Exploring Portraits

What can a portrait tell us about a person, their experiences, and the world they live in? In this activity you will analyze a contemporary portrait by identifying its elements and uncovering its layers of meaning. Then, create an original portrait or self-portrait of your own!


  • Portrait: an artistic representation of a particular individual
  • Subject: the visual or narrative focus of a work of art

Step 1: Analyzing Portraits

Take a few minutes to look at this portrait, which was submitted to the COA COVID-19 Community Archive Project by a College of the Atlantic student. What do you see? Consider these elements:


“Barbijo,” COA COVID-19 Community Archive Project

Clothing: What is the subject wearing?

Gaze: Where is the subject looking?

Expression: What emotions does the subject’s facial expression communicate?

Colors: What colors stand out? How do they make you feel?

Does anything else catch your eye?

Why do you think the artist made these artistic choices? What might they tell us about the subject, the purpose of the portrait, and the time and place it was created?

Here's another portrait. This photograph comes from Ogunquit Memorial Library's COVID-19 Archive. Consider the elements above, as well as the following:

Helping the Community with Much Needed Face Masks

“Helping the Community with Much Needed Face Masks,” Ogunquit Memorial Library's COVID-19 Archive

Pose: Describe the subject’s body position (standing, sitting, relaxed, active)?

Setting: Describe the setting or background.

Objects: What objects do you see? Why do you think they were included?

Choose one of these portraits above to explore further. Uncover additional layers of meaning by using the Unveiling Stories exercise developed by the National Portrait Gallery:

  • What is the visible story or overarching theme of the image?
  • What is the human story or the person-centered experience in this image?
  • What is the world story? What global issues of today can we connect to this image?
  • What is the untold story? What are the important absences of the story? What could be happening beyond the frame of this portrait?

Step 2: Creating a Portrait

Now it's time to create an original portrait or self-portrait of your own!

  • Think about who you want to represent (yourself, a friend or family member, or a public figure) and what aspects of this person you want to portray.
  • You can create a photograph, drawing, collage, digital illustration, or use any other medium of your choice.
  • Try to incorporate some of the elements from Step 1 (clothing, pose, gaze, expression, setting, objects, and colors).
  • Make sure to title and date your portrait, and provide a descriptive caption.

If you'd like, you can submit your portrait to a Maine Contemporary Archives project to share with your community! (Use this list to find a participating library near you.)


MoMA Learning: Glossary of Art Terms 

National Portrait Gallery: "Reading Portraiture" Guide for Educators