The biannual Sanlam Portrait Award competition, now in its third iteration, showcases some of the best original portraiture in two dimensions in South Africa. 

Portraits are often more than likenesses of people. At their best they are filled with clues about historical and cultural context, about the artist’s interests and abilities, and about the sitter or person(s) in the portrait.


What is your definition of a portrait? Must a portrait always include a person’s face? Should it try to be an exact physical likeness?


Why do artists create portraits? Consider portraiture’s role in society,  historically and today. Where do we find portraits today, besides art galleries? Discuss whether the following are portraits: passport photos;  ‘selfies’ and other profile photos for social media accounts; images accompanying news stories; images in advertisements.


Consider the relationship between the sitter and the artist. Does it matter whether they are strangers, acquaintances or close friends? Do you think an artist can create a successful portrait of someone they don’t admire or agree with? Explain your view.


Imagine that you are writing an article for publication in a newspaper.  You have been to the KZNSA Gallery and you are writing about one of the portraits you have seen.  Write a critique in which you describe the painting, interpret it, and evaluate it.





Make a list of all the things you see, for example:

what the subject looks like | what the subject is doing | what the subject is wearing | the background of the picture | other objects that appear | how large or small the portrait is | the style in which the artist has worked


Go through the points listed when describing your image, and consider what each point could mean. For example, if the subject is dressed in a particualr way, what does that say about them? What could other objects within the frame symbolize or stand for? What can you determine about historical and cultural context, about the artist’s interests and abilities, and about the sitter or person(s) in the portrait?


In your opinion, is the portrait a good work of art?

What makes it so – technical skill or a strong concept? Describe what you think makes the portrait successful or not.


Create a portrait of a family member, friend or classmate. Make choices about their pose, expression, clothing, environment and whether to include any other objects, as well as the style of the work and the medium. Then imagine you have been commissioned by this person to create their portrait for them. Meet with them to discuss what they want to portray about themselves through the artwork. How can you place your own artistic mark on the commissioned artwork? Compare the two portraits, and discuss whether there is such a thing as a perfect portrait.


According to the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), portraiture originated in tracing lines around a human shadow. Working in pairs, use the sun or artificial light to cast a shadow of one person onto a large piece of paper on the ground. The other person outlines this shadow then fills it with words and images that best describe the person casting the shadow.


Create a self-portrait that reflects your emotional state. How can you use colour, texture, symbols and other elements to give viewers an insight into how you are feeling?


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