Painter Kehinde Wiley Inspires Eighth-Grade Portraiture Project to Celebrate Black Lives

Manhattan Middle School students in Abby DeLuca and Hattie Schapiro’s eighth-grade art classes painted portraits of Black leaders, entertainers, artists, athletes, activists, and politicians in the style of renowned portrait painter, Kehinde Wiley.  

“It is incredibly important to highlight Black lives and Black role models with our students, and this portraiture study was one way to do that,” said Ms. DeLuca. “Although we began this long-term project in February during Black History Month, we are displaying the students’ artwork now in June because we celebrate Black lives throughout the year.” 

The class examined many examples of Kehinde Wiley’s work, including his famed portrait of President Barack Obama, to study his style of combining a naturalistic approach to his figures and patterned backgrounds. 

The students selected subjects with whom they connected or shared a passion. For example, one eighth grader, who is heavily involved in student council, chose to highlight Vice President Kamala Harris. A tennis player naturally decided to paint Arthur Ashe. One student, who is committed to social justice work, spotlighted Colin Kaepernick. A budding scientist was eager to feature chemist Alice Ball.  

After identifying their portrait subject, each eighth grader was provided with the individual’s photograph. The student traced the subject’s face on acetate, carefully mixed their acrylic paints to closely resemble the individual’s skin tone, before focusing on their line work to detail the contours of facial features in Sharpie. Next, the students painted their patterned background in a style reminiscent of Kehinde Wiley. To complete their piece, the students placed their portraits done on acetate on top of their background painting, so the portrait subjects would stand out boldly.  

Click here to view photos of the gallery of portraits.