How to analyse a portrait

Learning objectives

  1. Analyse how artists use different portrait elements, artistic techniques and media to communicate mood, feelings and ideas through portraits.
  1. Develop portrait analysis, visual literacy and critical thinking skills by looking closely and asking questions. 
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    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola
pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper, 2018-2019
88 in. x 42 in. (2235 mm x 1066 mm) overall
NPG 7105
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Who is this woman, what is she doing, and why is her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery?

At first glance, a portrait can appear to simply be a picture of a person or people. But by looking closely, and asking analytical questions, portraits can tell us so much more.

Portraits can tell us about:

  • the artist’s practice
  • the artist’s intention – why they chose to make the portrait in a particular way and what they are trying to say about the sitter
  • the sitter – their identity and personality, how they are feeling or what they are known for.

Artists are often influenced or inspired by other artists – past and present. Their portraits can also inspire us and influence our own artwork.

Follow these steps to ‘reading’ a portrait.

Step 1: looking closely – first impressions

The first step to reading a portrait is to look at it very closely and think about your first impressions. Try this example.

Look at this portrait for at least a minute. You could make a quick drawing of what you can see.

Use your answers to the following questions to annotate your drawing. Add in quick sketches of details if useful.

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    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola
pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper, 2018-2019
88 in. x 42 in. (2235 mm x 1066 mm) overall
NPG 7105
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. What three words would you use to describe the person in the portrait?
  1. What else can you see in the portrait?
  1. What are your responses to the portrait?
  1. How would you describe the overall mood or atmosphere of the portrait?
  1. What do you think this portrait says about the sitter, Zadie Smith?
  1. Do you have any questions about the portrait?

You might also like to try some of these activities to help you practice looking closely at portraits:

Step 2: analysing the portrait

Artists use a wide range of tools to communicate meaning in a portrait – to create a particular mood or atmosphere and to tell a story about the sitter. These include:

  • artistic media and techniques
  • Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. – the way the different elements in the portrait have been arranged
  • formal elements such as colour, Line Lines are used by artists and designers to describe objects, add detail or create expression. Lines can help define an artwork and reveal the artist’s techniques. and Tone A shade of a colour.
  • portrait elements such as Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. , expression and clothing.

By analysing these, we can discover more about the artist’s intention – their decisions in creating the portrait and what they want to say.

Composition and framing

Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. can be a good place to start when analysing portraits.

Composition refers to how the different elements in the image have been arranged. This includes:

  • the position of the sitter
  • how much of the sitter we can see
  • the background and foreground
  • how any objects have been arranged
  • the viewpoint it is shown from.

The composition of a portrait can give us useful clues about what is being communicated.

  • View larger image
    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019

How has the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola used Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. in this portrait of Zadie Smith?

    • The Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. is relatively simple. The background is divided into geometric shapes: the floor, the wall and the map. Smith’s dynamic Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. is a striking contrast against these simple shapes.
    • Ojih Odutola has created a sense of Space The area around, above and within an object. It includes positive space (the main areas of interest in a portrait – the ‘subjects’) and negative space (the area around the subjects). within the portrait, through the perspective of the floor tiles as well as the relatively small scale of Zadie Smith within the painting.
    • Ojih Odutola has chosen to create a large-scale, full-length portrait of Smith using pastels, charcoal and graphite. This allows her to use Smith’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. and clothing to help show who she is.
    • Smith is shown as comfortable within the Space The area around, above and within an object. It includes positive space (the main areas of interest in a portrait – the ‘subjects’) and negative space (the area around the subjects). and ‘owning it’. The space also seems to make room for us, the viewer. We are invited to be part of the space and join in the conversation.
    • The map and palm leaf shadows on the wall behind her reference Zadie Smith’s Mixed heritage The fact of having a family background in which your parents come from two different countries, cultures, religions or ethnic groups. . The map is of Brent in northwest London, where she grew up. The palm leaves symbolise Jamaica where Zadie Smith’s mother is from.
    • Smith’s figure doesn’t fill the Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. . The background elements seem to take up a similar amount of Space The area around, above and within an object. It includes positive space (the main areas of interest in a portrait – the ‘subjects’) and negative space (the area around the subjects). to Smith herself in the portrait, perhaps emphasising the role they play in her story and her Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. .

Try making a small viewfinder with your forefingers and thumbs. Or use a small piece of card with a square hole cut out of the middle.

‘Crop’ the portrait of Zadie Smith by looking through the viewfinder and focussing in closer and closer, leaving out more and more of the background.

  1. What do you notice by looking at details of the portrait in this way?
  1. Does this change the mood or atmosphere of the portrait?
  1. Does it change the story being told about the sitter?
  1. Why do you think that is? Note down your ideas.
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    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019
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    Chris Ofili,    by Chris Ofili,    1991,    NPG 6835,    © Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili, by Chris Ofili, 1991

Compare and contrast these two portraits. Remember to consider the position of the sitter, the background and foreground, the viewpoint and how any objects have been arranged

  1. What differences can you see between the composition in each one?
  1. How do you think this contributes to the mood or atmosphere?
  1. How do you think it contributes to the message – what the portrait is trying to say?

Artistic media and techniques

Artistic media and techniques refer to the materials and processes the artist has used to create a portrait. These are varied and wide ranging. They include different types of painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and digital media.

Exploring the artistic media and techniques an artist has used can give us useful clues about a portrait.

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    Marc Quinn ('Self'),    by Marc Quinn,    2006,    NPG 6863,    © Marc Quinn. Photo: Marc Quinn studio. Courtesy: Marc Quinn studio
Marc Quinn ('Self')
by Marc Quinn
blood (artist's), liquid silicone, stainless steel, glass, perspex and refrigeration equipment, 2006
80 3/4 in. x 25 5/8 in. 25 5/8 in. (2050 mm x 650 mm x 650mm)
NPG 6863
© Marc Quinn. Photo: Marc Quinn studio. Courtesy: Marc Quinn studio
On display in Room 32 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. What do you think this self-portrait is made of?
  1. Click on the information icon to reveal the answer.
  1. Why do you think Marc Quinn might have chosen these materials to make his self-portrait?

Marc Quinn (born 1964) is a Contemporary Following modern ideas in style or design. artist. He uses a wide range of materials and techniques.

This self-portrait sculpture is called Self. It’s made from eight pints (4.5 litres) of Quinn’s own frozen blood. Quinn made this sculptural self-portrait using a Casting The process of pouring hot liquid metal, or other materials, into a mould to create an object. technique.

The portrait has been interpreted in different ways. For some, it is challenging, provoking and even distressing. For others it is a reminder of how fragile our existence is.

Using the label

It’s not always easy to tell what materials a portrait has been made from so the portrait’s label can be a helpful tool.

Click on the information icon to reveal the label for Self by Marc Quinn.

It confirms that this self-portrait is made mainly from Quinn’s own blood.

The portrait label can give us more clues. All the National Portrait Gallery’s labels include:

  • name of the person in the portrait
  • name of the artist
  • artistic media
  • date the portrait was made
  • size.
  • View larger image
    Marc Quinn ('Self'),    by Marc Quinn,    2006,    NPG 6863,    © Marc Quinn. Photo: Marc Quinn studio. Courtesy: Marc Quinn studio
Marc Quinn ('Self')
by Marc Quinn
blood (artist's), liquid silicone, stainless steel, glass, perspex and refrigeration equipment, 2006
80 3/4 in. x 25 5/8 in. 25 5/8 in. (2050 mm x 650 mm x 650mm)
NPG 6863
© Marc Quinn. Photo: Marc Quinn studio. Courtesy: Marc Quinn studio
On display in Room 32 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
    • This might tell us if the portrait was made by an artist you are already familiar with, or that the work is a self-portrait.
    • Portraits vary in size and scale. This could reflect the artist’s individual style, or the materials they are using.
    • Scale is an important factor in communicating the narrative of the portrait.
    • Knowing the date helps us place it in a particular period or time frame (Tudor, Victorian or Second World War, for example).
    • This might tell us something about the context in which it was created, such as the social or political issues of the time. It can also tell us where the portrait and the artist fit within artistic movements or networks of practice, such as Romanticism A style and movement in art, music and literature in the late 1700s and early 1800s, in which strong feelings, imagination and a return to nature were important. or the YBAs A contemporary art movement characterised by an openness towards the materials and processes that could be used to make art, and the form it could take. ( YBAs A contemporary art movement characterised by an openness towards the materials and processes that could be used to make art, and the form it could take. ).
    • Artists use a range of media to create portraits. These include painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and film.

The formal elements

The formal elements are the tools artists use to create different visual effects. The formal elements are:

  • colour
  • Line Lines are used by artists and designers to describe objects, add detail or create expression. Lines can help define an artwork and reveal the artist’s techniques.
  • Tone A shade of a colour.
  • Shape Shapes have two dimensions (2D) – height and width.
  • Form The shape of somebody or something.
  • Texture The surface quality of an artwork – the way it would feel if you could touch it. Visual texture is made by making marks.
  • Space The area around, above and within an object. It includes positive space (the main areas of interest in a portrait – the ‘subjects’) and negative space (the area around the subjects).
  • Pattern A regular arrangement of lines, shapes and colours, for example as a design on fabric, carpets or wallpaper. .

They can give us even more clues about what the portrait is communicating.

It’s not always useful to focus on each one of these when you are analysing a portrait. Choosing two or three that the artist has particularly made use of can often be enough.

Explore some of the different formal elements with these examples.

Colour

The use or absence of colour is a key tool for all artists. They must all consider whether or not to use colour and which colours to use. But the way they use colour varies greatly from artist to artist. Choices of colour and the relationships between colours have a huge influence on how a portrait looks and feels.

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    Tom Shakespeare ('Tom Shakespeare: Intellect, with Wheels'),    by Lucy Jones,    2017,    NPG 7116,    © Lucy Jones, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York
Tom Shakespeare ('Tom Shakespeare: Intellect, with Wheels'), by Lucy Jones, 2017
    • The painting is full of vibrant colour. This is typical of the artist Lucy Jones’s work.  
    • Tom Shakespeare is wearing brightly coloured clothes. These are matched by the vivid colours of the wall and floor.
    • If you look closely at his face, you will see that Jones has used violet paint alongside creamy yellows, to suggest the shadows of his chin and neck. This use of contrasting, or complementary, colours adds vibrancy to the painting.  
    • She has painted the turquoise blue colour of the wall over a darker underpaint. The pink floor looks as if it has been painted over a layer of blue paint. This layering of colour, with layers underneath showing through, creates a scumbled appearance adding to the rich Texture The surface quality of an artwork – the way it would feel if you could touch it. Visual texture is made by making marks. of the surface. 
    • Jones has used the same colour for different elements within the painting (the colour of Shakespeare’s jumper is repeated in his lips, for example). This draws our eyes around the painting and highlights the features of his face. 
    • Shakespeare has said that Lucy Jones ‘creates rhythms and vibrations of colour, like Matisse or Derain’.
    • She may have chosen the bright colours and the way she has painted them to help express how she feels about Shakespeare. 
  1. What do you think Lucy Jones’s use of colour says about Tom Shakespeare?
  1. How do you use colour in your own artwork?
  1. Might Jones’s use of colour influence your work?

Lucy Jones

Lucy Jones is a Contemporary Following modern ideas in style or design. British artist. Her work addresses ideas of femininity, fragility, ageing and disability. It is characterised by her use of vibrant colours and expressive brushstrokes, which she uses to help show how she feels about a person, a place, or herself.

Tom Shakespeare

Tom Shakespeare is a social scientist, broadcaster and disability-rights campaigner. He talks and researches mainly about disability, but also about ethical issues. He has also performed as a comedian.

The portrait

This is an interesting combination of artist and sitter as they are friends. Jones has described Shakespeare as one of her heroes. Perhaps this has impacted on how Shakespeare is shown in the portrait.

Line

Compare and contrast the use of Line Lines are used by artists and designers to describe objects, add detail or create expression. Lines can help define an artwork and reveal the artist’s techniques. in these portraits by Julian Opie and Frank Auerbach. They are both self-portraits.

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    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
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    Frank Auerbach,    by Frank Auerbach,    1994-2001,    NPG 6611,    © Frank Auerbach / Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd / National Portrait Gallery, London
Frank Auerbach, by Frank Auerbach, 1994-2001
    • Auerbach has used quick, Gestural Painting or drawing using sweeping, energetic movements. lines and marks. He has drawn strong dark lines over a mesh of lighter lines and marks. Some appear angular, others are more ‘scribbly’.
    • He has smudged the lighter marks underneath and, in some places, rubbed them out to create shadows and highlights that help suggest the Form The shape of somebody or something. of his face.
    • Opie has used a small number of simple, strong outlines.
    • Auerbach’s use of Line Lines are used by artists and designers to describe objects, add detail or create expression. Lines can help define an artwork and reveal the artist’s techniques. gives the impression of movement. The overall atmosphere is frenzied and animated.
    • The use of line in Opie’s self-portrait helps us pay attention to the shapes of his body, and his Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. . We are invited to fill in the detail.
    • With just a few lines he has characterised what makes him recognisable and distinguishes him from other people.
    • How would you describe the mood or atmosphere in Opie’s portrait?

Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach is a Contemporary Following modern ideas in style or design. artist. He is known for his intensive method of painting and drawing, in which he layers, scrapes, adds, destroys, and moulds oil paint, or repeatedly draws and rubs out pencil lines.

He made this drawing over a period of six years – returning to it again and again to sit and re-draw himself. This is why there seem to be layers of marks and lines with traces of earlier lines, which he has rubbed out.

Julian Opie

Julian Opie is also a contemporary artist. His work has a distinctive graphic style.

This self-portrait appears on a large LCD screen. He has used software to make the portrait move slightly, so that the portrait comes to life, breathing and blinking.

Tone, texture, shape, form, space and pattern

The other formal elements are Tone A shade of a colour. , Texture The surface quality of an artwork – the way it would feel if you could touch it. Visual texture is made by making marks. , Shape Shapes have two dimensions (2D) – height and width. , Form The shape of somebody or something. and Pattern A regular arrangement of lines, shapes and colours, for example as a design on fabric, carpets or wallpaper. . Choose one of these portraits. Focus on one or two of these formal elements.

  1. How has the artist used this formal element?
  1. Why do you think the artist chose to use it in this way?
  1. What mood or atmosphere do you think it helps to create?
  1. What does the artist’s use of this element tell you about the sitter or sitters?
  1. How might the artist’s use of this element influence your own artwork?

Portrait elements

As well as Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. , materials, techniques and the formal elements, there are further elements that communicate meaning in portraits. These include:

  • clothes
  • hairstyle
  • Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed.
  • Gesture A movement that you make with your hands, your head or your face to show a particular meaning.
  • expression
  • Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer.
  • objects and symbols.

Choose one of these portraits.

  1. What do you think the clothes the sitter is wearing says about them?
  1. Who do you think decided on which clothes they would wear – the artist or the sitter?
  1. What do you think their pose and facial expression says about them?

Looking closer at the portrait elements

Look again at the portrait of Zadie Smith.

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    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola
pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper, 2018-2019
88 in. x 42 in. (2235 mm x 1066 mm) overall
NPG 7105
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. Try copying Zadie Smith’s pose and expression.
  1. How does it make you feel?
  1. Why do you think Smith is posing in this position?

We have already seen how the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola has used objects and shapes – the map and the palm leaf shadows – to reference Zadie Smith’s Jamaican British heritage in this portrait.

How has the artist used some of the other portrait elements, such as clothes, hairstyle, Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. and expression to communicate meaning?

  • View larger image
    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019
    • Toyin Ojih Odutola has drawn Zadie Smith with her legs crossed and arms folded. She looks relaxed and confident.
    • Her head is tilted, and she looks out at the artist, and at us, in a warm and friendly way.
    • The portrait seems to invite us, the viewers, in so that we feel as if we are part of the conversation.
    • Zadie Smith’s red cape and gold shoes make her look heroic (like a super-hero!). Ojih Odutola is a fan of Smith and wanted to show her as a strong, accomplished, brilliant woman.
    • Smith wore a headwrap for the sitting, but she later sent Ojih Odutola a photograph of herself with her Afro hairstyle.
    • The artist chose to show her with her hair uncovered in a natural Afro style, as a celebration of her Black identity. Both artist and sitter wanted to reference Smith’s Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. in this way.
    • It is the first drawn or painted portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of a woman with an Afro hairstyle.
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    Riz Ahmed,    by Sharif Hamza,    2018,    NPG x200373,    © Sharif Hamza
Riz Ahmed, by Sharif Hamza, 2018

This photograph of Riz Ahmed makes use of the Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. and Gesture A movement that you make with your hands, your head or your face to show a particular meaning. to give us an impression of him.

    • Ahmed faces forward with his head at a slight angle. He Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. at the artist Sharif Hamza and the camera, and therefore at us the viewer.
    • He isn’t smiling but his expression is friendly and alert.
    • His steady Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. , expression and Gesture A movement that you make with your hands, your head or your face to show a particular meaning. urge us to look back at him.
    • The plain background and close Cropping To cut off part of a photograph, picture or image. of the photograph focuses our attention on Ahmed’s face, expression and gaze.
    • By focussing on Ahmed’s face and photographing him at just below eye-level Hamza has allowed Ahmed to own the Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. and take control of his image.
    • Ahmed chooses to look directly out at us, inviting us to return his gaze. He looks confident and at ease.
    • The relationship between Hamza and Ahmed appears collaborative. We are also invited in.
  1. What clothes might you wear in a portrait?
  1. What pose and expression might you adopt?
  1. Where might you direct your gaze?
  1. What do you think this would say about you?

Step 3: context

The context refers to the time, place and circumstances in which a portrait was made.

Knowing something of the context can tell us even more about the portrait. Think about these questions:

  • Who decided to make the portrait – the artist, the sitter, or was it Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by the Gallery or someone else?
  • Why was the portrait made – to celebrate a particular achievement of the sitter? For a book or magazine? Or perhaps the artist is exploring their own feelings or identity through a self-portrait.
  • Is this typical of the artist’s usual style, or have they experimented with new materials or techniques?
  • What else was happening at the time it was made? A self-portrait made by a female artist today might carry a very different meaning to one made in the early 1800s, for example, when women had much less freedom or independence.

Finding out about the context of a portrait usually needs some extra research. The National Portrait Gallery's Schools hub, and the wider website, have lots of useful information about artists, sitters, individual portraits and themes.

Look at this photograph of Ada Overton Walker.

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    Aida Overton Walker in 'In Dahomey',    by Cavendish Morton,    1903,    NPG x46664,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Aida Overton Walker in 'In Dahomey'
by Cavendish Morton
platinotype print, 1903
6 in. x 4 1/8 in. (151 mm x 106 mm)
NPG x46664
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. What are your first impressions?
  1. What is the mood or atmosphere of the portrait?
  1. What do you think it’s trying to say?

The label tells us this photograph was taken over 100 years ago, in 1903. It also tells us Overton Walker is dressed as her character in the play In Dahomey.

Step 4: reflections

Finally, it’s important to revisit and reflect on what you have seen.

  • Have your first impressions changed? Why?
  • How do you feel about the portrait?
  • Does it inspire you? In what way?
  • Might it inform your own artwork? How?
  • Were your initial questions answered?
  • What other questions do you have?

Next steps

The National Portrait Gallery’s Schools hub include lots of step-by-step opportunities to practice reading portraits. You can explore individual portraits, or a theme such as Identity or Self-portraiture.

Try choosing a portrait from the National Portrait Gallery’s online Collection and use what you have learned here to help you ‘read’ the portrait.