The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

Advanced Collection search

Self image: basic materials and techniques

Basic materials and techniques

An important aspect to consider when making a self-portrait is what will it be made of?

Your choice of material: medium will make a big difference to the style and feeling of your self-portrait.

What do you hope to achieve and what are your requirements?

Do you have time to work on a slow-drying oil painting or do you want to make a spontaneous portrait which can be quickly completed in minutes?

Take a few moments before you start to consider your options.

make your mark

Pencil sharpener

Drawings can be purely linear, made up entirely of outline, or tight, detailed and tonal. They can also work well when combined with other media and be enhanced by a light wash of watercolour or details can be picked out with pen and ink.

Typically pencil works best on paper with a slight texture or tooth such as cartridge and can work well on an off white or coloured paper to give more warmth and depth.
In this way the paper colour can act as a mid-tone.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
NPG 857

For any detail it is important to work with a sharp point and to take time to remember to sharpen your pencil from time to time.

Erasers can be useful if correcting mistakes and to create highlights. Putty rubbers are especially good as they can be shaped into points and remove fine details from the drawing.

Pencil can be used in different ways to build a detailed drawing, shaded areas can be smudged with the finger or marks can be laid side-by-side or cross-hatched to create depth or shadow. Even scoring into the paper can add interesting effects.

Roger Hilton
by Roger Hilton
circa 1940
NPG 5725

Ambrose McEvoy
by Ambrose McEvoy
circa 1912
NPG 2790

The quality of the mark depends on the soft/hardness of the pencil, the pressure applied to the pencil and the speed with which the mark is made.

Frank Auerbach
by Frank Auerbach
NPG 6611

Johan Joseph Zoffany
by Johan Joseph Zoffany
circa 1795
NPG 2536

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
NPG 4814

Gaudier-Brzeska was a sculptor and this stylized drawing recalls an early twentieth century cubist style of working which makes us aware of the physical planes of his face and body. We can almost see how a sculpture made from this drawing would look.

The features are more angular than they would appear in real-life. The artist has used cross-hatching to create tonal areas, building up a series of diagonal lines placed tightly together in the darker shadows and spaced further apart suggesting light. At the same time the loose fitting open necked shirt lends the drawing an intimate and informal feel.

Graham Sutherland
by Graham Sutherland
circa 1945-1946
NPG 5337

get your fingers dirty

Charcoal sticks / pastels
Charcoal pencil
Paper / card
Drawing board
Masking tape
Pencil sharpener or craft knife
Fixative spray

Like pencils, charcoal can also be used in preparation for a painting or as finished drawings. Charcoal has great versatility and is often used for making spontaneous drawings either on its own or with additional chalk highlights.

Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey
by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey
circa 1802
NPG 654

The twisted angle of the head in this charcoal drawing gives it a quirky, yet imperious feel. The paper has been left untouched to suggest the lightest areas and the charcoal marks become progressively stronger and blacker in the shadowed areas towards the jaw.
(This is called a 'chiarascuro' effect see

The marks on the darker side of the face have been blended with a brush and thin wash of water giving a stronger sense of form and solidity. A cigarette or pencil protruding from the artist's mouth forces the lips to curl in an expression that could be either a smile or sneer. His shirt has been sketched in loosely to make the viewer focus on the more detailed features of the face.


white cliffs of Dover? http://...chalk

The gestural marks and broken lines of John Craxton's drawing make it appear lively and modern. Bold black chalk creates a strong outline contrasted with feathery, light touches and the artist has allowed the green of the paper to remain untouched creating a warmer mid-tone. White chalk highlights have been added sparingly to suggest light but the strength of the drawing is in its simplified, slightly naïve style. Consider how different the drawing would be if the artist had chosen to work on white rather than coloured paper.

... continue 

Do, draw and make!

Do, draw and make!

From building dens to food faces – enjoy our Playful Portraits activities and find out about some brilliant people!

Get Creative

Healthcare Heroes

Activities for children and families inspired by three healthcare heroes from our Collection.

Learn together

Learning resources

Downloadable and web based resources to support learning at home linked to art, history, citizenship and literacy.

Get learning