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In this very extraordinary time it is important we look after those around us and we also look after ourselves. A good way to offer self-care is through ‘creative flow’ when you take on an activity that focuses your mind and attention in an imaginative and absorbing way.

We understand you might not have access to lots of art materials so we’ve designed these art idea starters with the most basic art kit but please adapt our suggestions to suit your home supplies and environment.

Art activity 1. Drawing a portrait with artist John Wiltshire – video workshop

Want to learn more about realism and using pencil and graphite to create a portrait? Follow artist John Wiltshire’s video as he takes you through some step by step techniques.


Paper of your choosing but light cartridge works well

Pencils, HB, B2, B4. Graphite stick, conte or charcoal

Clean rag, eraser – putty rubber if you have one

We are fascinated by faces, why do you think that is? What are we looking for when we look at other people and how is that different from when we look at ourselves? Of course, to see ourselves we often need to see a reflection, which is in reverse, but there are other ways that we can see ourselves, what could these be?

Explore different ways to see yourself… it might not be a reflection!


Which part of the face do you look at to find someone’s true emotions, thoughts and responses? Is it in their eyes, mouth, forehead, eyebrows, the tilt of the head, a facial gesture? 

How can we capture these in a painting, drawing, sculpture or photo? How does the artist Millais (1829-1896) show this in a detail of this painting ‘The Twins Kate and Grace Hoare’ (1876)



Art activity 2. Mixed Emotions – you will need old magazines, scissors, glue and sheet of paper.

Experiment making a portrait collages use several different magazine photos that each show different emotions, cut them up, mix them up and put them together to create a new face. What are the finished results? How can you read this portrait’s emotions? Try a more extreme version, or a very subtle version.


Artists know how to capture these subtle ranges of our expressions and there are so many examples in our collection of portraits here at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here are a few, try looking at these portraits when you are in different moods, how does this affect how you engage with them? You bring your own emotions, stories and experiences when you look at artworks. This is often referred to as your ‘personal narrative’.

This delicate graphite and watercolour study is of Fanny Eaton, a Jamacian woman who frequently was called on as a model for the artists in the Pre-Raphaelite group.


Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) ‘Fanny Eaton’ (1859)

Graphite and Watercolour




On the canvas or paper you meet the artist’s narrative. One of the fascinations of portraits is the third narrative, that of the sitter. 

There is a complex blending of stories: You (the viewer), the artist, and the sitter (the subject of the painting). Compare this self-portrait by Spencer with the drawing of Fanny Eaton (above).

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)  ‘Self-portrait’ (1939) Oil on Canvas 




Telling a story through portraits.

What about the story woven into the painting by the artist?

Sometimes this story is pure fiction, sometimes an interpretation of an event, maybe a combination of the two. Take a look at this painting and start unpicking the stories in their faces.

The man in the brown hat is the artist, Ford Madox Brown, the woman in the red shawl is his wife and the little hand in her shawl is their baby. The blonde little girl behind them is their daughter. Artists frequently use friends and family as ‘models’ to act a part in their paintings.

Find out more Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), ‘The Last of England’ (1860) Oil on Canvas.

Compare these portraits and the stories they tell in ‘The Last of England’ above to this Indian ‘Ragamala’ painting what atmosphere do these faces create?

From Kabul to Kolkata: Highlights of Indian

'Ramakali Ragini',

Illustration to a Ragamala series, Bengal, Murshidabad, c. 1755 Watercolour with gold on paper, a luxurious scene that illustrates a woman seated on her ornate daybed. She turns her head away from her lover who kneels imploring to her; why is she upset with him?  What do you think could happen next?

Find out more here.


Arts Activity 3. Lights, Camera, Action!

Play around with drama, you could use make-up, costumes, assume different expressions. Change the lighting and angle of your camera. Trying taking lots of selfies and drawing from your favourite, you can follow our portrait video on how to do this.

This Japanese print shows portraits of six leading Japanese actors of the time. How do their faces show drama and theatrical expression? Why do you think it was created?

Nakamura Utaemon IV (top left); SekiSanjuro III (top right); Bando Shuka I

(center left); Ichimura Uzaemon XII (centre right);

Fujikawa Kayu (bottom left); Ichikawa Ebizo V (bottom right).