Writing Activity: Exploring Emotions through Portraits

Using portraits and free writing to unlock emotions

Teachers and docents find that writing with art is an exciting, productive activity. Whether you are in a museum or a classroom, the following ideas and prompts can be springboards to writing for many purposes.  

Engagement Strategies: How do we look when we're excited to see someone? What about disappointed about the outcome of a game? Or when we just receive bad news? This activity asks students to deeply observe the sitter of a portrait, consider their emotions, and go beyond them to explore other possibilities. 

Questions / Activities: 

  1. Emotional Connection: How does the artist portray the subject? What emotion comes to mind when you look at this person? Name the emotion. Write down details you see in the portrait that might be evidence of this emotion.

    Fear = stiff posture, shifting eyes, pinched mouth, pale skin

    Sadness = mouth turned down at corners, shadows, gray rings under the eyes, slumped or sagging shoulders

    Defiance = creased brow, squinting eyes, clenched jaw, erect posture

  2. Free write: Free writing requires us to write quickly and not be concerned with the mechanics of poetry or writing in general. If your time with this portrait has stirred up a memory or an emotion of some kind, allow yourself to let go and write about it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t connect exactly to what you know about the painting. Give yourself permission to make new connections.

  3. Free write prompts: Consider one of the following points of view as a way to approach the free write, focusing on emotion and feeling:

      · Third person observer outside of the frame.  Begin by elaborating on the details listed in number 1 above (physical evidence to support depicted emotion) and describe the portrait in detail, but allow yourself to drift into other avenues of thought as they come along. What do you observe?

      · Third person, also outside the frame, but with some information about the historic context of the painting. Speculate about the subject. Perhaps begin with something like, “She feels as if . . . ”

      · Begin with a question you might ask this person . . .  “What are you looking at?” “Why are you . . . ?” Then attempt to answer your own question. ”Are you searching for . . . ?” Is there a story here?

      · First person internal monologue. Write from inside the frame in the subject’s voice. “I feel like . . . ”

      · Make yourself the main character in a narrative. “I sat staring at his face, wondering if . . . ” Actually write about the experience of studying this portrait.

  4. Social Studies Extension: consider multiple portraits from one historical event, or all students write about one historical figure. Share students’ approaches.


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Last Updated

May 18, 2017 1:56 p.m.


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