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Activities by Grade Level
High School

Who Are You? A Portrait Painting Research Project
Visual Analysis – Contemporary Portraits
Portrait Lesson
Interdisciplinary Extensions
    Connections to the Collection

Who Are You? A Portrait Painting Research Project
Visual Arts: Standard 3, Select and apply a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas

Divide students into small teams and allow each team to choose a work they would like to learn more about. Have the students research the sitters to learn more about them and compile a report that includes the following…

Who is this person? When did they live? What did they accomplish? What can you learn about their family? Why do you think they had their portrait painted? Did they commission the portrait themselves? Did any family members have their portraits painted as well? Which ones? Where did they display their portrait? Why? How much do you think their portrait cost? How did they choose the artist? What do the objects displayed in the portrait tell you about the sitter? What does it mean if there aren’t any objects displayed?

Visual Analysis Contemporary Portraits
Visual Arts: Standard 4, Analyze the visual arts in relation to history and culture.

Have students choose a portrait completed in the modern or contemporary era (for example, Chuck Close’s Janet, 1988 or Francesco Scavullo’s Andy Warhol, 1983) Have students learn some facts about the artist and sitter they chose. Then, have them compare and contrast this work with the work of portrait painter Gilbert Stuart. What similarities do they notice? What differences? What other objects are shown? Why? Have students discuss the sitter’s attire and facial expressions as a reflection of their personality. What type of expression are they wearing? What does this say about them? What type of clothing? If you could hear this person speak, what would they say?

Portrait Lesson
Grade –

Aim/Instructional Objectives

  1. Students will learn to examine their personal notions of a portrait and a self-portrait.
  2. Students will produce works that reflect a personal response to portraits from other cultures, as well as to portraits by well-known artists. Students will be able to discuss their personal reflections of these works in class discussions.

See student examples >

Materials/Supplies Needed

  • 4-ply illustration board cut to desired size and shape. Or, good quality drawing paper such as Canson paper
  • Pencils, erasers, rulers
  • Prismacolor pencils
  • Gold leaf (if desired) for iconography or ancestor portraits
  • Acrylic clear spray
  • Mirrors

Length – (8) 50-minute class sessions

Class 1 and 2

  1. Introduce students to a variety of portraits.
  2. Discuss and show examples of selected styles – portrait d’apparat, environmental portrait, iconographic portrait and spiritual representations.
  3. Have students brainstorm ideas on paper.
  4. Use words that inspire a visual image to assist in composing a rough draft.
  5. Students will collect and bring into class appropriate objects or photo references that will enhance their portraits.
  6. Students will use a mirror and appropriate visual resource material to develop a self-portrait that reflects the classes’ study of portraiture.
  7. Students will work on several ideas and entertain several styles before making a final decision.

Classes 3-7

  1. Students will select the dimensions and format of their piece and cut illustration board or paper to size.
  2. A rough sketch will be decided upon and the student will transfer the drawing to the final paper.
  3. Students will use a mirror and reference materials that they collected to complete a self-portrait reflecting the selected style.
  4. Students will be aware of color choices, poses, objects, background and direction of vision.
  5. Those students using gold leaf will apply it to a portion of the clothing or background space.
  6. Acrylic clear spray should be used to coat the final work to create a unified surface.
  7. Five minutes before the end of each work session, the students can share their progress with their peers, ask for informal advice, write notes in their sketchbook and clean up their workspace.

Class 8

  1. Group critique.
  2. Students will display their finished work in the classroom.
  3. Each student will be given the opportunity to discuss their process as well as their choice of portrait style.
  4. Students will articulate their individual aspirations for their piece.
  5. Classmates will be asked to give positive feedback relating to the learning objectives.

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Corresponding Standards
National Standards

  • Content Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques and processes.
  • Content Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas.
  • Content Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
  • Content Standard 5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.
  • Content Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines.

New Hampshire Standards

  • Standard 1: Apply appropriate media, techniques and processes.
  • Standard 3: Select and apply a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas.
  • Standard 4: Analyze the visual arts in relation to history and culture.
  • Standard 5: Analyze, interpret and evaluate their own and the work of others.


  1. Does the student show engagement with the topic through discussion and idea generation?
  2. Can the student brainstorm verbal and visual ideas on paper?
  3. Does the student’s work exhibit a thoughtful process and an understanding of visual means of communication?
  4. Can the student discuss their own work and the work of their peers in the context of the learning objectives?

New Vocabulary Words
Portrait d’apparat portrait portraying the subject with objects from their daily life.
Environmental self-portrait a term coined by photographer Arnold Newman. Through the use of background, props and angle, the artist reveals something about the sitter that is beyond physical appearance. The personality or psychology of the subject is as important as the likeness.
Christian Iconography the subjective and symbolic images made in the Christian Faith. The images depicted are usually Saints and heavenly beings.
Ancestor Portrait stylistic portraits done in China and used as part of family rituals. These iconographic portraits are said to bring good luck and prosperity to the family that displays and honors them.
Islamic Art artwork created by followers of the Islamic Faith. Calligraphy and Architecture are two mediums widely used. Although not outlawed by Islam, the depiction of living things is rarely seen. Worshipping of idols is forbidden.
Buddhism a major eastern religion which began in India and made its way through China, Japan and Korea. Buddhism has many sects that are associated with peace and mysticism.
Gold leaf gold that is thinned to the thickness of tissue paper and used as a decorative device in artwork, applied carefully to a support with an adhesive.
Symbolism when one thing is used to represent something else; sometimes a simple object can be used to represent a greater and more complex idea.

Interdisciplinary Extensions

  1. Social Studies: Compare and contrast American presidential portraiture. How has our society influenced how important figures are painted and immortalized?
  2. Comparative Religions/Multicultural Studies: How has Islamic art developed through the centuries despite the lack of human representation?
  3. Technology: How does technology influence our perceptions of the human face?

Connections to the Currier Museum of Art’s collection

Additional Information and Resources
Lossky, Vladimir and Leonid Ouspensky. The Meaning of Icons, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989.

Storr, Robert. Chuck Close, New York: Abrams, 1998.

Stuart, Jan and Evelyn Rowski. Worshipping the Ancestors, California: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, circa 1780
Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, c. 1780
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