How to create a self-portrait

Learning objectives

  1. Analyse and respond to artists’ choices in self-portraiture.
  1. Explore and reflect on artists’ creative ideas.
  1. Generate ideas about what to express in a self-portrait, and how.
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    Lucy Jones (
Lucy Jones ("Self Portrait")
by Lucy Jones
oil on canvas, 1987
24 in. x 19 1/8 in. (609 mm x 487 mm) overall
NPG 7038
Lucy Jones/ Flowers Gallery, London
On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
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    Brian Griffin,    by Brian Griffin,    1988,    NPG x125281,    © Brian Griffin
Brian Griffin, by Brian Griffin, 1988

A self-portrait is more than a mirror reflection. A self-portrait is a person’s version of themselves. It can be an exact likeness or an Abstract Art which doesn't show people, animals or objects as they really are, but uses shapes, colours and marks to represent them. whirl of thoughts and feelings. It can create a myth, tell a story, reveal emotion. Self-portraits can be as varied and limitless as our imaginations.

Before you make your own, there are a few things to consider that will affect your artwork. Looking at other self-portraits helps refine your ideas.

This resource presents artworks and questions you can use as discussion points, or for self-reflection. Use a sketchbook to capture your ideas if you have one available.

Why make a self-portrait?

Whether it is an assignment, or you are doing it for yourself, think about your own reasons for creating a self-portrait.

    • A self-portrait can be an exploration of your face, body and personality.
    • A self-portrait can be an historical record of the person who made it, left behind for future generations.
    • A self-portrait can be a visual journal recording something that is happening or has happened in your life.
    • A self-portrait can showcase your work.
    • A self-portrait can be a way to experiment with Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. , process and technique using a readily available model – yourself.

Size

How large or small are you going to make your self-portrait?

People will feel very differently standing close and peering at a tiny image or stepping back and gazing up at a huge one.

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Two visitors, a woman and a man, look at portraits of different sizes hanging on the wall at the National Portrait Gallery.
Visitors at the National Portrait Gallery. Photo David Parry.

Shape

What shape will your self-portrait be? How can the shape make a statement or guide the viewer’s eye?

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    Anthony Eric Sandall Green (' Self-portrait in Father's Chair'),    by Anthony Eric Sandall Green,    1967,    NPG 6106,    © Anthony Green
Anthony Eric Sandall Green (' Self-portrait in Father's Chair'), by Anthony Eric Sandall Green, 1967
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    Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler,    by Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler,    1869,    NPG 5314,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler, by Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler, 1869

Composition

Where are you going to place yourself?

Usually, the face is the Focal point A thing or person that is the centre of interest or activity. of a portrait and is positioned somewhere in the top half but it doesn’t have to be. Will your self-portrait be a detail of your face? Or will it represent your whole body? Why? What are you trying to say with your self-portrait?

Abstract or life-like?

Will your self-portrait be Abstract Art which doesn't show people, animals or objects as they really are, but uses shapes, colours and marks to represent them. or more life-like?

Are you going to put in a background behind the face or figure?

Will you put in what you can actually see?

Some artists use a plain colour in the background to heighten the atmosphere of their portrait. How do different colours make you feel, do they suggest certain moods? Should you use your favourite colours to communicate something else about yourself?

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    Lucy Jones (
Lucy Jones ("Self Portrait"), by Lucy Jones, 1987
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    Anna Zinkeisen,    by Anna Zinkeisen,    circa 1944,    NPG 5884,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Anna Zinkeisen, by Anna Zinkeisen, circa 1944

Clothes

What will you wear?

Some artists dress up for their portraits; not wearing their everyday clothes. Some show themselves naked, others in overalls. What do the clothes you choose say about you? Do they reveal or disguise your true self?

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    Brian Griffin,    by Brian Griffin,    1988,    NPG x125281,    © Brian Griffin
Brian Griffin, by Brian Griffin, 1988
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    Angus McBean as Neptune,    by Angus McBean,    1939,    NPG x39301,    © estate of Angus McBean / National Portrait Gallery, London
Angus McBean as Neptune, by Angus McBean, 1939

Objects

Will you have Props Items worn or displayed in an artwork to represent or symbolise something. in your portrait that give a sense of your Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. , your life, interests or personality? Why? What are you trying to say with your self-portrait?

Click on the portraits below to find out how each artist has used objects in their self-portrait.

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    Grace Lau,    by Grace Lau,    July 2005,    NPG x128064,    © Grace Lau 2005
Grace Lau, by Grace Lau, July 2005
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    Yevonde,    by Yevonde,    1940,    NPG P620,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Yevonde, by Yevonde, 1940
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    Maggi Hambling,    by Maggi Hambling,    1977-1978,    NPG 6562,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Maggi Hambling, by Maggi Hambling, 1977-1978
  1. What has the artist chosen to include in their self-portrait?
  1. How are you going to show that you are the artist in your self-portrait?

Memento Mori portraits

Memento mori literally means ‘remember that you will die’ in Latin. Memento mori works invite us to think about the short time span of our lives on this earth, and the Latin saying: Ars longa, vita brevis (‘life is short, but art will carry on’). In these works, skulls symbolize death.

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    Sarah Lucas ('Self-Portrait with Skull'),    by Sarah Lucas,    1997,    NPG P884(8),    © Sarah Lucas
Sarah Lucas ('Self-Portrait with Skull'), by Sarah Lucas, 1997
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    Edward Collier,    by Edward Collier,    1683,    NPG 6069,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Collier, by Edward Collier, 1683

Pose

How will you Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. ? A pose can convey your body language and Status The level of importance that is given to something. . Compare these two self-portraits, which both show the artists at work.

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    George Chinnery,    by George Chinnery,    circa 1840,    NPG 779,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
George Chinnery, by George Chinnery, circa 1840
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    Angelica Kauffmann,    by Angelica Kauffmann,    circa 1770-1775,    NPG 430,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Angelica Kauffmann, by Angelica Kauffmann, circa 1770-1775
  1. What does each artist’s pose tell you? What do you think they are trying to say?

Expression

What mood are you in? Will your facial expression indicate how you’re feeling at that point in time or do you want to show something more long term?

A life in self-portraits

How many self-portraits will you make during your lifetime? Dorothy Wilding (1893–1976) made several through her life.

Review and reflect

  1. Now you have thought through all these questions, go back and look through all your answers again.
  1. Did any of your later answers make you want to reconsider your earlier answers? Why? 
  1. How might you want your artwork to develop from here?

Next steps

Your next step is to create your self-portrait. Reflect on the ideas you have collected and choices you have made and consider how to make a self-portrait that achieves what you want it to, for yourself or for your audience. 

If you need some help deciding which materials to use, or some tips and techniques, the National Portrait Gallery has made some useful videos.