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Sage advice

Background, setting and landscape

The Amazing Face, lesson 4

Today we will LOOK at portraits of Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Kate Grenville by Jenny Sages; THINK about background, setting and landscape in portraiture; WATCH videos with Dr Sarah Engledow and Kate Grenville; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

Artists often use place or the setting of the portrait to convey the identity of their sitter. Jenny Sages, predominantly an abstract landscape painter, took up her art practice full-time at age 52 after a life-changing trip to the Kimberley region of Western Australia. When Sages admires a person she seeks them out to sit for her, grounding the portrait in place. Sages portrayed artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Kngwarrey) sitting cross-legged in the immense, shimmering orange, pink and yellow landscape at Alhalkere in Central Australia – Kngwarreye’s Country.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye with Lily
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The setting for another of Sages’ portraits, that of writer Kate Grenville, was decided on after the two went walking together near the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. The Hawkesbury is significant to Grenville as a site associated with a convict ancestor whose life she explored in her novel The Secret River. Today we explore how setting in portraiture can be an eloquent exposition of identity.

Kate (Kate Grenville)
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‘For Sages, drawing her ideas is as natural as speaking.’ Join Dr Sarah Engledow for a tour of Paths to Portraiture, a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, to learn more about the places, techniques, relationships and stories behind Jenny Sages’ portraits.

Jenny Sages Paths to Portraiture
Video: 12 minutes 27 seconds

Kate Grenville enjoyed engaging with Jenny Sages’ creative process, observing parallels between their practices. ‘We went up to the Hawkesbury together, which is of course where the portrait is set, and when we found that spot by the river, and the little jetty, we both knew straight away that that was it. I took off my shoes, because I very much wanted to have that feeling of being barefoot on the land.’

Making Stories An interview with Kate Grenville
Video: 3 minutes

Kngwarreye thought Sages was the same age as her, as they were about the same size, and they sat and talked ‘as two eighty-three-year-olds do’. Sages poured her impressions onto paper, capturing the changing expressions on Kngwarreye’s face, her shifts between lively and impassive postures, and the things that she said as she first embraced, then tired of, the process. Back in her Sydney studio, she developed a large painting, informed by the memories and the drawings she made under the ‘talking tree’.

True Stories - Helen Garner
Untitled (Study for 'Emily Kame Kngwarreye with Lily')
1 True Stories - Helen Garner, 2003. 2 Untitled (Study for 'Emily Kame Kngwarreye with Lily'), 1993. Both Jenny Sages. © Jenny Sages

Explore other portraits and studies by Jenny Sages from the National Portrait Gallery Collection.

Solo Activity

For Jenny Sages the environment is important to conveying something about her subject. This activity invites you to  put yourself in the picture.

You will need: paper; pencil; colour pencil or any other drawing materials you have; scissors; glue; photographs

  1. Gather some pictures of a place you feel a deep connection to, such as a place that holds a happy memory.
  2. Use this source material to make a drawing, which will form the background of your self-portrait.
  3. On a separate piece of paper, draw (or trace) a picture of yourself or something that symbolises you, or print a photo of yourself. Cut out your self-portrait and place it on the background in three different locations.
  4. Reflect on what each different location of your image in its environment indicates about your relationship with that place and write three different titles for the portrait - one to suit each.

Connected activity

Take some time out of your day to connect with the outdoors.

  1. Look out your window or go out onto your balcony / into your courtyard or garden.
  2. Take a moment to notice the sounds, smells, and air on your face.
  3. Call your neighbour and arrange to sit either side of your boundary (2 metres apart) with a cup of tea or coffee in hand. Describe what you can see. Or call a friend and both sit outside and describe to each other what you see.


What genre does Jenny Sages predominantly paint?

In which year did Emily Kame Kngwarreye start painting on canvas?

Before starting to paint, what process does Jenny Sages use in preparation?

Next lesson

5. Back in Brack: Thinking about pose

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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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