Art of a person = Portrait.

Why do Artists Make Portraits?

Because people are important to us.

As humans, we want to make connections with others, to understand them and have them understand us. A powerful portrait can make the viewer feel a connection with the subject. We may feel the joy we see in them, or relate to their pain; maybe we are drawn in by the subject’s confidence or vulnerability. Portraits can connect us to our own emotions, and remind us that others share those emotions, too.

Portraits tell a story about a person.

Portraits reflect how artists see the subject, how they perceive them. The choices the artist makes in creating a portrait shape their story. A portrait doesn’t have to be a literal, realistic likeness of a person, it can be a conceptual piece that communicates the idea or essence of a person. There are countless ways an artist can represent someone’s identity, tell their story, create connection and evoke emotion.

And, sometimes, portraits just look really cool.

But it’s not all about perfection. A portrait that reflects a technically accurate representation of the subject (realism) may show great technical skill, but it will only have power if it communicates a message and connects with the viewer.

Student Portrait Projects

Here are some student portrait projects from previous years:

How do Portraits Tell Stories?

Check out the short video below from MoMA about three artists whose work explores identity (Frida Kahlo, Glenn Ligon, and Andy Warhol). The pieces in this video by Kahlo and Warhol are figurative portraits (show likeness of the subject); Ligon’s piece is conceptual. All three tell stories about the subjects.

Kehinde Wiley is a contemporary artist who creates large portraits inspired by the work of classical painters, but with urban, black and brown men and women as the subjects. In this brief video, he explains his process and intention, which includes questioning who is represented on the walls of museums. You can view more of his artwork on his website.

Portrait Gallery – Contemporary Artists

Check out some contemporary portrait artists with unique styles:


Practice Activities

If you’re looking for skill development activities, there are endless possibilities, and lots of great tutorials online – I encourage you to find what works for you. Here are a few ideas from me:

Project Prep

Before you start your portrait project, you’ll need to answer a few questions:

  • Who will be the subject of your portrait? What’s their story? Why did you choose them?
  • What feeling/emotion do you want this portrait to convey? How will you do that?
  • What style of art will you use?
  • What medium will work best to achieve your goals?
  • What references do you need? What practice work do you need to do to get ready?

Once you’ve answered all of these questions, your next step is to fill out a project sheet and come talk to me.


Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (Season 2, Episode 9 – Exile on Main Street)
In this episode, the artists are tasked with creating portraits of people they’ve just met. Each artist explores different approaches to portraiture, and of course, drama ensues! Who will be eliminated, and whose portrait will be strong enough to take them to the finale? This episode is very entertaining, but don’t forget to pay attention to the art and the artists’ process. :)