Session 10: Portrait Sketches

People around us are full of narratives, images, widsom, secrets and histories. This session nurtures young writer’s to look deeply at the people around them – a friend, a lover, an enemy, a family member, a stranger, a mentor, a neighbor, a confidant – and see their everyday nuances, habits, gestures, appearences, and words as a vessels of poetic promise. Through this session writers will hone their observation skills and their grasp to detail. It will also facilitate young writers to realize the deep and multi-layered ‘world’ contained within each individual. In the Portrait Sketches session we want to puncture through a standard one-dimensonal understanding of a person and re-see and re-write the normal and mundane into unique truths.

We’ve faciliated this session only with Sanlaap and DIKSHA during our first phase of workshops in 2004-05. The discussion was highly enjoyed by both groups, but we weren’t successful in nourshing a deeper exploration of individuals in our portraits. Our discussions were a little one-dimensional, as were the poems written for the session. So this time around, we’ve changed Session 10 in order to systematically guide writers collectively and individually to  transform the mundane and average descripton into a rich and nuanced  portrait of a person in our life.

For a printable version of this session, click on Session 10: Portrait Sketches.


See attached poem “Grandpa”


Observation Game
Two people from the group volunteer. One of them is the ‘Object’, the other ‘Subject’. The ‘Subject’ has 30 seconds to observe the Object as minutely as possible. Then the Subject goes out of the room, and the workshop facilitator or any other volunteer makes a tiny change in the clothing of the Object: a button is unfastened, a sleeve rolled up, a wrist band moved from one wrist to the other etc. Then the Subject returns and has to guess what was changed. In the next round, two different people volunteer. After a couple of rounds, add variety by changing not the clothing, but the position of the arms or legs, or better still, the expression on the face.
The aim of the game is twofold: to improve observation skills, and to make a point about how many different details there are that make up a person’s appearance.


Writing about People
Among things central to our existence are people and our relationships with them. Writing about life includes writing about people. Today we shall concentrate on writing a portrait sketch of a person.
Writing about a person requires great skills in observation. The more detailed the observation, the most realistic the description will be. (Refer to the warm up). The description must paint a picture in front of the reader’s/listener’s eyes. Although in describing someone convincingly it is not necessary to write everything about the person, it is however important that the most characteristic and unique features of that person be identified and rendered into words.


Describing your Friend
Divide the group into teams of five/six.
Choose one person from each team who will be described by the others in the minutest possible way. Assign each person in the team (except obviously the person who is being described) a different aspect to describe.The possible aspects are:

Face/Head: “black close-cropped hair,”“large ears that jut out,” “small dark eyes that dart around”

Hands: “forearms with thick curly hair,” “manicured nails,” “a silver ring with a green stone” etc.

Sounds: Typical things one says, expressions or grunts etc.

Texture: “The skin on the feet is coarse,” “hair is smooth and soft,” “cheeks are smooth with just one outgrown pimple on the left one,” etc.

Clothes: “T-shirt with red and white horizontal stripes, white buttons, one of which is missing”, “khaki coloured loose three-quarter pants”, “orange belt with five holes in it” etc.

Habits: “asks for tea every 45 minutes”, “mutters in his sleep”, “doesn’t want to wake up in the morning”, “mimics film stars every now and then” etc.

Emotions: How the person behave once (s)he is happy or sad or angry or disappointed etc.

Favourites: What are some of the person’s favourite dishes or movies or books? Are there any particular objects specific to the person, like a red notebook, or a pair of blue socks?

Some Points to Keep in Mind

This exercise should not take more than 20 minutes.

The facilitator(s) must stress on the importance of details, and encourage the participants to observe as closely as possible and look for newer things that (s)he hadn’t noticed in the person before. It is necessary to guide participants through the exercise by closely following developments every now and then.

The facilitator(s) must also emphasize that the description, though truthful, must not be in any manner derogatory or embarrassing for the person being described. Use discretion while describing.


Group Reading
Read Sample Poem: ‘Grandfather’.

Writing Activity: Portrait Sketch
Choose a person you want to make a portrait sketch of. It is important that you choose someone who is not terribly intimate with you, nor totally unknown or unrelated. There needs to be a certain closeness yet a certain detachment. This makes a good portrait sketch.

Once the person of choice has been finalized by each participant, they must make notes from memory of the clothes that person normally wears, the things (s)he often or most characteristically says, and what the most characteristic features of her/his appearance are.

The poem will have three stanzas of five lines each:

Stanza 1: Description of clothes
Stanza 2: Sounds/Speech associated with person
Stanza 3: Description of the face, including, preferably, a mention of the eyes.

Each stanza must have at least one metaphor/simile comparing at least one aspect of the personality with something meaningful: What is her/his voice like when (s)he says “Get out of here” or “What a strange world!”? What is her sari like, or his flowing hair? Etc.


Old outdated flip-flops discoloured into a now-unchanging grey,
Starched white pajamas,
Starched white kurta,
A beige overcoat wrapping him like a coffin;
The oppressive smell of snuff on a snuff-coloured handkerchief that once was white.

The arrogant taps of a wooden stick,
And the asthmatic growls of a tired aged lion
On a generation gone to waste:
“You boys never read what you oughtta read
Never learn what you oughtta learn!”

Platinum hair thinned into the relic of a forest,
Platinum beard always three days old,
Thick black frames sheltering eyes
That look like the Milky Way
And speak of a certain sadness almost a century old.

Bishan Samaddar


Go around the room and ask the group to “sign” how they felt about this session. Thumb up, Great Session. Thumbs Down, Bad Session. Thumbs Sideways, So-so session.

Not to be used or reproduced without written permission from Kalam: Margins Write unless it is for educational purposes.

Explore posts in the same categories: Community, Sessions

One Comment on “Session 10: Portrait Sketches”

  1. Yup…I have been using this for quite sometime and so far I found Windows Live Writer pretty cool and easy to work… Click

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