Art explainer: how to read a portrait

At first sight, portraits can seem to be simply an image of a person or a group of people. But by looking closely and ‘reading’ a portrait, we can discover so much more. Consider what you can learn by looking closely at different portraits from the National Portrait Gallery's Collection. Develop your skills in analysing portraits and explore how artists use different elements, techniques and media to communicate mood, feelings and ideas.


  • How to read a portrait

    At first glance, a portrait can appear to be simply an image of a person or a group of people. But by looking closely and ‘reading’ a portrait, we can discover so much more.

    The first step is to look at the portrait for at least a minute, and ask yourself things like, ‘What do I think it's trying to say?’

    ‘Do I connect with it in any way?’

    ‘How would I describe what I can see?’

    You could make some drawings and notes to help you process your ideas.

    The next step is to look at the different portrait elements, including what the person is wearing, how they’re posing and the expression on their face, where they’re looking, what’s in the background, and whether there are any objects or symbols. The different portrait elements become like visual clues. They can help us discover what the artist is trying to say about the person in the portrait, known as the sitter.

    Look at this portrait of the writer Zadie Smith by Toyin Ojih Odutola. Smith is wearing a red cape and gold shoes which make her look heroic. The artist wanted to show her as a strong and self-assured woman. Smith’s hair is uncovered in a natural Afro style, celebrating her identity as a Black woman. Smith’s pose is relaxed and confident with her legs and arms casually crossed and her head tilted. Her expression is warm and friendly. The background shows a map of London and palm leaf shadows, which relate to her British/Jamaican heritage.

    In this self-portrait, the photographer Dorothy Wilding has included an important object – her camera – which, combined with her dynamic and joyful pose, helps communicate that she enjoys her work as an artist.

    In this photograph, the actor, musician and activist Riz Ahmed is looking directly at us, the viewer. His steady gaze, as well as his clasped arm gesture and alert expression, urge us to look back at him. The plain background helps focus our attention on Ahmed. What do you think this portrait is saying about him?

    Looking closer at the formal elements like colour, tone and line can reveal more too. Colour is a key element in this painting of the scientist and activist Tom Shakespeare by Lucy Jones. The artist and sitter are friends, so Jones may have chosen the vibrant colours to express how she feels about him.

    Colour can communicate mood and atmosphere, as well as giving clues about the sitter. This portrait of poet and playwright Derek Walcott seems to radiate an intense heat. The portrait, titled The Sun Poet, was painted in St Lucia, Derek’s home country in the Caribbean.

    If we look again at the portrait of Zadie Smith, we can see that the artist has thought carefully about how the different elements have been arranged. This is known as composition. The background has been divided into three geometric shapes: the floor tiles, the wall and the map. Smith’s dynamic pose contrasts with these simple shapes. Her figure is in the centre but doesn’t fill the composition. The work feels inviting, as if we are also in the room.

    The materials and techniques which artists choose to use also reveal something about the portrait. This is a bronze sculpture of Harold Moody, who was a doctor and anti-racism activist. The portrait was made by his brother, Ronald Moody. Bronze is a long-lasting, reddish-brown material, but chemicals have been added to change its colour. Perhaps black bronze has been chosen to reflect Harold Moody’s resilience in fighting for the rights of Black people.

    In this portrait, Curtis Holder used line to show Terry Higgins in three stages of his life. In the background faint lines show Higgins as a teenager on the left, and as an older man with a moustache on the right. The central image is of Higgins as a young man, and is emphasised through darker colours and a thicker outline.

    It can also be useful to find out about the context of a portrait such as the time, the place or the circumstances in which it was made.

    Look at this portrait. What are your first impressions? The caption or label helps us to find out more about the portrait’s context. This portrait shows the actor Aida Overton Walker dressed as her character in the play In Dahomey. The photograph was taken over a hundred years ago, in 1903. Does this information change your impression of her or the portrait?

    You could find out more by doing some extra research. The National Portrait Gallery is home to more than 200,000 portraits. Why don’t you try choosing a portrait from the Gallery’s online Collection and have a go at ‘reading’ it? How might it inspire or influence your own artwork?

Learning objectives

  1. Develop portrait analysis, visual literacy and critical thinking skills by looking closely at portraits and asking relevant questions.
  1. Consider how artists use different portrait elements, artistic techniques, and media to communicate mood, feelings and ideas through portraits.

Watch and discuss

  1. Think about all the portraits you saw in the film. Why is it important to look closely and learn how to ‘read’ a portrait?
  1. What can the different portrait elements tell us about the sitter or sitters?
  1. What ideas has this film given you about making your own portraits?