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Interpreting Portraits: The Attributes Game

Every art museum has its share of portraits, but sometimes it’s hard to get school visitors engaged in looking carefully at this genre. We want them to move beyond the cheap thrill of noticing “how the eyes follow you when you move around the room!” We want them to work towards an interpretation of the image — an understanding of who the sitter was, as well as the choices the artist made in presenting that sitter.

As part of the Ackland Art Museum’s school outreach program, we developed an activity to teach some of the skills needed to interpret a portrait. We call it the Attributes Game, and we have had lots of serious fun “playing” it with kids in grades 3 – 5. The activity has been effective in both the galleries and the school classrooms we visit, as a way to reinforce the vocabulary and interpretive strategies introduced during a lesson on portraits.

The Lesson (20 – 30 minutes)

During the course of your lesson, you will need to set up the Attributes Game by introducing certain key vocabulary words and concepts. Explain that a PORTRAIT is a work of art that represents a specific person. That person, called the SITTER, is the artist’s main reason for making the painting, and the goal is to introduce the sitter to the VIEWER.

The viewer has to look for the clues the artist provides, in order to learn who the sitter was (or is). Major clues may be found by considering the sitter’s FACIAL EXPRESSION and POSE. (This will be a good moment to let the kids experiment with their own facial expressions. Try linking them to particular emotional states; ask them to make joyful, jealous, lovable, sneaky, furious, lonely, and snobbish faces!) Note that in many traditional portraits, the artist made an effort to show the sitter in a characteristic expression. All of us develop a basic understanding of “body language,” and most artists become real experts!

Older kids can discuss some of the issues central to the portrait genre. What are some of the problems inherent in making an artist representation of a person? How would the sitter have wanted to be shown? Who was the portrait intended for? Did the artist and/or sitter produce a formal portrait, a public image, or something more intimate? Do you think the sitter really looked like that?

Depending on the particular portraits you are looking at, you may want to introduce the idea that important clues appear in the SETTING. You may teach additional vocabulary — SELF PORTRAIT, GROUP PORTRAIT, MINIATURE, and so forth — or discuss style — REALISTIC, EXPRESSIONISTIC, ABSTRACTIVE, “NAIVE,” etc.

With most groups, you should resist the temptation to cram it all into one lesson, however! Beginning viewers ought to go away feeling that they can understand a portrait by looking for clues in the sitter’s facial expression, body language, and ATTRIBUTES (those objects that are closely associated with, or owned by, the sitter). We want beginners to feel competent in the ability to look, and to enjoy looking, at portraits.

The Game (15 – 20 minutes)

Gather a selection of ATTRIBUTES, such as distinctive hats, household items, sporting gear, uniforms, and so on. Try to collect items that can be sensibly combined to create a personality type or character. The objects might be associated with a particular profession or activity, as are many of the attributes found in portraits. (Examples contained within our large canvas bag are: a white chef’s hat, an apron, and a wooden spoon; a paintbrush, beret, and palette; a white lab coat and a microscope — you get the picture!)

You will need a POLAROID CAMERA and film. (Even amid today’s technological triumphs, instant photographs seem like magic! The cameras are inexpensive and simple enough for kids to use.)

1) While the students are seated, introduce the game by pulling the attributes out of the bag at random. Go slowly enough for the children to see and identify each item, as you set them on a table or the floor.

2) Choose volunteers, two at a time. One student will be the sitter, the other is the artist.

3) The sitter chooses two or three items from the assorted attributes that s/he thinks go well together, then consults with the artist about possible facial expressions and poses.

4) The artist, who has the camera, is instructed to look through the viewfinder, choose a point of view, and snap the portrait photo. (You may need to encourage the artist to consider close-ups and unusual composition possibilities.)

5) Repeat the process with new volunteers. (You may wish to involve those children who were most quiet during the lesson.)

6) If there is not enough time for everyone to be an artist or sitter, identify some children as viewers and ask them to explain what the finished Polaroid portrait tells them about the sitter, and to identify the relevant clues.

Summary and Closure (5 minutes)

Ask the students to think about how they would present themselves if they were having their portraits painted. What attributes would they choose that would tell other about themselves? What settings would they select? What pose and facial expression would they assume?

What attributes, pose, and expression would be appropriate for a portrait of the President? What about a glamorous movie star? (You could suggest that teachers follow up on this idea by discussing journalistic images of famous people and how we interpret them. This kind of visual literacy and critical thinking is so important in our culture!)

When it is time to say good-bye, ask the students to pose for a group portrait — thinking about their facial expressions, of course — then, take one last photograph and give it to their teacher. You’ll be leaving them with a handful of snapshots, memories of a good time at the art museum, and some serious practice at interpreting images!

Ray Williams is the Curator of Education for the University* of North Carolina ‘s Ackland Art Museum. He received an M.A. in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he teaches regularly in the galleries with members of the Ackland’s team of docents. He is particularly interested in using the museum as an environment for developing critical thinking skills and enhancing cross-cultural understanding.

Williams, Ray. “Interpreting Portraits: The Attributes Game,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 10-11.

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