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Drawing a Face

Reading Portraits

There is no right or wrong way to 'read' a portrait, but they often contain many clues that can reveal information about the sitter’s life and achievements. To illustrate this, let us examine Self Portrait by William Ramsden Brealey.


Self Portrait by William Ramsden Brealey. Showing the top half of the artist dressed in a dark suit jacket with tie and white shirt, holding a paint brush and palette.
Self Portrait with a Side View by William Ramsden Brealey

Colour: His shiny pink cheeks contrast with the green background, which makes him seem full of life. The use of green and yellow tones in the face help to give a three dimensional effect.

: Brealey is seen from the side, so he is obviously looking at something. Consider what this might be.

Facial Expression
: His eyes are alert and his mouth is slightly open, suggesting that he is concentrating on the subject he is painting.

: He is dressed quite smartly for an artist, you could start a discussion as to why this might be.


Props: The palette and paintings provide information about his profession.


Background: When compared to other portraits there are few background details, this helps the viewer to focus on the central figure.


Composition: Brealey chose to paint just his upper body, focusing our attention on his face.

Social Context
: When ‘reading’ a work we bring our own expectations, for example that artists will be dressed in paint splattered clothes. But when delving deeper into the meaning of portraits it is useful to discover the social and historical context of the time to fully understand the depiction.