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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Penny drop

Keys to unlocking portraiture

The Amazing Face, lesson 2

Today we will LOOK at the portrait of Professor Penny Sackett by Andrew Mezei; THINK about portrait conventions; WATCH a video interview with Professor Penny Sackett and Andrew Mezei; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

Portraits are intended to be read. They’re like a biography in that they tell us about someone, although an understanding of the conventions of portraiture is sometimes helpful to interpret the message. Rather than just depicting Professor Penny Sackett’s features, artist Andrew Mezei uses certain visual devices and art historical traditions to provide context and to elucidate aspects of her character and history. The pose is relaxed yet poised; the expression is patient and engaged; the setting looks like an astronomy tower; the props include a globe and a telescope; the costume is business-like. Today we will consider pose, expression, setting, props (or symbols), and costume to start to understand the story the artist is conveying.

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Watch

Andrew Mezei was inspired to paint Penny Sackett, formerly Australia’s Chief Scientist, after hearing an interview with her on the radio. Mezei was impressed by Sackett’s ‘reasoned, and yet warm and engaging’ voice as she responded to scepticism about climate change.

Interview with Penny Sackett & Andrew Mezei
Video: 5 minutes

Read

In his Reflections on Portraiture Andrew Sayers AM lectured on expression, likeness and the elements he saw as essential to a compelling portrait.

Read the Portrait article Reflections on portraiture by Andrew Sayers.

Penny Grist analyses pose and body language in portraiture in her article Getting Bare exploring states of undress in portraiture.

Read the Portrait article Getting bare by Penny Grist.

Solo activity

Close looking is the first step to enjoying portraiture. Let’s begin by looking closely at one part of this portrait. 

You will need: paper; pencil; spoon

  1. View the portrait of Professor Penny Sackett by Andrew Mezei and enlarge it so that it fills your screen and you can look at it without distractions.
  2. There are three figures in the painting – the subject, the artist, and the climate sceptic. Can you find them? Notice that all three appear in the mirror next to the doorway in the background. Convex mirrors were a pictorial device employed by early Dutch masters to supplement  the central narrative. 
  3. Looking at your own reflection in a spoon, try drawing yourself. The distortion makes it harder than you might expect. If you have a large and shiny spoon in your drawer, consider drawing your reflection in a space where there is a clue about you in the background.

Connected activity

This is a fun activity all about reading and interpreting body language and expression. You can play with a friend over the phone or someone in your household.

While you are both watching the news, mute the TV.  Interpret and describe what you think is happening on-screen. Apply your knowledge of the conventions of portraiture to analyse expression, pose, body language, etc.

Quiz

What surprised Professor Penny Sackett that Andrew Mezei had observed and captured in his portrait of her?

In which year was this portrait a finalist in the Archibald Prize?

Who does the shadow in the portrait belong to?

Next lesson

3. To the Max: Photographic portraiture and lighting

Related information

Penny Sackett and Andrew Mezei

From Earth to Sky

Portrait story

Professor Penny Sackett and artist Andrew Mezei describe the process behind making the portrait.

Penny Sackett

From Earth to Sky

Portrait story

Professor Penny Sackett, Australian National University and former Chief Scientist for Australia (2008-2011) talks about her life in science.

Andrew Mezei

'From Earth to Sky'

Portrait story

Artist Andrew Mezei talks about his art practice and the process behind his portrait of Professor Penny Sackett. 

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency