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Art theme: portraits

A portrait is an artwork that depicts a specific individual. Initially, portraiture primarily consisted of paintings of the rich and powerful who had commissioned the work, but the genre has grown to depict a wider range of subjects over time and has been further democratised by photography. The term 'portrait' can also refer to an artwork's layout being taller than it is wide, as opposed to a landscape, which is the opposite.

Contextual background for teachers

Elizabeth I, the Armada Portrait (c.1588)
Unknown artist

Medium: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: H 112.5 x W 127 cm

This painting commemorates Elizabeth I's defeat of the Spanish Armada. When Philip II of Spain tried to invade England by sea, Elizabeth I was having none of it! The Spanish were defeated (with some help from the terrible weather), and their fleet fled back home, leaving Elizabeth triumphant and in the mood for storytelling.

Although the painting marks England's defeat of the Spanish invasion in 1588, it also sends a compelling message. Friend or foe, this painting tells us how Elizabeth wants to be seen: respected and – if necessary – feared.

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

An audio description of the painting is available. It is accompanied by a full written transcript which can also be used to describe the painting.

Nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What is Elizabeth wearing for this portrait?
  • What is Elizabeth holding?
  • Which colours are used most in this painting?
  • Look carefully at the background scenes. What do they show?
  • Where do you think Elizabeth is sitting for this portrait? What might you see, smell or hear if you were transported into the painting?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You can introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers while asking these bespoke questions with helpful responses which can be found in the teachers' notes.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • A paper ruff. Students could sketch a design in their sketchbooks before making their creation from paper. Try this downloadable PowerPoint ruff-making guide from
  • A symbol collage. Using copies of the existing portrait, students cut and stick different images and symbols and challenge a partner to 'read' their new version of the image. Can they use the symbols to describe Elizabeth now?



  • Listen to this excerpt of music from the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Rejoice unto the Lord was written by William Byrd, the most famous composer of Elizabeth's court at the time of the Spanish Armada.

  • Listen to the audio description of the painting.



  • Get your students to touch textures from the painting: lace, feathers, velvet, silk, pearls, or objects from the painting: a crown, a globe, a pearl necklace.
  • A canvas and paintbrush. If appropriate, you could challenge students to hold up their painting arm as if painting this portrait and notice how quickly it becomes tiring!



  • Pose like Elizabeth. You could wrap the poser in newspaper to fix their pose, as if they are a statue.
  • Using lycra or a large sheet, create the waves of the seascapes and encourage students to retell the story of the Armada.



  • What do you think Elizabeth I sounded like? What sorts of things might Elizabeth have said while sitting for her portrait? Pretend to be Elizabeth and talk to your talking partner.
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'queen'.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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