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Looking and responding

  • What is your definition of a portrait? Must a portrait always include a person’s face? Should it try to be an exact physical likeness?
  • Research the conventions of portraiture in different cultures, including styles and techniques, signs and symbols, and ideas of beauty.
  • Why do artists create portraits? Discuss portraiture’s role in society, historically and today. Where do we find portraits today, besides art galleries? Discuss whether the following are portraits: passport photos; profile photos for social media accounts; images accompanying news stories; images in advertisements.
  • What has been the impact of the invention of photography on portrait painting? Discuss the differences and similarities between painted and photographic portraits, and whether one medium is more effective or 'authentic’ than the other. What are the positives and negatives in painting from photographs rather than directly from life?
  • Choose a portrait to study. Why did that particular work gain your attention? What features dominate the composition? What is your initial response to this artwork? How does it make you feel? What is the mood of the portrait? What elements has the artist used to create this mood?
  • Choose a portrait in which the surrounding environment is important in revealing information about the sitter. What clues does the artist give the viewer? How do specific objects and elements inform us about the sitter and their world?
  • Choose a portrait and consider the sitter’s body language, facial expression and gaze. What do these things tell you about the sitter? How do they make you feel as the viewer? Do you feel welcomed or uncomfortable? Are you being ignored or judged?
  • Choose a portrait and write a journal entry about the day the subject sat for their portrait. Imagine how they prepared from the beginning of the day and how they felt during and after the sitting. Where were they when they posed? Who else was there? Turn this writing into a play.
  • Consider the relationship between sitter and artist. Does it matter whether they are strangers, acquaintances or close friends? Can an artist create a successful portrait of someone they don’t admire or agree with?
  • Consider the role of patronage. How might an artist cope with the tension between what the sitter looks like and how they would like to appear? Has portraiture as a genre survived through patronage alone? If not, what else has kept it alive?
  • Consider the role of the audience. Would a portrait be executed differently if it were for private viewing rather than display in a public place? Discuss.
  • Can a portrait based on humour and parody still be taken seriously? What roles can exaggeration, idealisation and expressionism play in successfully representing another person?
  • Choose a self-portrait to research. Find out more about the artist, their life and their body of work. Has the artist given any clues about themselves in their portrait? Compare the portrait to other works they have created. How indicative is it of their wider practice?

Reko Rennie Hetti (detail), Archibald Prize 2012 finalist