Art explainer: looking closely at portraits
If you look closely at portraits, they can tell you all sorts of things. The more you look, the more you can discover! Try out different ways of looking closely at portraits and explore what they can tell you about the people in them.
Looking closely at portraits
A portrait can be an image of a person by themselves, like this one of the scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock.
Or a portrait can show a group of people, like this photograph of suffragettes having a meeting about ‘votes for women’.
If you look at portraits closely, they can tell you all sorts of things, like how someone is feeling, information about their job, or even what their favourite animal might be!
The more you look, the more you can discover.
It’s important to look closely at all four corners of a portrait and all around the edge, as well as standing further back to see it from a different point of view.
There are many ways to look closely at portraits.
You could play portrait I-spy!
Pause the video, and try spotting things beginning with different letters in this portrait of the author Judith Kerr.
Like ‘t’ for teapot and tiger, or ‘c’ for cat and clock.
You could try looking at a portrait and imagining yourself in it.
What might you see or hear if you stepped inside this portrait of the footballer Rachel Yankey?
Pause the video again.
Another way of looking closely is to play a memory game.
Pause the video and look at this portrait by Grace Lau for a whole minute.
Then close your eyes. How many things can you remember?
Open your eyes. Did you miss anything?
Different parts of a portrait can tell you different things.
For example, the clothes someone wears in a portrait have often been chosen very carefully.
Like this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which was painted over 400 years ago.
Her clothes are covered in jewels and gold.
They help to show us that she is rich and powerful.
Other portraits show clothes which give us clues about a person’s culture or background.
Like this portrait of the writer and cook Madhur Jaffrey.
She’s wearing a sari, which reminds us that she grew up in India.
Clothes can also tell us whether a portrait was made recently or a long time ago.
We can tell this portrait is over 100 years old because of the style of the women’s hats and dresses.
A person’s body position in a portrait is known as their pose, which can also tell us different things about the person.
They could be sitting, standing or even jumping.
In this portrait, Lenny Henry is showing us a silly pose, which reminds us of his job.
Lenny Henry became famous as a comedian, making people laugh.
And in this portrait, Darcey Bussell is standing on the tips of her toes.
By looking at her pose, we know that she is a brilliant ballet dancer.
The look on someone’s face in a portrait can tell us more too. This is known as their expression.
They could be smiling or frowning, have their mouth or eyes open or closed.
They might look happy, sad, surprised, proud or even nervous.
In this portrait, the writer Seamus Heaney seems to have a thoughtful expression.
Perhaps he is thinking about what to write in his next poem?
In this portrait, the piano player Winifred Atwell has a joyful expression on her face. She looks like she’s having a great time!
Looking for objects or symbols in a portrait is another useful way to find out more about a person.
In this portrait of Quentin Blake, he is holding a paintbrush, and there are other art materials all around him, which tell us that he’s an artist.
Quentin Blake is a famous writer and illustrator, who created the artworks for well-known stories like The BFG by Roald Dahl.
In this portrait of Edith Cavell, you can see she’s wearing an apron with a red cross symbol on it.
The red cross shows us that she was trained to give people medical help when they were ill or injured.
Edith Cavell was a nurse in the First World War and helped to look after hundreds of soldiers.
When artists create portraits, they also think carefully about what will be in the background.
In this portrait of Helen Sharman, we can see a space suit in the background.
That might be because Helen Sharman is an astronaut, and she was the first British person to ever go into space.
Some portraits are outdoor scenes with buildings or countryside in the background, like this portrait of Beatrix Potter, who wrote stories about animals and was passionate about protecting nature.
Artists use colour in lots of different ways, which can tell us about the mood or feelings of the person in the portrait.
Darker colours help to make the mood of the portrait feel more serious.
Like in this portrait of the scientist Charles Darwin.
His ideas changed the way people thought about the world, so perhaps the colours here have been used to show how important his work was.
Lots of bright colours can make a portrait feel happy or joyful.
Like this portrait of Tom Shakespeare made by his friend Lucy Jones.
Think about all the ways you can look closely at portraits and what they can tell you about the people in them.
How would you like to be shown in a portrait?
- Practice observation skills.
- Recognise some of the different portrait elements, such as objects, expression, clothing and pose.
- Explore some of the ways artists and portraits express mood, feelings and ideas.
Watch and discuss
Think about all the portraits you saw in the film.
- Why is it important to look closely at portraits?
- What kinds of things can a portrait tell us about the person or people in a portrait?
- What ideas has this film given you about making your own portraits?