According to the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), portraiture originated in tracing lines around a human shadow. Working in pairs, use the sun or artificial light to cast a shadow of one person onto a large piece of paper on the ground. The other person outlines this shadow then fills it with words and images that best describe the person casting the shadow.
How many images of faces do you see in one day? Where do you see them? Collect a variety of these images and create a class collage. What makes the people similar or different? Try to arrange these images together in different groupings eg those who are smiling, who wear glasses. Be creative with your groupings. How many variations have you found?
Describe a particular person to your class in detail, using an image of them. Consider distinguishing features such as their age, size, hair style and colour, facial features and expression, clothing and pose. Ask your classmates to draw or paint this person from your description. Display these works alongside the original image.
Create a group portrait of your family, friends or class. Capture the facial expressions and poses that best represent the personality of each person.
Create a portrait of a family member, friend or classmate. Make choices about their pose, expression, clothing, environment and whether to include any other objects, as well as the style of the work and the medium. Then imagine you have been commissioned by this person to create their portrait for them. Meet with them to discuss what they want to portray about themselves through the artwork. How can you place your own artistic mark on the commissioned artwork? Compare the two portraits, and discuss whether there is such a thing as a perfect portrait.
'One is never satisfied with the portrait of a person one knows’ – Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, 1808. Make a portrait of a person you know. What choices can you make about composition, colour, line, scale, surface quality, materials and techniques to enhance the viewers’ understanding of this person? Do you think it is a help or hindrance to know your subject personally? Discuss Van Goethe’s observation. Do you agree with him?
Create candid images of a person (ie not posed or set up). Then ask them to sit for you while you create their portrait. What different qualities come from these two approaches? What contribution is made by the subject’s body language? Create a body of work that explores these different approaches.
In the classroom, create an unconventional portrait. Write an artist’s statement to accompany the work. Curate a class exhibition titled New portraiture. Debate the topic ‘Is portraiture relevant today?’
Collect together several small objects that you feel represent you and place them in a shoebox. Decorate and personalise the outside of the box using collage and papier-mâché. In the classroom, display these ‘identity boxes’ and see if you can guess who owns which.
Write a list of the things that interest you and your favourite objects. Construct a self-portrait by layering images of these personal symbols.
Create a self-portrait that reflects your emotional state. How can you use colour, texture, symbols and other elements to give viewers an insight into how you are feeling?
Create a written and visual record of one day in your life. Develop a series of works based on this record. Can this series be defined as a self-portrait?
Create a portrait of your future self at a specific date many years ahead. Consider how you will look, what you will wear and the environment around you. Write a story about your life’s journey and what you are doing in your life at that point.
Place yourself in your favourite room. Photograph the space around you then draw or paint a series of sketches of this room and several items in it that are important to you. Collage these images together to create a portrait to display in class.