How to read a portrait

Learning objectives

  1. Practice looking closely at portraits.
  1. Recognise some portrait elements, such as clothing, pose, expression, objects and background and colour.
  1. Explore and describe how artists use these to express mood, feelings and ideas in portraits.
  1. Use portraits to find out about the past.
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    Lenny Henry,    by Trevor Leighton,    1989,    NPG x88395,    © Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London
Lenny Henry
by Trevor Leighton
bromide print, 1989
15 in. x 15 in. (380 mm x 380 mm)
NPG x88395
© Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London
  1. Who is this person?
  1. Why is he jumping in the air?

The National Portrait Gallery is full of portraits of famous people. Some of them are paintings, some are drawings. Others are photographs or sculptures. Some were made hundreds of years ago. Others are brand new. But all of them are artworks of people.

If we look at portraits really closely, they can tell us all sorts of things about the person (or people) in the picture.

A portrait can tell us about:

  • how they’re feeling
  • their job or their hobby
  • their family background or religion
  • whether they are young or old
  • whether they are rich or poor

and so much more.

Portraits can also tell us about the different ways artists make portraits or what life was like in the past.

Follow our step-by-step guide to help you look for clues in portraits and discover what they might tell us.

Step 1: looking closely

The first step is to look at the portrait very closely. This will help you find out what the portrait might be saying about the person.

The more you look at it, the more clues you will spot. And the more clues you spot, the more you can find out. 

Try this game designed to help you to look at portraits closely.

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    Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'),    by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger,    circa 1592,    NPG 2561,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1592

Look carefully at this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I for a whole minute (you might like to use a timer).

Now hide the portrait. How many different details can you remember?

You could try this activity with a group or the whole class and make a list together of everything you remembered.

Now look at the portrait again. Did you miss anything?


There are more activities you can try, to help you practice looking at portraits closely:

Step 2: first impressions

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    Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'),    by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger,    circa 1592,    NPG 2561,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
oil on canvas, circa 1592
95 in. x 60 in. (2413 mm x 1524 mm)
NPG 2561
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

The next step is to think about your first impressions of the portrait – there are no right or wrong answers, this is simply about what YOU think of the portrait.

Try answering these questions:

  1. What three words would you use to describe the person in this portrait?
  1. Do you like the portrait? Why? (It’s OK not to like the portrait but it’s helpful to think about why.)
  1. How would you describe the mood or feeling of the portrait? Is it happy, sad, serious, funny, strange – or something else?
  1. What do you think this portrait says about this person?

Step 3: portrait clues

Once you’ve looked at the portrait really closely and decided on your first impressions, it’s time to think about some of the clues and what they might tell us.

Different parts of the portrait can tell us different things. We are going to look at:

  • clothes
  • Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. and expression
  • objects
  • background
  • colour.

We’ll also think about:

  • how the portrait has been made
  • why it was made
  • when it was made.

Clothes

Clothes can tell us a lot about a person in a portrait. Look again at this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

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    Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'),    by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger,    circa 1592,    NPG 2561,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1592
    • Her dress looks as though it’s made from fine, expensive material. It’s covered in gold stitching.
    • It’s also covered in precious jewels. We can see red rubies, diamonds (which appear black in this portrait) and white pearls. 
    • Her ruff (the collar around her neck) is made of fine lace, which would also have been very expensive. 
    • She’s wearing several necklaces made of gold, rubies, diamonds and pearls.
    • Her hair is also decorated with jewels.

This portrait tells us what a queen would have worn more than 400 years ago, in Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). times.

Clothes can also tell us about a person’s job or what they are famous for.

Look at some more portraits from the past.

  1. Which of these people was:

    a sportsperson

    a nurse

    an actor and singer

    a police officer?
  1. Why do you think that?

Find out more about the people in these portraits:

    • Roger Bannister and Christopher Chataway were both runners who competed in the Olympic Games An international sports competition held every four years in a different country. .
    • They are both wearing running vests and shorts.
    • Roger Bannister is famous for being the first person to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. 
    • This photograph was taken just after he did this for the first time. 
    • Edith Cavell was a nurse in the First World War. She helped hundreds of soldiers. 
    • She is wearing a nurse’s uniform with a red cross – a symbol that tells us that she is trained to give people medical help.
    • Florence Mills was a singer and actor. 
    • She is wearing a costume for performing on stage.
    • Mary Allen was leader of the first women’s police force in London. 
    • She is in the middle of this portrait, wearing her police uniform. 
    • Her uniform is different to the women standing next to her, to show she is the leader.

Clothes can also tell us about a person’s family background or religion.

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    Meera Syal,    by Jason Bell,    1 March 2002,    NPG x126122,    © Jason Bell
Meera Syal, by Jason Bell, 1 March 2002
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    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
  1. Do you know anyone who wears clothes like these? Maybe you wear clothes like these yourself?
  1. What might they tell us about the people wearing them?

Find out more about the people in these portraits:

    • Meera Syal is an actor and writer.
    • She is wearing a sari. Saris are traditionally worn by Indian women. This reminds us that Meera Syal is from an Indian family. 
    • Her parents came to live in England from India before she was born.
    • Malala Yousafzai is a girl's education activist.
    • She is wearing a head covering called a hijab. The hijab is worn by some Muslim Believing in and practising the religion of Islam. women. This tells us about her religion.

Pose and expression

In portraits, a ‘ Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. ’ is the way the person is holding their body. They could be sitting, standing or even jumping. They could have their hands on their hips or be pointing or waving.

A person’s expression is the look on their face. They could be smiling or frowning, have their mouth or eyes open or closed. They might look happy, sad, surprised, proud, nervous or thoughtful.

A person’s pose and expression can tell us a lot about how they are feeling.

  1. Copy the poses and expressions of the people in these portraits.
  1. How does holding the poses make you feel?

Now look closely at these portraits of Lenny Henry and Stormzy.

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    Lenny Henry,    by Trevor Leighton,    1989,    NPG x88395,    © Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London
Lenny Henry, by Trevor Leighton, 1989
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    Stormzy,    by Olivia Rose,    2016,    NPG x200706,    Olivia Rose
Stormzy, by Olivia Rose, 2016
  1. Copy the expressions you see in these two portraits. How do you feel?
  1. How would you describe their poses? Include as many details as you can about the different parts of their bodies.
  1. How do you think these two men are feeling?
  1. Why do you think that?

Objects

Objects can tell us a lot about a person in a portrait. Look at this portrait of Quentin Blake.

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    Sir Quentin Blake,    by Jason Bell,    28 August 1998,    NPG x125005,    © Jason Bell
Sir Quentin Blake, by Jason Bell, 28 August 1998
    • Quentin Blake is holding a paintbrush in his hand. There are more paintbrushes in the pot in front of him.
    • We can also see the pot he uses to wash his paintbrush.
    • He has lots of different coloured watercolour paints in front of him.
    • There are also pens and other art materials.
    • We can see the picture he is in the middle of painting, and other paintings in the background.
    • This portrait shows us that he is an artist.
    • Quentin Blake is an illustrator – an artist who makes pictures for books and stories.
    • He is also a writer. You might have seen his Illustration A drawing or picture used to explain something or as decoration, usually in a book or magazine. in his own stories such as Zagazoo or Mr Magnolia. Or in books by other writers such as Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard by Michael Rosen or The BFG by Roald Dahl.

Look at the objects in these portraits.

  1. Can you tell which of these people is:

    a sportsperson

    a musician

    a scientist

    an artist?

Find out more about the people in these portraits:

    • David Hockney is an artist. He is well known for making lots of artworks in many different ways.
    • He painted this portrait himself – it's a self-portrait.
    • Marcus Rashford is a footballer who has played for Manchester United and England.
    • Courtney Pine is a musician. 
    • He is best known for playing the saxophone.
    • Lesley Yellowlees is a scientist. 
    • She was also involved in the Girls Get Smart Club, which encouraged young girls to work as scientists when they grow up.

Background

The background of a portrait is the area behind the person.

Artists who make portraits usually choose what we see in the background very carefully. This can give us some useful clues about the person.

Choose one of these portraits (or you can look at all four of them).

  1. What can you see in the background?
  1. What do you think they are famous for?

Find out more about the people in these portraits:

    • Helen Sharman is an astronaut. 
    • She was the first British person to go to space, in 1991.
    • George Stephenson was an engineer. 
    • He invented some of the first trains. He’s often remembered as the ‘father of the railways’.
    • Julia Barfield and David Marks are architects. 
    • They designed the famous ‘London Eye’ – the giant wheel in London. 
    • The wheel has glass pods that go around slowly so that people travelling in them can see across the whole city.
    • Kazuo Ishiguro is a famous writer. 
    • He has won important prizes for his books.

Colour

Artists use colours in many different ways. Colours can be very useful for suggesting the mood or feelings of the person in the portrait. Darker colours can sometimes mean it’s a sad or serious portrait. Bright colours can make it feel like a happy or joyful portrait.

Look closely at these two portraits. The artists who made them have each used colours in a very different way.

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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
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    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    circa 1900,    NPG 4439,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Gwen John, by Gwen John, circa 1900

Here are some words to describe colours, mood or feelings:

  • bright
  • colourful
  • dark
  • still
  • happy
  • fun
  • serious
  • confident
  • friendly
  • calm.
  1. Which of these words describes each portrait best?
  1. Why did you choose this word?
  1. Do any of the words fit both portraits?
  1. Are there any words that don’t match either of the portraits?
  1. Can you think of more words to describe the colours, mood or feelings in these portraits?

Find out more about these portraits:

    • Lucy Jones has used bright colours in this portrait, which suggest a happy and positive mood.
    • Tom Shakespeare and Lucy Jones are friends. Lucy Jones may have chosen the bright colours and used them as she did to show how she feels about her friend Tom Shakespeare.
    • Gwen John painted this portrait of herself – it’s a self-portrait. 
    • She used lots of different shades of similar brown-ish colours. These colours help give the portrait a quite serious mood. 
    • Gwen John is presenting herself as serious and confident. Someone people should take notice of.

Step 4: using the label

As well as looking at the portrait itself, you can also read the label to discover even more clues. It can tell us:

  • the name of the person in the portrait
  • the name of the artist
  • how the portrait was made
  • when the portrait was made (date).

This can give us important clues about whether the portrait:

  • was made in the past or the present day
  • was made by a famous artist
  • is a self-portrait.

Look at some of these portraits again and read the label.

  1. What does the label tell you about the portrait?
  1. Can you work out how old each portrait is?
  1. Did you discover anything new from reading the label?

Reflections

Think about the portraits you have seen here.

  1. How would you like to be shown in a portrait?
  1. What clothes would you wear and what objects would you include?
  1. How would you pose?
  1. What would your expression be?
  1. What would be in the background?
  1. What would your portrait say about you?
  1. Choose one of the portraits and write about the person portrayed using all the information that you have gathered. Combine your own ideas with the information from the label.

Next steps

Do you have any questions about the portraits that you have seen? You can find out more by:

  • looking at other portraits in the Gallery’s online Collection
  • using our other online resources
  • visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London.