Me, Myself and MRI

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In the first of our two sessions at York Art Gallery we introduced the group to portraiture, exploring themes such expression, pose and the relationship between artist and sitter.

Discussing Portraiture

Using the portraits in the gallery as well as a selection of postcards showing different styles of portraiture, we divided into groups to look at individual portraits in more detail. For each of the portraits we explored the following questions:
If a picture paints a thousand words... what does a portrait tell us about the individual being portrayed?
  • what does the portrait tell you about the individual being portrayed? For example, are there any clues as to their profession or their position in society? If so, what are those clues and what do they tell us?
  • what does their pose (the way they are sitting/standing) tell us? For example, do they look powerful, intelligent or noble or do they look humble or shy?
  • what sort of clothes are they wearing? What do they tell us about the individual?
  • what sort of facial expression are they showing? What does this tell us about them and how does this link to the image of themselves they are hoping to portray?
  • are there any differences in pose, expression and perspective between traditional portraits and more modern portraits (e.g. photographic portraits)?
  • why do you think this portrait was created? Do you think the artist approached the individual or do you think the individual commissioned the artist? Why do you think this?
  • does a portrait always tell the truth about an individual?
We talked about the fact that commissioning an artist to create a portrait can be very expensive so in times gone by it was generally only the very wealthy had their portraits painted. We asked the group to think about how this might have affected the relationship between the artist and the sitter (the person having their portrait painted). For example, would the sitter expect the artist to exaggerate their physical stature or their attractiveness to make them appear more powerful or handsome? Would the artist feel that they were able to paint exactly what they saw in front of them or would they perhaps try to make the sitter look younger, slimmer, stronger, more attractive than they actually were?

Portraiture is often now much more informal. As a camera can take an instant snapshot, it's easier for the artist to capture the sitter in a more relaxed pose and with a range of facial expressions - artists will often use photographs as the starting point for portraits in other media such as paint. If you have to sit still for hours on end whilst someone paints your portrait, it's really difficult to keep a natural-looking smile on your face. Similarly, when cameras were first invented, the photographic slides took a long time to develop so everyone had to stay perfectly still - this partly explains why so many people look very serious in early photographic portraits. Nowadays the artist can capture a series of moments using a camera so it's easier to create a more relaxed and natural looking portrait.

People are generally now more relaxed in front of the camera as well - with cameras in mobile phones and digital and disposable cameras available, we're all used to having our photograph taken and a lot of people will quite happily strike a pose whenever a camera appears.

Creating our own portraits

During the second half of the session we went back to The Studio and got the chance to create our own portraits. Some of the group worked with mirrors to draw self portraits and others used the 'portrait windows' to paint portraits of their friends, teachers and the project team.

The paint was applied to one side of the screen then we pressed paper against the screen so that the paint was transferred as a print. Some of the portraits were a very good likeness!

More portraiture resources

The National Portrait Gallery has some fantastic digital resources about portraiture and art techniques.

You can also take an online tour of a range of photographic portraits on the V&A website. Each portrait is accompanied by comments from members of the V&A team and visitors to the museum, showing how each viewer interprets a portrait in their own way.

There's also a really interesting exploration of portraits and portraiture on the Museum Network website. Using the collections of five British museums, the site explores themes such as pose and expression, setting and symbolism and status and dress and includes learning resources and online games.

Please see below for more photographs from our first visit to York Art Gallery.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Next section: Session 2