Heroic Portraits- A lesson plan

THE ATOM, 1962.

Mel Ramos (American, born 1935)

Oil on canvas, 50 x 44 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1986.6.


Students will learn how artists communicate through portraiture, about the literary term, allegory, and then they will write a poem applying these communication strategies. They will also learn about facial proportions.


ProportionThe size relationships of one part to the whole and one part to another. 

About the Artist

In 1962, when Mel Ramos portrayed The Atom, also known as The Mighty Mite, in the grand tradition of oil painting, such superheroes were still considered subversive, corrupting agents on America’s youth. Only eight years earlier the comic industry, bowing to Congressional pressure, had agreed to police itself, assuring that in their stories, crime and criminals would be punished and good triumph over evil.

It is not without some irony that Mel Ramos describes his choice of superhero subjects in the early 1960s as merely painting the people he respected and admired. Ramos came to his Pop Art subjects not only because they were contemporary, but because after a half-century of pictorial innovation by Picasso, Matisse, and Willem de Kooning, he felt the pursuit of traditional portrait and still-life painting lacked authenticity. Instead, Ramos found inspiration in the saturation of American life with television and pulp media, which drew many artists, including Warhol, to depict its characters. Ramos’s new subject matter and Pop Art broadly projected the interests and experience of an emerging generation.

Here, Ramos’ adoption of the flat colors associated with comics is evident although, in actuality, his paint handling is precise. The Atom was among many superheroes he depicted, including the iconic Green Lantern and Superman. In this large canvas, the Atom, whose power lay in his ability to diminish in size, even to the atomic level, struggles against a carnivorous Venus flytrap. Playing off this concept of scale, Ramos gives his tiny specimen a monumental portrayal with billboard-like appeal.


Help students to see where the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears are located on the face of the figure in the artwork. 

Additional questions to ask your students:

  • What do you think the artist was telling you about the person?
  • What can you tell about the person by the clothes he/she is wearing?
  • Where is the person looking? How does this affect you?
  • What does the person’s body language say about him/her?
  • What is he/she doing with his/her hands?
  • Would you like to meet this person? Why or why not?
  • What else do you see in the artwork that helps to tell you what the artist was trying to say?
  • What does the title of the artwork tell you?


Part 1: Hand out blank paper to each student. Have the students use a pencil and direct them to draw a face. Have students share with each other, finding similarities and differences in their drawings.

Part 2: Ask the students to turn over their drawings from step 1. Model for the students each step and check for understanding.

  • Direct the students to fold their papers once horizontally and once vertically creating fold lines in the shape of a plus.
  • Next have the students to draw an oval on the page so that it covers most of the page (they will need to leave space to put in ears, hair, and neck). Make sure the oval is centered on the page and covers all four quadrants of the paper.
  • Have the students draw the eyes on the fold that goes across, spaced evenly on either side of the vertical fold line.
  • Have the students draw the nose and lips on the vertical fold under the eyes. The nose is half-way between the eyes and the mouth, and both are centered on the vertical line.
  • Have the students draw the ears just below the horizontal line on either side of the oval. Add hair, a neck, and any other details. 

Hand out white paper and colored pencils. Tell the students that they may create a self-portrait, a portrait of a friend, a created person, or a superhero. Encourage students to be conscious about their use of color, to make deliberate choices to help influence the viewer.

Allow some time for the students to talk about their artwork. Either as a whole class or in small groups let them talk about what they liked best about their piece, and one thing they would do differently.


In steps 2 and 4, using Focused Viewing Questions allows the teacher to help the student to examine the artwork closely, to really “look” at the piece. The questions given are merely examples. The teacher is encouraged to add any questions as they deem necessary, as well as encourage questions from the students. This lesson can be divided into three lessons at steps 7 and 10.


The following California content standards are directly addressed in this lesson for the grade levels indicated. Although not listed here, this lesson also meets similar content standards in other grade levels.

Visual Art

Creating – Anchor Standard 2: Organize and Develop Artistic Ideas and Work (7.VA:Cr2.1, 2.3)

Responding— Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and Analyze Artistic Work (7.VA:Re7.1-2, 5.VA:Re7.1-2); Anchor Standard 8: Interpret Intent and Meaning in Artistic Work (7.VA:Re8, 7.VA:Re9)

English Language Arts




Supplemental materials:

Facial features

Facial dimensions


  • Blank white paper-two pieces per student
  • Pencil
  • Colored pencils


60 minutes

Grade Level



  • Visual Art


  • Drawing
  • Local Artists
  • People
  • Simple


  • Oil Pastels




Crocker Art Museum

Leave a Reply