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Jim Nutt, Wee Jim's Black Eye, 1986. Acrylic on Masonite with artist's painted frame, 26 1/8 x 21 inches. The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Lesson Plan | Jim Nutt: Grayscale Self-Portrait Paintings – MMoCA


Wee Jim’s Black Eye, 1986, acrylic on Masonite with artist-painted frame 


Visual Art, Language Arts, Social Studies, Anti-bullying, Social/Emotional Learning 


Meri Lau, art educator 

Essential Questions

  1. What is the value of engaging in the process of art criticism?
  2. How can the viewer “read” a work of art as text?
  3. How does knowing and using visual art vocabularies help us understand and interpret the work of art? 

Grade Level



  • Students will interpret intent and meaning in artistic work. Students will gain insights into meanings of artworks by engaging in the process of art criticism. 


Introduce Jim Nutt’s Wee Jim’s Black Eye and engage students in discussion. Students may explore other portraits by Jim Nutt to understand what the artist was trying to express. Examples of discussion topics for Wee Jim’s Black Eyeinclude bullying, being ashamed, or making a mistake. Let them know that they will make a self-portrait art puzzle in gray scale.

Enduring Understanding
People gain insights into meanings of artworks by engaging in the process of art criticism.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you “read” a portrait? What can a portrait tell us about the person and/or the artist?
  2. What do you notice about this face?
  3. What does this portrait tell us about Wee Jim and/or the artist?
  4. What may have happened to Wee Jim?
  5. How does this portrait make us feel?
  6. Jim Nutt also painted works of art using colors other than black, white, and gray. (Show examples, such as Nutt’s painting, Cheek.) What do you think about the artist’s use of color in his painting, Cheek? Compare other portraits by Jim Nutt and notice their differences and similarities. How do you feel about these portraits?
  7. Does color make it easier to relate to the person who is portrayed? Why or why not?
  8. How does color change how we look at the portrait? How might it affect our emotions or ideas?


Demonstrate using a palette to mix gray using equal parts of blue, green, and red paint. Dip into white to change the tint of gray.

Ask students to look carefully at the way Jim Nutt has “framed” the portrait of Wee Jim. Ask, “What does the frame do for the portrait?” “Where does it make us look?”

Ask students to use four colors of paper, black, dark gray, light gray, and white, and cut them into shapes to form a head. Cut head, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, eyebrows, hair, neck and shoulders. Use gray or black markers to add small details.  Give each student a cardboard frame to arrange the cut out shapes inside to form a gray scale portrait.

Afterwards, students can store their gray scale pieces in an envelope and take it home as a puzzle that can be shared with family or friends.

Part 1
Students show what they learned about portrait and identity by creating a self-portrait in grayscale that resembles their self. They will include parts of a portrait: head, neck, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hair.

Part 2
Students will arrange self-portraits on their table and see if they can match the portraits with the identities of the student artists, trying to identify features or emotions from the self-portraits. Photograph the group work and individual self-portraits.

Part 3
Students write their names on slips of paper and place them in the middle of each table. Classmates select a strip during the gallery time to match up with the self-portrait.

Part 4
Students make portraits of their friends or another person and students in table groups guess who the identities using color shapes?


Language Arts, Social Studies, Social/Emotional Learning, Theater, Science 


National Core Arts Standards


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