?
    • Now have the students focus more on the elements of art they see in the portrait.
      • What colors do you see?
      • Where are the highlights? Where are the shadows? What effect does that have?
      • Does the portrait show balance? How?
      • What textures do you see? Compare the different textures of the clothing, lace, hair, skin, upholstery, curtain, table, and scissors, pincushion, etc.
      • How do you feel about the portrait and the people in it?
      • Would you want to live at the time this portrait was painted?
      • Ask the students to discuss who they think these people are, what their relationships are, and what their life was like. Why do you think the Gerrish family had their portrait made?
      • What do you know about this family and the time in which it was created? Use the essay about the Gerrish Family to explain the story of this family and portrait.
      • Have the students look quietly and write three responses to the question, “When I look at the Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family portrait I see…”
  • Explain to students that they will make a collage family portrait of their own families. This activity relates to their study of immigration and writing their family histories in the social studies class.

Teacher Reflection 2

Creating a family portrait (four 45-minute classes)

  • When introducing the collage family portrait activity, tell students about the criteria for the project, which are:
    • Art vocabulary
    • Background setting
    • Proper drawing of the eye
    • Proper eye placement on the face
    • Realistic body features
    • Special objects that represent the family
    • Overall arrangement: composition and balance
  • Explain that they will have instruction about these criteria and that they are to keep them in mind when creating their final work. Their use and understanding of art vocabulary will be a factor throughout the project during discussions of the Gerrish Family portrait and their own artwork. Use the Teacher checklist/rubric—Lesson criteria while observing the students at work.
  • Begin by having students create an Art Process Journal for this project. This can simply be a few pieces of 8½ x 14 or 11 x 17-inch white paper stapled together. Students will use this journal to make sketches, work out ideas, and write reflections about the project.
  • Begin with sketches of the human face and eyes. Show close up examples of how artists draw eyes, and demonstrate how to use highlights, shadows, and lines to draw accurate eyes. Students should practice in their journals.
  • Next, show details of portraits, focusing on just the faces. Have students examine how the parts of the face are arranged in relation to each other. They should notice how the eyes are halfway down the face and are roughly parallel to the tops of the ears. Demonstrate how to draw the face, and have students make practice sketches in their journals.
  • Show some examples of the human body in art and review basic proportions. Hand out the Body Proportions sheet to explain how to accurately show the human body.
  • Once students have a good understanding and several sketches about how to draw the human face and body, have them begin to brainstorm their own collage family portrait. Who will they include? What will the setting be? Why? What objects will be included? Why are those objects special or important? What do the setting and the objects tell us about your family?
  • Before students begin work on their collage family portrait, return to the Joseph Marriner Gerrish Family to consider the composition of the portrait. Ask the students to look carefully and describe how the four people are arranged across the picture plane.
    • Starting with the mother on the left side, how is she sitting? Have the students describe the way her body is slightly angled and how her arm is bent. Is she facing us directly or is her face in profile? Now move to the little boy next to her. What is his pose? Can the students create that pose themselves? How are his legs and arms arranged? Have them notice how he leans on his mother. Is he facing us directly? Where is he looking? This little boy’s arm reaches up and holds his brother’s hand. Their hands are at the center of the painting. Have the students describe the little boy standing up. Where is his other arm? Is he looking directly out at us? Now to the father on the right, where is he looking? How is his body angled? Where are his two hands? Point out how the mother and father frame the children, their bodies turn in slightly from the edge of the painting, helping to focus our attention on the children in the middle. Have the students trace how each person is connected to those next to them, and have them notice that their heads are not on a straight line across the picture but are at different levels. All of these elements of the composition create visual interest in the painting and also communicate about the relationships between the people in the portrait.
  • Your students may wish to bring to class a photograph of a family portrait from home to compare to the Gerrish Family portrait (or the teacher can bring in one of his/her own). Discuss the realism that the camera captures in comparison to the oil painting of the Gerrish Family portrait. Compare and contrast the purposes of these portraits. Discuss the differences and similarities in clothing styles, hairstyles, attitudes, objects included, and composition. What do these details tell us about each family? Each time period?
  • Use the Teacher checklist/rubric—Art Process Journals to assess the students’ work.

Teacher Reflection 3

Collage family portrait (three or four 45-minute classes)

  • Before students begin their collages, have them make a sketch of their family portrait, including the arrangement of the figures, the setting, and the objects. They will use this sketch as reference as they work on the collage.
  • Introduce the concept of a collage to the students; explain that a collage is a work of art that combines found objects with painting and drawing on a flat surface.
  • Demonstrate how to make a collage including proper gluing techniques.
  • Have a variety of patterned papers, wallpaper samples, fabric scraps, etc. for students to use in their collages.
  • Students begin with the background, creating their own pattered papers or using some provided to them. Once they have the basic elements of the setting glued onto their paper, they can move on to the details of objects and people.
  • Students use multicultural crayons to create various skin tones for the faces. They will cut out the shapes of the heads, and then draw the individual features of eyes, mouth, etc. onto those shapes. The patterned papers can be used for hair, clothes, and other objects.
  • As students are working, remind them of the criteria and ask them to consider the eyes, the face, the body, and the overall composition.
  • When the students have completed their family portraits, mount them on larger, heavier paper and display them with the family histories they wrote in the social studies class. Students can share their writing and collages with each other.
  • Students complete the Self-assessment—Collage family portraits. Teachers can use the Teacher checklist/rubric—Lesson criteria as a final assessment.


  • 8½ x 14 or 11 x 17-inch white paper
  • Staples
  • Pencils
  • 12 x 18-inch card stock or cardboard background
  • Wallpaper samples, a variety of patterned papers, fabric scraps
  • Construction paper in a variety of colors
  • Crayons (multicultural sets for a variety of skin tones), colored pencils, and/or oil pastels
  • Scissors
  • Glue sticks
  • White glue

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