Dimensional Portaits

with Tiffany Lin

Hi! I’m Tiffany Lin. I’m an artist and educator, and I make work about how the United States sees and doesn’t see itself. Today we’ll be creating a three-dimensional profile self-portrait. But there’s much more to this project than simply creating your likeness on paper. This is a project in which the historical context is inseparable from the artistic process.

Silhouette portraiture regained popularity during the late 17th and early 18th century because it was an affordable way to capture someone’s likeness simply by tracing their shadow onto a piece of paper and cutting it out with some scissors.

However, profiles and portraiture weren’t always used to capture the visage of a loved one or an important figure head. They were also used to assess and judge someone’s mental state and intelligence based on physical characteristics.

The study of facial features as a determinant of character and intelligence is called PHYSIOGNOMY. The study of skulls to that same effect was called PHRENOLOGY.

Both physiognomy and phrenology have been around for some time but gained more traction in the 1800s to support the idea that certain groups — often categorized by race — were biologically superior or inferior. This idea was naturally popular among European colonial powers at the time, since it provided an easy justification for their violent exploitations and conquests.

John Vanderlyn, Landing of Columbus, 1847
Oil on canvas, 12 ft x 18 ft

Both phrenology and physiognomy have been discredited as pseudoscience in the modern era, but their influence is still echoed in today’s discourse around race and achievement.

This context is important to allow us to think through the power of an image. If an image like the below is all we ever see, and is accepted as general truth, how does that influence the way we see the world? How might it influence how you feel about yourself in relation to others? And what happens if you don’t see yourself represented at all?

Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980
Egg tempera on paper, 8 in × 6 1/2 in

We also hear the word “profile” in the phrase “racial profiling,” which describes the way law enforcement — or anyone, really — falsely identifies a person as a criminal threat based on perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin. The protests we see today are a response to the long-standing problems of racial profiling within Black and brown communities that led to the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Philando Castile — to name just a few.

David Hammons, America the Beautiful, 1968

Glenn Ligon, No. 752 (Colored People), 1990

Kara Walker, Keys to the Coop, 1997

Kara Walker, Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta, 2005

Fred Wilson, Beauty and Ugliness, 2014

Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997

Many incredible artists have tackled issues of racial profiling in their work, and today we’ll be combining a few of these concepts in our own profiles to rethink how we represent ourselves while owning our physical realities.

You’ll need:

  • A light source
  • Three sheets of paper
    (I use 22 in x 28 in poster boards in the video, but you can also use a stiffer material like cardboard or illustration board, as they will stand up straighter for the second part of this project)
  • Two pieces of cardboard
  • A pencil and markers
  • Scissors
  • Someone to help trace your shadow

Tracing your silhouette

Set up a bright light source so that it shines on a wall. Then, pin up your first piece of paper, sit close to the wall so that you cast a crisp shadow, and have your helper trace your head in pencil. Repeat for your other two pieces of paper.

Filling in your portrait

Move to a flat workspace and start filling in your portrait with whatever materials speak to you. You can use pencils, markers, paint, ribbons, glitter, clay — anything that will stick to the surface. (In the next step we’ll be writing on our portraits, so make sure you leave room to write on at least one.) When you’re done and your portraits have had time to dry, cut them out and erase any leftover pencil marks.

In the video, I use black sumi ink, gesso, and gouache. My poster boards are white, pink, and sky-patterned. I begin by laying down an even black base on my white board, following the pencil line of my traced shadow (the high contrast of black and white will be easy to write on). I then let this dry as I work on the other two portrait layers. For my pink board, I want to subdue the bright neon with gouache paint on top. As I start to lay colors down, I begin to see different forms and shapes, and lean into the visual suggestion of a flower. I already like the way the sky-patterned paper looks, so I just cut it out as-is.

Writing on your portrait

Before you start writing, make a mind map to reflect on the language you use to describe yourself. It doesn’t have to obey any conventions. If identifying yourself by race, ethnicity, or gender is important to you, put it down. If you want to think beyond that, consider other elements that define you — your family, interests, or hobbies. Once you’re done mapping, write over your portrait in any way you like.

For my portrait, I thought about where I grew up and where I’m living now. Then I came up with an impromptu poem and painted it on top of the black silhouette with white gesso.

Building your portrait

At this point, you have three complete portraits. You might consider installing them flat on the wall in various configurations, but for the purposes of this project, we want to see how adding more dimensionality—showing certain parts, obscuring others—changes the effect of the portraits. You can do so in two different ways: 1) by building a cardboard stand for your portraits or 2) by crossing two portraits together.

To build your stand, take two rectangular pieces of cardboard and cut three notches in each. Then, install your profiles by sliding them into the notches so that they stand upright. If you find that your paper is too floppy, you can always back it with a piece of cardboard or cardstock. Play around with the order and orientation of your portraits. How does it change your perception of the piece? The stand also allows you to easily play around with how the pieces collapse and expand by changing the angle of the cardboard.

Another way to install these portraits is to take two and cut one down its center from the top to the mid-way point and cut the other down the center from the bottom up to the mid-way point.

Then, when you slide them together, they create a multi-sided profile that stands on its own, with a different dimensionality. You can spend more time decorating the different sides so that each quadrant can tell a different story.

Once you’re done, take a few minutes to pause and think about your portrait. When you look at it, you’ll hopefully realize that it starts to change the way you see yourself and the way you see other people.

Thank you so much for participating in this activity! And thank you so much to the Wassaic Project for having me to be a part of this educational initiative. If you'‘d like to share what you’ve created, please email photos to jill@wassaicproject.org.

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For teachers

If you are an educator looking to adapt this lesson plan for a unit on American history — especially units about race, ethnicity, and identity — please also look into Teaching Tolerance and the Zinn Education Project. These are incredible online resources with tons of different lesson plans organized by grade level so you can find what’s most appropriate for your class.

Another resource I would like to share is a text by James Baldwin called “A Talk to Teachers.” I think it’s a really important essay to read, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed or challenged by the current political situation, or dealing with difficult topics in the classroom. It explains how we as educators must always adopt a critical stance and remind ourselves that we too are learning — and that part of being an educator is to help students to become more critical of the society that they are living in so that they can make it a better place.

About the Artist

Tiffany Lin is a visual artist, wordsmith, and dreamer. Her work examines how power is expressed in the subtext of American vernacular. Through a multidisciplinary practice that spans drawing and performance, she demonstrates how language is deployed tactically to conceal white hegemony under a framework of neutrality while non-white bodies are marked as conditional. Lin holds a MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Illustration Practice and a BA in Gender & Women's Studies and Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She currently lives and works in Las Vegas where she joins the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as a Visiting Assistant Professor.