Art UK has updated its cookies policy. By using this website you are agreeing to the use of cookies. To find out more read our updated Use of Cookies policy and our updated Privacy policy.

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

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 60.5 x W 50 cm

Vincent van Gogh shows himself in his studio in Arles (in the south of France). He painted this portrait of himself just after leaving hospital, where his injured ear was bandaged. His friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin had been staying with him and it is thought that, when Gauguin suddenly decided to leave, the already troubled artist became very upset and wounded his ear.

Van Gogh has either just come in from outside (there is an open door to the right), or his meagre studio is very cold, as he is wrapped up in an overcoat and fur-trimmed hat. On the left is a canvas with a hint of work in progress, possibly interrupted. On the right is a favourite Japanese print with the familiar triangle of Mount Fuji. Japanese art was an inspiration to Van Gogh, and Japan, like his home in Arles, was a place that fired his imagination.

Look, describe and discuss

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

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

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

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.

There is an audio and tactile book of the painting which can be borrowed from Living Paintings.

Nudge questions

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

  • What is Vincent van Gogh wearing in this self-portrait?
  • Can you use his clothing to guess where he has been or what he has been doing?
  • Where do you think he is sitting?
  • Which colours are used most in this painting?
  • What can you see in the background? If you were transported into this painting, what might you see, smell or hear?

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.


  • Draw your own self-portrait, using a mirror to help you like in this video on how to draw a lifelike portrait from BBC Teach. Students could explore other examples of self-portraiture on Art UK. If appropriate, this activity may also be a good opportunity to discuss the idea of the 'selfie' and how people's presentation of themselves online may differ from reality.
  • Use oil pastels and explore making Van Gogh's vertical dashes of colour. You could try to draw and colour your coat with this technique.



  • Van Gogh liked music by the German composer Richard Wagner. One of Wagner's most famous pieces is The Ride of the Valkyries which you might recognise from its orchestral version, as it's been used in many films and TV shows. However, it's also part of an opera called Die Walküre, first performed in 1870. Van Gogh had seen some of Wagner's operas in Paris. This performance was recorded in 2010 in New York. It shows the valkyries – fierce warrior maidens – meeting up to bring dead warriors to Valhalla and singing their war cry!



  • Get your students to touch textures from the painting: fur, cotton, canvas, or objects from the painting: a fluffy hat, a coat (perhaps wet and cold as if you've just come from outside).
  • Use a mirror and try to copy Van Gogh's facial expression in this portrait. How does it feel? Do you remember the last time you felt this way? This activity could be adapted so that one student makes the expression, while another student uses their fingers to trace their facial expression.



  • Look carefully at the image in the background of this portrait. What activities do you think the people depicted here are doing? Try and recreate their poses. There is a slightly larger version of it here.



  • Learn the Makaton signs or British Sign Language for different emotions.

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.

Do you know someone who would love this resource?
Tell them about it...

More The Superpower of Looking resources

See all