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The right note

Arrangement and composition

The Amazing Face, lesson 7

Today we will LOOK at the portrait of Peter Sculthorpe by Eric Smith; THINK about narrative and storytelling; WATCH a video interview with Peter Sculthorpe; READ an article by Eric Smith; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

In music ‘composition’ refers to the arrangement of notes on a score, while in portraiture it refers to the considered arrangement of visual elements. A composition can be formal, adhering to rules of single point perspective, or looser and more expressive, allowing artists to create mood or explore the psychology of their sitters. In this portrait of musical composer Peter Sculthorpe, artist Eric Smith arranged the canvas into two halves, with the more representational elements on the left progressing towards a more abstract arrangement of shapes on the right. In combination with the use of thick impasto paint and bold primary colours, the composition creates a dynamic scene, alluding to music emanating from the piano and the creative process of writing music.

Peter Sculthorpe
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For Peter Sculthorpe, this portrait is ‘a real painting of me. It captures my heart, my soul, my spirit, my music, everything.’ Watch the Portrait Story.

An interview with Peter Sculthorpe
Video: 2 minutes

There are four portraits of Peter Sculthorpe in the National Portrait Gallery Collection.

Peter Sculthorpe
Peter Sculthorpe
Russell Drysdale and Peter Sculthorpe, Tallow Beach, New South Wales
1 Peter Sculthorpe, 1977 (printed 2002) Lewis Morley. © Lewis Morley Archive LLC. 2 Peter Sculthorpe, c. 1969 David Moore. © Lisa, Michael, Matthew and Joshua Moore 3 Russell Drysdale and Peter Sculthorpe, Tallow Beach, New South Wales, 1969 (printed 2000) David Moore. © Lisa, Michael, Matthew and Joshua Moore, Currently on display.


I do not like painting commissioned portraits – painting accurately what you see in front of you of people you know a little about, doesn't interest me.

Read the Portrait article Creative Space by Eric Smith

Solo Activity

Composition has multiple meanings in the case of Eric Smith’s portrait of Peter Sculthorpe. Explore visual composition by creating your own collage.

You will need: 1 sheet of blank paper; paint or pencils; scissors; old magazines or newspapers you are happy to cut up; scrap coloured paper; glue or tape.

  1. Begin by preparing your visual elements – cut out pictures from old magazines, as well as shapes from scrap paper. Packaging could also be cut up to create blocks of colour, or you can make your own by colouring in shapes.
  2. With your paper in horizontal orientation, position your visual elements across the page. Move them around, removing or adding as required, until you are happy with the composition. 
  3. Before sticking them down, create a background using any drawing or paint materials you choose.
  4. Stick your elements in place to complete the composition.
  5. Step back and view the work from a distance so you can admire the full composition, then slowly walk back towards it.

Connected activity

Let’s step up the compositional challenge, with a competition that requires you to compose 3D elements.

You will need: a mixture of different shaped items from your pantry (sauce bottles, jars, spice mills, etc.); a clear space; smartphone (or some means of taking a picture and sharing it). You can either connect by phone or video call. 

  1. Call a friend and set them a compositional challenge. 
  2. Each of you find a group portrait (eg. – sports team, band, family, etc.) and share the picture with the other.
  3. Give each other five minutes to gather pantry items so that you are ready to start at the same time. (Note: it might be useful to seek out an eclectic assortment of shapes and sizes in these items!) 
  4. Agree on a time limit. On calling ‘go’, each person has to recreate the portrait the other selected as best they can, using the items they have in front of them. 
  5. Once complete, take a picture of your scene and send it to your friend. Admire each other’s work, and, if the competitive juices start flowing, come to a diplomatic agreement on whose was the best representation!
  6. Share the fun! Remember to tag us @PortraitAu and use the hashtags #TheAmazingFace #PortraitureComesHome


What reason did Peter Sculthorpe’s childhood music teacher give as to why he shouldn’t compose music?

By what means did Eric Smith deliver his portrait of Peter Scuthorpe to the Art Gallery of NSW for the Archibald Prize?

According to Peter Sculthorpe, most other portraits of him tended to be:

Next lesson

8. Now and Shen: Practising slow looking

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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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