How to use this resource

1. Explore paintings and poetry

The first section of this resource introduces poems inspired by portraits, narrative paintings and abstract artworks.

Choose one or two of the paintings with accompanying poems to explore with your students. Look at the painting first, encouraging students to discuss what it shows and their response to it.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) 1853

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)

Birmingham Museums Trust

You could think about:

  • what does the artwork look like?
  • is it an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours or has the artist represented something from the visible world?
  • is there a story, meaning or message in the work?
  • what is the mood of the work and how does this affect your response?
  • how has the artist used techniques such as brushstrokes or chisel marks? What colours have they used?

Then discuss how the poet has responded to the painting.

  • What aspects of the painting have they focused on?
  • What type of language have they used?
  • Have they used the painting as a starting point to discuss bigger ideas or themes or to reflect upon issues that are personal to them? 

2. Activity ideas and suggestions

The second section of the resource includes ideas and suggestions for responding through poetry or another form of creative writing to an artwork.

Did you know?

There is a dedicated term for poems inspired by artworks. Ekphrastic poetry is taken from the Greek word Ekphrasis, meaning to describe something in vivid detail.


Elizabeth Jennings and Rembrandt's late self-portraits

Rembrandt van Rijn was a seventeenth-century Dutch painter. During his long career, he painted over 90 self-portraits that record how he looked from youth to old age. (See additional self-portraits on the Rembrandt artist page on Art UK and watch a video to find out more.)

Rembrandt's self-portraits from old age are brutally honest, showing melancholy eyes staring out from sagging features and dishevelled hair and clothing.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 1669

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)

The National Gallery, London

Poet Elizabeth Jennings responds to the self-portraits that Rembrandt painted in later life.

You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush's care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here

Is a humility at one with craft
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny.

Read the whole poem and listen to a recording of Elizabeth Jennings reading her poem

Explore an analysis of the poem

Narrative painting

A narrative painting is a painting that tells a story. The story could be from religion, literature, myth and legend or history. Or it could be a story of everyday life (often referred to as genre painting.)

Poetic responses to Titian's Diana and Actaeon

In 2012, The National Gallery in London invited 13 leading poets to respond to three paintings by Titian (c.1488–1576): Diana and Actaeon (1556–1559); The Death of Actaeon (about 1559–1575); and Diana and Callisto (1556–1559). The paintings depict stories from the epic poem Metamorphoses by the Classical poet Ovid, who lived from 43 BC to 17/18 AD.

Diana and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon 1556-1559

Titian (c.1488–1576)

The National Gallery, London

The myth of Diana and Actaeon recounted in Metamorphoses tells the sad story of the hunter Actaeon who comes across Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, while she is bathing with her escort of nymphs. The nymphs try to cover the naked Diana who, in a state of shock and embarrassment, splashes Actaeon. This splash turns Actaeon into a deer and he flees the scene. Tragically, however, his own hunting dogs don't recognise their master and attack and kill Actaeon.

Find out more about the paintings in the HENI Talks video on this artwork page

Abstract art

E. E. Cummings and Cubism

American avant-garde poet E. E. Cummings was profoundly influenced by early twentieth-century art movements and the experiments with abstract style that Cubists and other modern artists were conducting. In 1913 he visited the International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York (also known as the Armory Show) where he saw work by artists including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and Marcel Duchamp

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque's Cubist experiments revolutionised painting. In attempting to suggest the three-dimensionality of objects, landscapes and people by showing them simultaneously from different viewpoints they created fragmented, abstracted images. 

Cubist Head (Portrait of Fernande)

Cubist Head (Portrait of Fernande) c.1909/1910

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

E. E. Cummings was inspired by these fractured artworks and began to explore similar experimentation in his poetry. His poems became visual as well as verbal as he experimented with the form and arrangement of his words. (His poem r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r is a good example of this.)

Cummings begins his poem, Picasso, with the words:

you give us Things
bulge: grunting lungs pumped full of thick sharp mind you make us shrill
presents always
shut in the sumptuous screech of simplicity'

The poem ends with:

'you hew form truly'

Read the full poem here

Anne Sexton and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night

Artist Vincent van Gogh is best known for his powerful portraits, flowers and landscapes painted using bold colours and loose brushstrokes that seem to whirl around the surface of his canvases.

The Starry Night, painted in 1889, shows the view from Van Gogh's room in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum where he was placed after a breakdown (during which he self-mutilated his ear). The view was painted just before sunrise and as well as the trees and hills and starry sky that he could see, Van Gogh added an imaginary village to the landscape.

The Starry Night

The Starry Night

1889, oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

In her response to The Starry Night, poet Anne Sexton has managed to convey the powerful emotions as well as the loose abstracted style of Vincent van Gogh's painting.

'The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven
Oh starry starry night!'

Ann Sexton researched Van Gogh and read his letters before writing the poem and includes, as an epigraph to her poem, a line from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother.

'That does not keep me from having a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.'

In creating her response to the painting she imagines Vincent van Gogh thinking about religion and mortality.

Read the full poem here

See an analysis of the poem

Activity: write a poem inspired by an artwork

Now that you have explored a range of poems inspired by paintings, have a go at writing a poem or piece of creative writing inspired by an artwork.

This activity includes tips and suggestions for finding, looking at and creating a written response to an artwork.

Step 1: find an artwork to inspire you

If you are a teacher, task students with finding an artwork that inspires them as a homework project in advance of the class. They could choose an artwork from a local collection or find one on Art UK.

Use the tips below to find artworks on Art UK.

Search by artist

Look for an artist on Art UK. Start typing the artist's name into the search box on the Art UK artworks search page.

A list of artists will appear. Select the artist that you are interested in.

Screenshot of Art UK's artwork search page

Screenshot of Art UK's artwork search page

You will be shown a list of artworks on Art UK by your selected artist. Browse these and choose an artwork to inspire your creative writing project.

Screenshot of Art UK's artworks search page, showing art by Sonia Boyce

Screenshot of Art UK's artworks search page, showing art by Sonia Boyce

Search by theme

You can also type a subject or theme into the search box. This could be anything from 'holiday' to 'celebrity' to 'football'. Once you've typed your theme, click the search icon or press return.

You will be shown a list of artworks relating to the keyword.

Another way to search by theme is to explore Topics on Art UK. We have gathered together a selection of artworks related to a wide range of themes from 'home and family' to the 'natural world'.

Search by location

If you'd like to find artworks in museums or galleries near you, use our venue search.

This will allow you to search by UK country and region to find a local gallery or museum and see the artworks that they hold.

Be inspired using the artwork shuffle

If you are not sure what you're looking for (but will know when you see it!), use our artwork shuffle.

The artwork shuffle shows a random selection of artworks in different media from collections around the country.

If you don't see anything you like, shuffle again to see another selection.

Step 3: plan and write your creative response

How are you going to respond to the artwork in your creative writing piece?

Your response could be a poem, a text, a memory or a form of your own invention. As well as what you see in the artwork (the imagery, colours and mark-making or use of materials) think about your own interpretation and your response to it.

  • What does the artwork make you feel?
  • Does it make you think of other things such as memories, places or people?
  • Does the artwork tell or suggest a narrative or story?
  • Are there any details or imagery within the artwork that draws you in?
  • What do the colours, shapes and marks remind you of?

Research and be inspired by others

You could also research the artwork to inform and inspire your approach. Find out more about the artist and their ideas and techniques or research the subject depicted.

Be inspired by the approach of other writers. Revisit the poetry included in the first part of this resource.

Or read creative responses to artworks written by young people for our Write on Art competition.

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