Lesson: Elizabeth Peyton: The Self in the Other's Image: Portraiture and Identity

  • Grade Level: High School (9 - 12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, English
  • "Live to Ride (E.P.)," 2003."Live to Ride (E.P.)," 2003.
  • "Jarvis on a Bed," 1996."Jarvis on a Bed," 1996.


Lesson written by Chio Flores
This lesson introduces participants to the work of renowned American artist Elizabeth Peyton. The selection of portraits featured in “Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton” touch on themes of pop culture, community, youth and its promise, and portraiture. While exploring Peyton’s intimate and lusciously painted portraits, participants will consider how the artist is painting herself through painting others. Participants will reflect on what identity is and the different ways in which it’s expressed and represented.


  • Students will be introduced to the work of American artist Elizabeth Peyton in the context of contemporary art.
  • Students will learn about portraiture and its role in art.
  • Students will discuss how the artists’ choices – such as format, color, and materials – convey meaning.
  • Students will discuss how Elizabeth Peyton reveals herself by painting others and the significance of her unusual creative process.
  • Students will analyze the diverse ways in which we construct and express our identity.
  • Students will reflect on their own community of “others”; who they identify with and what that says about them.
  • Students will draw on their own experiences as they come to understand the different ways in which individual and collective identities can be expressed through portraiture.


Atmosphere is the mood conveyed in an artwork through the use of color, brushstroke, format, composition, etc.
A brushstroke is the mark left by a brush loaded with paint on any surface. Some artists choose to make their brushstrokes evident whereas others like smoothing them out. These marks affect the meaning of a painting.
Collective Identity refers to individuals’ sense of belonging to a group (known as the collective). For an individual, the collective identity forms part of his or her personal identity and creates a sense of belonging.
A community is a group of interacting people who live in a common location. It is also used to describe individuals who share characteristics or interests, regardless of their location or type of interaction.
Composition refers to the plan, placement or arrangement of the elements of art in a work. The choice of composition affects the meaning of the artwork.
Format refers to the size and shape of the surface which is used to draw, paint or make a mark on.
Identity refers to a person’s self-image (how the person seems him or herself). It is shaped by gender, race and ethnicity and describes what makes a person unique.
Mood is the feeling or emotion that an artwork conveys and which is achieved through the use of the elements of art such as color, composition, line, form and shape.
Pop culture is also known as ‘popular culture’. It refers to the group of ideas liked and accepted by society, therefore becoming popular. These ideas are greatly influenced by the mass media and have to do with consumption. The opposite of popular culture would be ‘high culture’ which is elitist in nature. Pop Art uses elements of or products of popular culture.
A portrait is an artwork that usually portrays a specific person, but it could also depict a group of people or animals. Portraits convey what a person looks like physically as well as their personality. When making portraits, artists give us their perception of the chosen subject.
The self is the individual’s conception of him or herself.
A self portrait is an artwork that depicts the artist himself. Artists usually use mirrors to make self portraits.
A sitter is the person that poses for an artist.


Elizabeth Peyton’s images in the Digital Archives
Accordion Book Instructions in the sidebar
Viewfinders. These can be empty slide frames or can be made by the teacher by pre-cutting 2-by-2 inch squares in the middle of old flyers or any sturdy cardstock approximately 5-by-7 inches
Pencils and erasers
Color pencils
Drawing paper
Colored cardstock
Glue sticks

Lesson Strategy

Introductory discussion
Begin your lesson by having a discussion with your students about portraiture and identity. Through this discussion students will reflect on their own identities and be introduced to the concept of portraiture. Inform students they will examine a selection of portraits by American artist Elizabeth Peyton and discover what she chooses to tell us about her own identity by painting others.

Suggested questions for discussion:

  • How do we express our identity?
  • What shapes our identity?
  • What is a portrait?
  • Why do artists make portraits?
  • Why would you paint a portrait of someone?
  • Who would you make a portrait of?
  • What would you have to think of to paint this portrait?
  • How would you do it? From memory? Photos? Live sitter?

Looking at Kurt.

Use this image to introduce Peyton’s work and to start discovering aspects of her identity. Discuss the formal aspects of portraiture and painting such as color, composition, brushstroke, and format as well as the concept of choice of subject. You can also introduce the concepts of real and imaginary communities. A good way to guide students into understanding this is to reference MySpace pages and how some people add people they know to their “friends” list (real community) and people they don’t know but admire or identify with such as bands, actors, actresses, artists, and entertainers (imaginary community). Explain to them how by looking at someone’s friends in their MySpace page, you can learn a lot about their identity. Cobain belongs to Peyton’s imaginary community.

In Peyton’s portrayal, Kurt Cobain is youthful and androgynous. Elizabeth Peyton is interested in painting a very specific kind of person. She tells us she paints who she’s very interested in and identifies with, seeing them as something very hopeful in the world, in her own words: “I see them as great role models and heroic, that they can go through all the stuff in their daily life and manage to create something and also transcend what they come from and also realize what they are as individuals.”

Elizabeth Peyton did not know Kurt Cobain but she chose to make several portraits of him as she identified with what he did. In this way she is building “an imaginary community.”

Looking at Jarvis on a bed.

Use this image to look further into Peyton’s choices of subject and technique. Compare this portrait with Cobain’s portrait and discuss how composition, color, brushstroke, and other formal qualities can affect meaning. Discuss how Peyton used the technique of zooming in on Cobain’s portrait revealing less of the surrounding area. She zoomed out in Cocker’s portrait revealing more than her subject, choosing to add more detail in the face and the clothes. Cocker is part of Peyton’s real community.

Elizabeth Peyton and British musician Jarvis Cocker, best known for fore fronting the band Pulp, are now friends. When Peyton started portraying Cocker, she did not know him; she was interested in his music. In a conversation between Peyton and Cocker, Jarvis Cocker asks Peyton about an introduction to her work shown at the São Paulo Biennial in 1996 where there’s a quote from Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions. The quote reads: “A world in which the superfluous is indispensable…Lucien saw that a great gulf separated him from such people and was wondering how to cross it, for he wanted to be like those slim young dilettantes of Paris.” Peyton replies: “Those details aren’t so insignificant. They all add to your individuality, and also how the world looks. They’re like the fabric of the whole, all these little details and choices. I was wondering who makes your suits.” Peyton has a clear interest in the kind of people she chooses to portray, who is she interested in. What does this tell us about her own identity?

Looking at David Hockney.

Use this image to discuss the way Peyton approaches watercolor compared to the way she approaches oil on board. Discuss the fact that Peyton has chosen to portray Hockney (at work) as opposed to how she portrayed Cobain and Cocker (at intimate moments, not on stage). Discuss accessibility in Peyton’s work.

The three different portraits discussed are very easy to understand due to the subject matter and Peyton’s approach. Peyton produces work that is popular; she is interested in accessibility. In an interview with curator of “Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton” Laura Hoptman, New Museum Kraus Family Senior Curator, Peyton says: “I think a lot about accessibility when you make work…human beings know what human beings are and are infinitely fascinated by human beings. I’m not calculating why I make what I make, because I really want to make these pictures but I also know that the more people see the things and the wider they’re reached, the more powerful too. You let people in.”

Looking at Kiss (Tony).

Use this image to further discuss how the choices of technique, format and color affect meaning and how in this work they produce a very emotional portrait.

Each of the portraits discussed has revealed part of Peyton’s identity. As with many of her portraits, the subject seems to have been captured in an intimate moment.

The subject portrayed here is artist Tony Just. Peyton chose a close personal friend as a subject. This portrait is more dramatic and conveys strong emotions through the artist choices of color. Peyton is portraying a person she has strong feelings for in a monochromatic way using the lithographic printing technique. This is a laborious technique. Discuss why Peyton would choose this way to portray someone she cared for so much.

Looking at Live to Ride (E.P.).

Use this image to summarize the discussion and to present how Peyton perceives herself and discuss what aspects of her personality can be inferred by looking at this self-portrait.

This is a crisp rendering of the artist. In the portraits we looked at previously, the sitter is not looking at us; they seem to have been captured in intimate moments. But here Peyton stares directly at us and wears a shirt with the Harley Davidson slogan “Live to Ride,” which reminds us of the title of the exhibition: “Live Forever.” Through painting others, Peyton has told us who she is.

Activity 1: Transforming a portrait/changing meaning

Ask students to select a portrait they find interesting from the digital archive. Have them use a viewfinder to select a part of the portrait they find interesting. Ask students to draw the selected part using color pencils on drawing paper. Ask them to then complete the portrait adding elements of their own choice. How does this change the meaning, atmosphere, and mood of the portrait?

Activity 2: I Am/I Am Not

Ask students to draw a silhouette of their faces on colored cardstock. Ask them to choose a color they identify with to do this. Ask them to cut out their silhouette and glue it to a different piece of cardstock. This background cardstock should be a color opposite the one they selected for their silhouette. Have them use colored pencils or markers to write who they’re not on the outside of the silhouette, surrounding the silhouette and who they are in the inside. These are positive and negative spaces. Ask students to include people they do not identify with on the outside and people they identify with on the inside of the silhouette. Ask them to include people from their real and from their imaginary communities.


Written response

Ask students to select one of Peyton’s portraits from the G:Class digital archive. This should be a portrait they are drawn to instinctively. Have students imagine they are the person portrayed. Give students writing prompts: What are you thinking? What are you doing? Where are you? What kind of moment in your life is this? What kind of person are you? Why did Elizabeth Peyton paint you? Are you part of her real or imaginary community?

Ask students to write a written response telling their story as they see it by looking at the artwork, and finding clues in it. Give the portrait a new title.

Have students share their stories with the class and discuss what they based themselves to create them. Guide students in reflecting on how their responses tell us something about their own identity.


  • Are students able to use the vocabulary presented when discussing portraits?
  • Have students learned new aspects about their own identity?
  • Are students able to articulate their opinions openly in class discussions?

Extending the Lesson

Building your community

Ask students to reflect on how Elizabeth Peyton created a community of real and imaginary people through her portraits. Have them build their own community including three different people in their real and imaginary community. This can be done through collected photographs. Remind students they should choose people they identify and relate to. Have students build a simple accordion book in class using colored cardstock and drawing paper (refer to Accordion Book Instructions). They will use one side to build their real community and the other to build their imaginary community by pasting the photos of people they chose to include. Ask students to write a short paragraph that describes the people and the reasons why they were chosen to be part of their communities. Ask students to not write their names on the books. Collect the books and give them out to different students. Have students study their classmate’s book and then tell the class what they learned about the student’s identity by their choice of subjects. Students can create a cover for their book, giving it their own title, and write an artist statement about their work.

Keywords: Identity, Portraiture