Looking closely at portraits

Learning Objectives

  1. Begin to ask questions about portraits through activities and games.
  1. Recognise some of the different portrait elements such as objects, expression, clothing and pose.
  1. Explore some of the ways artists and portraits communicate mood, feelings and ideas.
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    Rachel Yankey,    by Mary Dunkin,    9 May 2005,    NPG x127391,    © Mary Dunkin
Rachel Yankey
by Mary Dunkin
chromogenic print, 9 May 2005
14 7/8 in. x 12 in. (378 mm x 304 mm)
NPG x127391
© Mary Dunkin

Portraits can tell us all sorts of things about a person. They can tell us about their likes and dislikes, how they’re feeling, what they like to wear, and what their job is. They can also tell us about the way different artists work and about what life was like in the past.

The more you look at a portrait, the more you can find out. Here are some ideas to help you become experts in looking at portraits closely.

I spy...

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    Grace Lau,    by Grace Lau,    July 2005,    NPG x128064,    © Grace Lau 2005
Grace Lau, by Grace Lau, July 2005

Look carefully at a portrait and play a game of I spy, in a group or with the whole class.

Take it in turns to spot details in the portrait beginning with different letters of the alphabet, such as a Lantern or a Table.

  • How many details can you spot beginning with different letters?
  • How many details can you spot beginning with the same letter?
  • Can you find something beginning with every letter of the alphabet? You could make it a little easier by adding an adjective, e.g. a Red lantern, a Wooden table.

Try playing I spy with this portrait of the photographer and writer Grace Lau.

Portrait memories

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    Ellie Simmonds; Christopher ('Billy') Pye,    by Finlay MacKay,    1 December 2010,    NPG P1750,    © Finlay MacKay
Ellie Simmonds; Christopher ('Billy') Pye, by Finlay MacKay, 1 December 2010

Look carefully at a portrait for a whole minute (you might like to use a timer).

Take the portrait away. How many different details can you remember?

You could try this 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..?

Test your looking and memory skills with this portrait of the Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds and her coach Billy Pye.

I looked at the portrait and I saw...

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    Judith Kerr with her cat Katinka,    by Sam Pelly,    March 2011,    NPG x135287,    © Sam Pelly / National Portrait Gallery, London
Judith Kerr with her cat Katinka, by Sam Pelly, March 2011

Play this game in a group or with the whole class.

Everyone looks carefully at a portrait.

Choose someone in your class or group to go first. They say ‘I looked at the portrait and I saw…’, and give an example of something they can see, such as a cat.

The next person in the class takes a turn, adding a new detail from the portrait, e.g. ‘I looked at the portrait and I saw a cat and a cup’.

The rest of the group or class take turns. Each time they must remember the list of details the students before them have spotted, in the right order. They then add a new detail of their own to the list.

  • How many details can you add to the list before someone forgets one of them? You could ask the rest of the class to help if someone forgets something.
  • You could make it more challenging by adding adjectives or descriptions, e.g. ‘a black and white cat with a pink nose; an empty tea cup’.

Test your looking skills with this portrait of the author and illustrator Judith Kerr.

Step inside the portrait

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    Carl Ronald Giles with his wife Sylvia ('Joan') Clarke and musicians, including Butch Shepherd,    by Lee Miller,    1944,    NPG P1078,    © Lee Miller Archives, England 2019. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk
Carl Ronald Giles with his wife Sylvia ('Joan') Clarke and musicians, including Butch Shepherd, by Lee Miller, 1944

Imagine you could step inside a portrait and look around you.

  • What might you see, hear, smell, or even taste?
  • How might you be feeling?
  • What might have happened just before this moment?
  • What might happen after?
  • What might you say to the person or people in the portrait?

Try stepping inside this portrait of the cartoonist Carl Giles, having fun with his wife Joan and their friends during the Second World War.

Portrait sketches

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    Natalie Bevan (née Ackenhausen, later Denny) ('Supper (Natalie Denny)'),    by Mark Gertler,    1928,    NPG 6877,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Natalie Bevan (née Ackenhausen, later Denny) ('Supper (Natalie Denny)'), by Mark Gertler, 1928

Try this by yourself, in groups or with the whole class.

Divide a piece of paper into four sections (or more if you want to make it more challenging).

Look carefully at a portrait.

In each section of your paper, make a sketch of a different detail from the portrait – it could be anything: an eye, a nose, a piece of clothing, an object, something in the background, or just a simple pattern or shape.

You could make this more challenging by taking the portrait away before you make your sketches. Once you’ve made your sketches, look at the portrait again and add more detail. How much did you remember? How much did you forget?

You could compare your sketches with others in your class.

How many different details can you come up with together?

Test your looking skills with this portrait of the artist Natalie Denny.

Pose and expression

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    Rachel Yankey,    by Mary Dunkin,    9 May 2005,    NPG x127391,    © Mary Dunkin
Rachel Yankey, by Mary Dunkin, 9 May 2005

Choose a portrait and look at it carefully.

Try copying the person’s pose (how they’re holding their body, arms and legs) and the expression on their face.

How do you think the person in the portrait is feeling? Proud, tired, confident, scared, worried, happy, sad?

You could ask a partner to take a photo of you and compare it to the original portrait.

Try copying the footballer Rachel Yankey’s pose and expression. What other poses or expressions might a footballer make?

Portrait snap

Try comparing a portrait with another that is similar. Play a game of snap with a partner, in a group or with the whole class.

Look at both portraits very closely.

When you see something that’s the same in each portrait say “SNAP!” It could be anything – a hairstyle, something both people are wearing, an object, pattern, shape, colour, pose (the way they’re holding their body), the expression on their face…

Tell the rest of the group or class what you’ve seen. Can they see it too?

Now give someone else a turn.

  • How many different ‘snaps’ can you find in a portrait pair?
  • What are the main differences between the portraits?

Try comparing this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at her Coronation A ceremony at which a crown is formally placed on the head of a new king or queen to mark them becoming king or queen. with Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation 400 years later.

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1600,    NPG 5175,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1600
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    Queen Elizabeth II,    by Cecil Beaton,    2 June 1953,    NPG x35390,    © Cecil Beaton / Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Queen Elizabeth II, by Cecil Beaton, 2 June 1953

Next steps

There are thousands more portraits to choose from in the National Portrait Gallery's Collection. Explore further and practice looking closely at portraits.