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Portrait drawing using a grid

Students explore drawing techniques to make a figurative likeness in portrait form, and learn that drawing is regarded as fundamental to all other processes and learning in the arts.
Focus artwork #1: 
Captain Cook by Nathaniel Dance


MAKING:  Students learn to:

  • apply what they have learned about concepts in the artworld to their artmaking

APPRECIATING:  Students learn about:

  • how concepts and materials are thought about, organised and assembled, and serve different ends in artworks that they and others make

Background notes for Teachers

This image, or one similar, of Captain James Cook may already be familiar to you from your history studies. Cook is shown here in his captain’s uniform and in his time he was regarded as an extraordinary explorer, making his way to the far reaches of the globe.

There were no cameras back in the time of Cook and so to get a good likeness of someone the artist needed to be very accurate in his drawing.

When Captain Cook returned to England after his first voyage of discovery to the South Pacific region he was a famous and sought after man.

He had travelled further than any Englishman before him had dared to go and in the process returned with first-hand knowledge and experience of the Great South Land.

Any images of him or the places he went to had to be hand drawn first and then made into a form that could be printed to make copies. These copies could then be sent back to England so that others could learn of these heroic explorers and the exciting places they went to in their travels.

This image was made from a drawing made of  James Cook by Nathaniel Dance in the late 1700s.

In this highly skilled process the drawn image was firstly transferred to a metal plate and then each line or mark is engraved into the metal using a very sharp metal stylus or needle. This is a painstaking and intricate task requiring a great deal of patience and a strong, steady hand.

When complete, the plate is then inked up using a roller and the image is transferred to paper either by hand with a burnishing tool or through a printing press that applies pressure to the paper which is placed on top of the printing plate.

The printing plate can be used to print many identical copies of the image.

The image is part of a collection of portraits of Captain Cook dating from 1780 to 1882, some of which were transferred from the Australian Museum collection to the State Library in 1955.

The following activity references this printed image to create a grid portrait drawing of Captain Cook.

Student Activities

Observing the image

Students observe and analyse an image of Captain James Cook created by Nathaniel Dance.

Number of set tasks: 1

Creating the grid

Students create a grid pattern to develop techniques  in portraiture.

Number of set tasks: 1

Making the drawing

Using the grid developed in the previous learning activity students will create their own portrait of Captain Cook.

Number of set tasks: 1

Activity notes for Teachers

Students will be assisted in:

  • discovering ways to create images from their own personal stories
  • exploring drawing materials and techniques using a grid
  • applying this knowledge to begin an artwork inspired by Nathaniel Dance’s artwork.

Create a portrait drawing:

Follow this technique to develop your skills at drawing with some accuracy:

A step by step guide to making a portrait using a grid can be found as a downloadable resource in Activities 2 and 3.

Materials needed for this art activiy:

  • Cartridge paper - heavy quality, if possible
  • Lead pencils
  • Erasers
  • Rulers
  • A copy of Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance to look at - IWB image or make multiple copies from the version on the previous page

NB: Photocopies of photos of students’ own family members could be used instead - have your students bring in close up images of themselves or a family member to work from in the workshop session - make a photocopy in black and white for each student.

Additional Resources

Creative Arts Syllabus K-6

VAS3.1 Investigates subject matter in an attempt to represent likenesses of things in the world.

VAS3.2 Makes artworks for different audiences, assembling materials in a variety of ways.

VAS3.3 Acknowledges that audiences respond in different ways to artworks and that there are different opinions about the value of artworks.

VAS3.4 Communicates about the ways in which subject matter is represented in artworks.

Typically teachers of Stage 3 students will:

  • provide opportunities for students to analyse and interpret the qualities and details of selected subject matter using various methods to assist them in their investigations in making and appreciating, and further consider how artworks are made as representations