Exploring self-portraits

Learning objectives

  1. Discover what self-portraits are and why artists make them.
  1. Think about how artists use pose, expression, clothing and objects to tell stories about themselves through portraits.
  1. Create a self-portrait using some of their tools and techniques.
  • View larger image
    Julian Opie ('Julian with T-shirt'),    by Julian Opie,    2005,    NPG 6830,    © Julian Opie / DACS; courtesy Lisson Gallery
Julian Opie ('Julian with T-shirt')
by Julian Opie
LCD screen with integrated software, 2005
43 3/8 in. x 25 7/8 in. (1102 mm x 658 mm)
NPG 6830
© Julian Opie / DACS; courtesy Lisson Gallery

A self-portrait is an artwork all about you, made by you. You make it yourself, so you decide what you want people to see and to know about you.

Every self-portrait is different, just like every one of us. Your self-portrait could look just like you, or it could be more about your personality and the things that make you special.

Lots of artists make self-portraits. You’re going to look at some and investigate what the artists chose to show about themselves. They will give you some ideas for your own artwork too.

What is a self-portrait?

Talk or think about these questions:

    • It could be made using all sorts of materials including photography, film, paint, pencil, pen, Collage A picture made by sticking pieces of coloured paper, cloth or photographs onto a surface, or by putting images together on a computer. or sculpture.
    • Or it could be made digitally, on a phone, tablet or computer.
    • There are lots of reasons. A self-portrait is a bit like a diary. It can be a way of recording the way you look at a certain moment in time.
    • It could be because the artist wants people to know who they are on the inside. Or because the artist is trying to figure out for themselves who they are and how they feel.
    • In the past, artists have used self-portraits to show off their skills to other people who may then ask them to make portraits of them, like an advert.
    • Artists might make a self-portrait because they want to practice drawing people and there is no one else around to look at. You can always draw yourself!

Take a look at these portraits.

  1. Which one is your favourite? Why?

A self-portrait by David Hockney

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    David Hockney ('Self Portrait 30th Sept.'),    by David Hockney,    1983,    NPG 6473,    © David Hockney 1983
David Hockney ('Self Portrait 30th Sept.')
by David Hockney
charcoal, 1983
30 1/8 in. x 22 3/8 in. (766 mm x 569 mm)
NPG 6473
© David Hockney 1983
  1. What is David Hockney doing?
  1. Look closely at his hands. What is he holding in one of them?
  1. Look at his face and eyes. What is he looking at?
  1. How has he made this self-portrait? What materials has he used?

This is a self-portrait by David Hockney, a very famous British artist who has made a great many artworks in his lifetime, including portraits. He made this self-portrait in front of a mirror. He drew quickly, using a stick of charcoal. He used just a few lines for his body and arms, but added more detail to his face.

David Hockney says that when he learnt to draw, he learnt to look hard, and notice things. His drawing starts with looking, before making marks on paper.

Teaching drawing is teaching to look and then see … it develops the pleasure of looking, and then one notices how beautiful the world is.
David Hockney, 1994

A self-portrait by William Roberts

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    William Roberts,    by William Roberts,    circa 1912-1913,    NPG 6135,    Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor
William Roberts
by William Roberts
pencil, crayon and watercolour, circa 1912-1913
10 5/8 in. x 10 1/8 in. (270 mm x 258 mm)
NPG 6135
Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor

This self-portrait was made by William Roberts, an artist who wanted to try out new ideas. William Roberts drew this portrait with pencil and added colour with crayons and paint. He did not colour his face.

  1. Do you think William Roberts’s choice not to colour his face makes you notice it more, or less?
  1. What colours has he chosen in his self-portrait? Do you think different colours would change the way the portrait makes you feel?
  1. Work with a partner and take it in turns to copy William Roberts’ expression.

    How does it make you feel when you make this face?

    Make a small change, for example do something different with your mouth or eyes. How does it change the way you look and feel?

A self-portrait by Chris Ofili

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    Chris Ofili,    by Chris Ofili,    1991,    NPG 6835,    © Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili
by Chris Ofili
oil on canvas, 1991
40 1/8 in. x 17 3/8 in. (1019 mm x 442 mm)
NPG 6835
© Chris Ofili
On display in Room 28 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. Does anything about this self-portrait surprise you? Why or why not?
  1. What parts of his face has he included, and which parts are left out?
  1. Which part of his face did you notice first?

Chris Ofili has made a self-portrait that is closely cropped. This means he has decided not to show his whole head. He included just half of his face. His head is turned a little to the side so that one eye looks out at us. It makes his eye more noticeable.

Why do you think the artist Chris Ofili might want to focus on his eye? Why might his eye be important to him?

If you made a self-portrait like this, what part of your face would you want to focus on? Perhaps if you are a good listener, you will zoom in on your ear. Or is a different part of your body more important to you? Your hand for writing? Your foot for playing?

A self-portrait by Everlyn Nicodemus

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    Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga]),    by Everlyn Nicodemus,    1982,    NPG 7130,    © the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga])
by Everlyn Nicodemus
oil on canvas, 1982
32 1/4 in. x 24 3/8 in. (820 mm x 620 mm) overall
NPG 7130
© the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. How many faces can you see in this portrait?
  1. How are the faces different?
  1. How are the faces similar?
  1. How has the artist arranged the faces? Are they separate or connected?
  1. Why do you think Everlyn Nicodemus included many faces in her self-portrait?

This portrait is called ‘Självporträtt, Åkersberga'. Självporträtt means ‘self-portrait’ in Swedish, and Åkersberga is a place in Sweden, the country Everlyn Nicodemus was living in.

When Everlyn Nicodemus made this self-portrait, she was thinking about how she is many different things all at once: an artist, and a writer, and a woman, and a person of colour.

The overlapping faces in the portrait show these different parts of herself.

What parts of yourself could you include in a self-portrait with many faces?

A self-portrait by Julian Opie

  • View larger image
    Julian Opie ('Julian with T-shirt'),    by Julian Opie,    2005,    NPG 6830,    © Julian Opie / DACS; courtesy Lisson Gallery
Julian Opie ('Julian with T-shirt')
by Julian Opie
LCD screen with integrated software, 2005
43 3/8 in. x 25 7/8 in. (1102 mm x 658 mm)
NPG 6830
© Julian Opie / DACS; courtesy Lisson Gallery
  1. How many colours can you see in this self-portrait?
  1. Is there any pattern or detail?
  1. Copy the way Julian Opie is standing (his pose). How do you feel?
  1. Why do you think Julian Opie chose to pose this way?

Julian Opie’s artworks are always simple in style and include strong outlines. This helps us pay attention to the shapes of his body, and his Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. .

Try some different poses. Think about how you feel when you pose in different ways. Try to freeze, still in your pose. Notice tiny movements in your body, like your chest moving with your breath, or your hair settling in place.

This self-portrait by Julian Opie is shown in the National Portrait Gallery on a large screen. A computer programme makes the portrait move slightly, so that it comes to life, breathing and blinking.

A self-portrait by Mary Beale

In Mary Beale’s time, in the mid 1600s, being an artist was an unusual job for a woman. Women often did not have the chance to learn to be a professional painter. Even more unusual was the fact that she earned more money than her husband. It was usually the other way round.

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    Mary Beale,    by Mary Beale,    circa 1666,    NPG 1687,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Beale, by Mary Beale, circa 1666

Take a closer look at her self-portrait to find out more.

    • Her expensive clothes and elaborate hairstyle show us she was rich and successful.
    • Her Paint palette A thin board with a hole for the thumb, used by an artist for mixing colours when painting. is something she used in her job as an artist. She was proud that she was a great painter, and wanted people to know she was an artist.
    • By including this half-finished painting of her sons in her self-portrait, she shows us that she was both a parent and an artist.

A self-portrait by Yevonde

This self-portrait was made by Yevonde Cumbers, a photographer who liked to be known as Yevonde. Her photograph of herself is hanging around the neck of her cat, Junior.

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    Yevonde ('Junior and the Photographer'),    by Yevonde,    5 December 1949,    NPG x26030,    © Mary Evans Picture Library
Yevonde ('Junior and the Photographer')
by Yevonde
semi-matte bromide print on card mount, 5 December 1949
10 3/8 in. x 11 1/4 in. (262 mm x 285 mm)
NPG x26030
© Mary Evans Picture Library
  1. Why do you think Yevonde chose to include her cat in her self-portrait?
  1. How do you think she felt about Junior?

Do you have a pet or a favourite animal? How could you include them in a self-portrait? Will you ride on your dog’s back or perch on your bird’s wing? You could swim in the sea beside your favourite sea creature or hide in an imaginary jungle with your favourite wild animal.

If you were an animal what would you be? Think about your personality, your skills and how you look. Can you run fast like a cheetah or swim like a shark? Are you quiet as a mouse or loud as a hyena? Is your hair as luscious as a lion’s mane or your eyes as brown as a bear’s? Maybe you are a mixture of animals.

Creative activities

Pick a portrait that inspired you for a creative activity to try for yourself.

  • View larger image
    William Roberts,    by William Roberts,    circa 1912-1913,    NPG 6135,    Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor
William Roberts, by William Roberts, circa 1912-1913
  • View larger image
    Mary Beale,    by Mary Beale,    circa 1666,    NPG 1687,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Beale, by Mary Beale, circa 1666
  • View larger image
    Julian Opie ('Julian with T-shirt'),    by Julian Opie,    2005,    NPG 6830,    © Julian Opie / DACS; courtesy Lisson Gallery
Julian Opie ('Julian with T-shirt'), by Julian Opie, 2005
  • View larger image
    David Hockney ('Self Portrait 30th Sept.'),    by David Hockney,    1983,    NPG 6473,    © David Hockney 1983
David Hockney ('Self Portrait 30th Sept.'), by David Hockney, 1983

Next steps

Explore more self-portraits.

  1. Which ones do you like?
  1. Why (or why not)?
  1. How might they inspire you to create your own self-portraits?