Art explainer: what is a self-portrait?

Explore what a self-portrait is, why artists make them, and be inspired to make one yourself. Discover a range of self-portraits from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection and think about what they tell us about the artists who made them.


  • What is a self-portrait?

    A self-portrait is a work of art, like a picture or a sculpture, that an artist has made of themselves.

    Every artist is different, so every self-portrait is different too.

    A self-portrait can look like the artist who made it, or a self-portrait can look more abstract.

    Abstract means it doesn’t need to look exactly like you.

    A self-portrait can show more than just how the artist looks.

    It can tell a story about the artist or include their favourite things.

    Some artists might choose to use particular colours to show a mood or a feeling.

    And others might choose to include their favourite animals, like Yevonde has done in this self-portrait.

    When you make a self-portrait, you can choose what to include and what to leave out.

    You could experiment with posing and show yourself in different positions.

    Or you could include different objects and wear special clothes.

    You can decide how you want your facial expression to be.

    It could be serious, like in this self-portrait by Gluck.

    Or you could smile, like Mary Beale in this self-portrait.

    You can make a self-portrait using all sorts of materials, including paint, pencil, charcoal and different media, such as sculpture and photography.

    Or you could make a self-portrait digitally on a computer, a tablet or a phone.

    There are lots of reasons why artists make self-portraits.

    Some artists make self-portraits as a way of showing the kind of person they are.

    Some artists make self-portraits as a way of expressing how they feel.

    And some artists make self-portraits to show people their artistic skills.

    Like Sarah Biffin, who painted portraits by holding her brush in her mouth.

    Think about the self-portraits you’ve seen.

    Did any of them inspire you?

    What might your self-portrait look like?

    Have a go at creating one of your own!

Learning objectives

  1. Explore what a self-portrait is and why an artist might choose to make one.
  1. Look at different self-portraits and consider how they were made.
  1. Be inspired to create your own self-portrait.

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?