Art explainer: self-portraiture

A self-portrait is a portrait of an artist that they have made of themselves. Explore self-portraits old and new from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. Consider how they are made and what they might tell us about the artist. Every self-portrait is unique because each person is unique, but also because the artist can decide exactly what they want to show about themselves and how they want to show it. Discover a range of self-portraits and consider the choices the artists make when they create them.


  • Self-portraiture

    Self-portrait: ‘a portrait that an artist creates of themselves’.

    When an artist makes a self-portrait, they are often reflecting on who they are and how to present this to the world.

    A self-portrait can be an authentic likeness, like this portrait miniature by Isaac Oliver.

    Or a self-portrait can be an abstract representation of thoughts and feelings.

    Like this self-portrait by Patrick Heron, which appears to show his face from the front and from the side, perhaps revealing different parts of his identity.

    A self-portrait can be a portrayal of how an artist sees themself.

    It is much more than just a mirror reflection.

    It’s up to the artist to decide what to include and what to leave out.

    Self-portraits can be as varied and limitless as the artist’s imagination.

    Like this self-portrait by Chila Burman, which explores her Indian heritage and her identity as a woman through different symbols and figures.

    Self-portraits can reveal emotions, a mood or an atmosphere like this one by L.S. Lowry.

    Or they can communicate ideas and explore themes such as gender identity, like in this self-portrait by Gluck.

    Or cultural identity like Grace Lau does in this self-portrait, in which she explores the stereotyped ways that others see her as a woman of Chinese heritage.

    Artists use a whole range of media and techniques to create self-portraits, including paint, pencil, chalk, sculpture, photography, digital media, etching and even stained glass.

    Different artistic media and techniques create different textures, tones and shapes.

    So, an artist will choose a medium or technique that helps to communicate their story or key message.

    Like the artist Lucy Jones, who’s known for painting with vibrant colours and expressive brushstrokes to help convey ideas and emotions.

    Artists also consider other important elements like pose, props, composition, gaze, expression and background or location.

    Some artists choose to show themselves at work in their studio and include tools, such as their easel, brushes or paints.

    Some self-portraits are more quirky or humorous.

    In Amy Grantham’s reflected self-portrait, a round window takes the place of her face.

    Or self-portraits can showcase an artist’s skill, such as this one by Dorothy Wilding posing in front of her photographs.

    The closer we look at self-portraits, the more we can find out about the artist’s identity, their sense of self, and how they want to present themselves to the world.

    Next time you take a selfie, think about the decisions you are making about how you want to present yourself to the world.

    How might this compare to making your own self-portrait?

    What ideas could you try, to capture your own sense of self?

Learning objectives

  1. Explore what a self-portrait is, and why an artist might choose to create one.
  1. Examine self-portraits and the creative decisions behind them.
  1. Be inspired to create self-portraits.

Watch and discuss

  1. Think about all the self-portraits you saw in the film. Which portrait has stuck in your memory? Why?
  1. What would you want a self-portrait to say about you?
  1. What ideas has this film given you about making your own self-portrait?