Portrait Approaches

Draft being updated

Research point: Select several types of portraits from different periods if you can and begin to make notes and collect pictures for your learning log. For each portrait you select, Try and understand it from several points of view.

  • point of view of the person in the portrait – did they ask for it to be painted? How have they been represented? What does the portrait tell us about the character of the sitter?
  • point of view of the artist – why has the artist chosen to portray the sitter in a particular manner? Has the artist used any tricks to represent the sitter? Is the artist referring to another style or artist in the painting and why?
  • point of view of the audience for the portrait – is it a private, personal
    painting to be seen by a few close friends and family members? How can you tell? What is the audience meant to see or read in the portrait? Who has made the decision to present the figure in this way and why?
  • composition:  full portraits, three-quarter views or just head and shoulders? Does composition make a difference to your understanding of the painting? Is the subject looking at the viewer or in profile? This might be particularly
    important in a self-portrait.



Sometimes the character of the sitter is conveyed through distorting reality.

At other times the person is depicted with objects from their life which tells us something about their status, interests or aspirations.

Maggi Hambling’s portrait of Dorothy Mary Hodgkin (1985, National Portrait Gallery) uses the sitter’s active mind and busy scientific career as an opportunity to explore our emotions by giving the Doctor many hands, all working away in front of us.

Self portraits

Present an unreal image of the painter to the world as they represent a reverse mirror image (until the use of photographs made a correct-way-round
portrayal possible). However, working in a printed form the artist’s self-portrait will be reversed again and appear as normal, not in reverse as in a mirror.

Can an artist represent themselves in profile?




Ancient world

In Egypt portraits of rulers and gods were highly stylised, and most in profile, usually on stone, metal, clay, plaster, or crystal. Egyptian portraiture placed relatively little emphasis on likeness, at least until the period of Akhenaten in the 14th century BC.portrait bust of Queen Nefertiti sculpted in c.1360 bc

Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a woman
Portrait painting of notables in China probably goes back to over 1000 BC, though none survive from that age. Existing Chinese portraits go back to about 1000 AD

Ancient Greek and Roman portraiture was often highly accurate and subjects were depicted with relatively little flattery.  Sculpted heads of rulers and famous personalities like Socrates show why he had a reputation for being ugly.

Middle Ages

Most early medieval portraits were donor portraits, initially mostly of popes in Roman mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts, an example being a self-portrait by the writer, mystic, scientist, illuminator, and musician Hildegard of Bingen (1152).


Many innovations in the various forms of portraiture evolved. Use of finer brush strokes in oils.
Northern European: Durer, Jan van Eyck, Holbein


During the Renaissance, the Florentine and Milanese nobility, in particular, wanted more realistic representations of themselves. The challenge of creating convincing full and three-quarter views stimulated experimentation and innovation. Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi, and Leonardo da Vinci and other artists expanded their technique accordingly, adding portraiture to traditional religious and classical subjects. Leonardo and Pisanello were among the first Italian artists to add allegorical symbols to their secular portraits

 Baroque and Rococo

19th century

Van Gogh 

20th century

Lucien Freud
Chuck Close

Andy WarholMarilyn Diptych, 1962, 2,054 cm × 1,448 cm., (809 in × 570 in), Tate Gallery, London. Andy Warhol (1928-1987), made several portraits of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities during the 1960s and throughout his career


Jenny Saville


David Hockney

Tracey Emin


Jenny Saville

Maggi Hambling