Exploring Portraits: Pictures That Tell a Story


Exploring Portraits: Pictures That Tell a Story


What can a portrait tell us about a person, their experiences, and the world they live in? In this lesson, students will learn strategies for engaging with a portrait by identifying its elements and uncovering its layers of meaning. Students will then create an original portrait or self-portrait using the medium of their choice and share their artwork and the story it tells.

The lesson packet above includes activities, examples, and worksheet.


Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative




Speaking & Listening
Visual Arts
Visual Literacy

Grade Levels

All Ages


English Language Arts--Reading--Standard 11
English Language Arts--Speaking & Listening: Comprehension and Collaboration--Standard 1
English Language Arts--Speaking & Listening: Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas--Standard 3
Visual & Performing Arts--Visual Arts--A1 Artist's Purpose, A2 Elements of Art and Principles of Design
Visual & Performing Arts--Visual Arts--B1 Media Skills, B3 Making Meaning, B4 Exhibition


Identify and describe the elements of a portrait
Interpret multiple stories expressed in a portrait
Create and share an original portrait


Portrait: a representation of a particular individual
Representation: the visual portrayal of someone or something
Subject: the visual or narrative focus of a work of art


Portraits (viewed online or printed)
Portrait Analysis Worksheet
Digital tools or art supplies to create an original portrait


Words can also be used to create a picture of a person. Write a portrait poem representing yourself or someone else.


MoMA Learning: Glossary of Art Terms

Lesson Plan Text

Step 1: Analyzing a Portrait

Have students work in pairs or small groups. Students should choose a contemporary portrait to work with:

Ask students to identify and describe elements of the portrait (clothing, pose, gaze, expression, setting, objects, and colors) using the Portrait Analysis Worksheet. (Some elements may not be found.)
  • Clothing: What is the subject wearing?
  • Pose: Describe the subject’s body position (standing, sitting, relaxed, active)?
  • Gaze: Where is the subject looking?
  • Expression: What emotions does the subject’s facial expression communicate?
  • Setting: Describe the setting or background.
  • Objects: What objects do you see? Why do you think they were included?
  • Colors: What colors stand out? How do they make you feel?
  • Does anything else catch your eye?

As a class, talk about the results. Why do students think the artist made these choices?  What might they tell us about the subject, the purpose of the portrait, and the time and place it was created? 

Help students uncover additional layers of meaning by using the Unveiling Stories exercise developed by the National Portrait Gallery. Discuss these questions:

  • 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

Have your students create an original portrait or self-portrait in a medium of their choice, incorporating the elements identified in Step 1 (clothing, pose, gaze, expression, setting, objects, and colors).

Students should consider who they want to represent (themselves, a friend or family member, or a public figure) and what aspects of this person they want to portray.

Students can create a photograph, drawing, collage, digital artwork, etc.! Ask students to title their portrait and provide a descriptive caption.

Assessment Activity

Have students present their portraits to the class, identifying the elements they have included and describing the stories their portraits tell. Invite students to submit their portraits to a Maine Contemporary Archives project to share with your community! (Use this list to find a participating library near you.) Each project has its own Terms and Conditions for contributions, get in touch if you have any questions.


Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative, “Exploring Portraits: Pictures That Tell a Story,” Maine Contemporary Archives, accessed May 21, 2024, https://ourmainearchives.omeka.net/items/show/50.

Output Formats