Today we are looking to an American artist for our inspiration: Alex Katz. Katz is an American figurative artist, meaning he primarily creates portraits of people. His portraits are minimalist, colorful, and highly contrasted. The Phillips Collection acquired Katz’s three-portrait series Brisk Day in 2013. Using this artwork as our foundation, today’s project will explore different mediums (the material used to create a work of art) and result in three separate portraits of our favorite subject—you!
LOOK CLOSELY: Do all three portraits represent the same subject? What similarities do you see? What differences? How do the variations in color and line change the mood or impression of the subject? Choose three adjectives to describe each portrait.
How do you think Katz created these subtle differences between each portrait?
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Alex Katz was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. He began his career as a painter and painting remains the basis of his artistic practice today. Although he preceded the movement, his work is often equated with Pop Art (such as the work of Andy Warhol). Mid-century commercial billboards and Japanese woodcuts influenced his style, as evidenced in his use of simplified lines and forms and reductive, flat application of color.
Katz began to explore portraiture in the 1950s. His portraits generally begin with a sitting; the subject spends a couple hours with the artist as he makes a small oil painting and, later, a more detailed sketch. He then enlarges his sketch and transfers the outline to a much larger canvas, sometimes using a projector to aid in this process. Some of Katz’s canvases stretch as large as 7 x 12 feet! In 1965, Katz also began printmaking. As in Brisk Day, he has worked in lithography, etching, and relief printing. The differences between these techniques account for the slight variations in the final portraits. Despite working in a new medium, Katz maintained many of his signature stylistic choices, such as a monochromatic background and dramatically cropped faces.
- Access to a camera, computer, and printer
- Computer paper
- Three different mediums (quick-drying options such as colored-pencils, crayons, and markers are recommended)
- Glue stick
- 5 and up (with adult supervision and assistance)
- 2 – 4 hours
1. Option 1: Have a quick 15-30 minute photo-shoot. Choose a location with a blank background (a white or cream wall is perfect). The main focus of the photographs should be your face and shoulders. This type of portrait focuses the viewer’s attention on the expression and character of the subject. You may choose to smile or smirk, look directly at the camera, or look off into the distance (Alex Katz has represented many different expressions in his artworks).
Option 2: Select a photograph of yourself. Crop the image so that you are the only person in the photograph. The background should be minimal so that your profile is the focus of the image.
“Portraits capture appearance and tie a picture to the time or moment. The clothes are definitely important in portraits” – Alex Katz
- Tip: Choose a fun accessory or signature item of clothing. “Brisk Day” has also been called “Lady in Red” because of the subject’s striking red coat.
- Tip: Try to wear solid colors and simple clothing. This will help create more defined outlines.
- Tip: You may choose to smile but be aware that toothy grins can be difficult to capture as an outline.
2. Select your favorite photograph and upload it to a nearby computer.
3. Use the Rapid Resizer online software to convert your photograph into a black and white stencil outline.
- Step 1: Upload your cropped photograph into “Load a Photo”
- Step 2: Choose the Adaptive option under “Turn it Into a Design”
- Step 3: Play around with the adaptive feature until you are happy with your stencil. I made my image slightly darker in order to create thicker outlines.
- Step 4: Under “Print” select the Print on One Page option. Print 3 copies.
4. Now the fun part! Choose a different medium for each portrait. Make sure that the same colors are available in each medium because your color choices will remain the same. Alex Katz chooses one dominant color for his portraits. In “Brisk Day” the woman’s coat and the background are shades of red. Select one dominant color for your portrait and only a few additional colors.
5. Color one of your portraits with one medium. Colors are applied in bold, flat sections in Katz’ artworks; some outlines remain visible but color is the dominant force. His subjects are composed primarily of simplified lines and forms.
6. Follow the same steps for your second and third portraits. Although you are using a new medium for each portrait, keep the color choices as consistent as possible.
7. Optional: Using a glue stick, attach the three portraits to a larger piece of paper to create a frame. Apply the glue stick very lightly around the back edges of your portraits in order to maintain a smooth surface. The layout may be horizontal or vertical (both options are visible below).
8. Take a step-back and enjoy your creation! Did you prefer working with one medium? What differences do you notice? Look at the different textures and colors created by each medium. Please share your final project with us @phillipscollection on Instagram or @PhillipsMuseum on Twitter. Also, look below for more examples created by the wonderful Phillips Collection 2015 summer interns!
*For more information on Alex Katz, see his recent interview with Geoff Edgers of the Washington Post.
Hayley Prihoda, K12 Education Intern