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Art theme: portraits

A portrait is an artwork that depicts a specific individual. Initially, portraiture primarily consisted of paintings of the rich and powerful who had commissioned the work, but the genre has grown to depict a wider range of subjects over time and has been further democratised by photography. The term 'portrait' can also refer to an artwork's layout being taller than it is wide, as opposed to a landscape, which is the opposite.

Contextual background for teachers

My Parents (1977)
David Hockney (b.1937)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 182.9 x W 182.9 cm

This large canvas by David Hockney is a double portrait of Laura and Kenneth Hockney, the artist's parents. It was painted a year before his father's death. Laura Hockney looks lovingly at her son, who paints them, while his father seems to be preoccupied with the book he is reading on his lap. What is it that makes Kenneth appear restless in his chair?

The cabinet in the middle of the painting seems to be carefully positioned with some interesting objects on display, including a mirror that reflects a reproduction of a Renaissance painting by Piero della Francesca (c.1415–1492) that later hung in the artist's studio.

This is a good opportunity to discuss family dynamics and relationships.

How does the precise and graphic style of the work and its colour palette relate to the mood of the scene?

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

My Parents

My Parents 1977

David Hockney (b.1937)


Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

Nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What are your first impressions of Hockney's parents? Can you think of three adjectives to describe them to a talking partner?
  • Do you think this painting looks realistic?
  • Where do you think Hockney's parents are sitting for this portrait?
  • What might you see, smell or hear if you were transported into the painting?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

Use The Superpower of Looking Kit to ask questions about the artwork.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You may like to introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers at this point.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Create a portrait of your parents or care-givers. You might want to use a photograph to help you.
  • Draw your own version of this painting, using two real people as models. Let the models choose how they want to sit and sketch them. David Hockney was interested in precise straight lines to create a sense of calm in his portrait. To help you achieve that in your portrait, fold a square of paper in half along both axis (to create a grid of four), and use these as guides to add straight lines to your picture.



  • Listen to excerpts from the UK's number one records in 1977! Which song do you think Hockney's parents might have liked the most? (Bear in mind that they were both in their seventies when this work was painted!)



  • Get your students to touch the textures from the painting: leather, glass, flowers, cotton, paper, or objects from the painting: a mirror, chairs, a vase, art books, a paper/magazine.
  • Encourage students to look closely at the details in this portrait, noticing their shape, colour and texture. One student closes their eyes and 'feels' (points to) something in the portrait; the other students have to describe it without naming it.



  • With a partner, recreate this scene and copy the poses. How does it feel to sit like this? How long do you think you could hold this pose?
  • Watch this video to learn about how it feels sitting for a portrait!



  • In 2014, this painting was voted the nation's favourite painting by members of the public. Talk with your talking partner about why you think it was so popular. Do you think it is still as popular now?
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'family'.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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