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Back in Brack

Thinking about pose

The Amazing Face, lesson 5

Today we will LOOK at portraits by John Brack; THINK about pose in portraiture; WATCH a video interview with Joan Croll; READ articles by Beatrice Thompson and Michael Desmond; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

With his work characteristically pared back, strongly geometric and restrained in palette, artist John Brack uses pose to convey and exaggerate the personalities of his sitters. In his portrait of Joan Croll, Brack further accentuates the angles and attitude of her bent elbows and crossed legs through the geometry of the room and in the diamond shapes on the carpet. Looking at us straight on and with her hands on her hips, Croll’s tenacious personality comes across very clearly. Today we will look at several portraits by Brack to explore how the artist uses pose.

Joan Croll
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Looking at her portrait by John Brack, Joan Croll says, ‘I see me, and it is me. I’m a bossy lady, and I look like a bossy lady.’ Click here to watch the Portrait Story, video interview

Interview with Joan Croll
Video: 2 minutes
Portrait of Kym Bonython/Portrait of Mr Bonython's speedway cap
Portrait of Tam Purves
1 Portrait of Kym Bonython/Portrait of Mr Bonython's speedway cap, 1963-1966. 2 Portrait of Tam Purves, 1958. Both John Brack. © Helen Brack


Kym Bonython, cattle breeder, musician, jazzographer, entrepreneur, racing car driver, art consultant, gallery owner, broadcaster and author, generously donated Portrait of Kym Bonython and Portrait of Mr Bonython’s speedway cap, both painted by John Brack, to the National Portrait Gallery. John Brack was an observer; he analysed what he saw and attempted to present it in an objective manner. Brack once commented, ‘My portraits are not simply a sort of photograph appearance of the subject. I call them cerebral paintings. I am interested in obtaining a synthesis which is a commentary on the subject and human conditions. The portrait is not just the subject but what he means in the past, the present and the future.’

Read the Portrait article Somewhere to Hang your Cap by Beatrice Thompson.

It is a curious fact that John Brack, once regarded as the archetypal Melbourne artist, has emerged in the last ten years as a truly national figure. In part this recent celebrity is due to his prominent place in the market – a factor of his limited production and the record prices achieved by the sales of his iconic paintings The Bar (1954) and The Old Time (1970) – which in 2007 became the highest-priced Australian work of art ever sold.

Read the Portrait article Head, Hand, Heart by Michael Desmond about an exhibition of John Brack portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

Solo Activity

The construction of pose in portraiture includes the arrangement of the inanimate objects in relation to the body. In Brack’s portrait of Joan Croll, the sitter is painted from a different perspective to the rug, which appears tilted upwards. 

You will need: A magazine or newspaper with pictures (you will be cutting it up so make sure its one that is on its way to the recycling!), scissors, a blank sheet of paper.

  1. In old magazines or newspapers find three images of people and cut them out
  2. Now find three pictures of landscapes or rooms taken from unusual perspectives   – for example, an aerial view or a view looking upwards.
  3. Place your people in each new scene and as you mix and match reflect on how the impression of the person’s pose and presence alters.

Connected activity

Another portrait where pose is used to convey something about the person is Ian Thorpe, 2002 by James Houston. Thinking about the power of pose, and drawing inspiration from both portraits, this is a quick sketch activity about pose that you can try with a friend.

You will need: something to draw with (pencil, pen, marker, charcoal, etc.); something to draw on (paper); a device with video conferencing software.

  1. Video call a friend who you’d like to draw with.
  2. Ask them to position their device in such a way that it allows them to be in the video frame without needing to hold it.
  3. Divide your paper into fours by folding or marking it.
  4. Get your friend to strike a dynamic pose and hold it for 30 seconds. 
  5. Draw the pose they have created in one of the quadrants on your piece of paper. You only have 30 seconds to capture the pose, so use a very simplified style. Stick figures or similar are fine.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you have a different pose in each section of your page
  7. Switch roles with your friend and perform steps 2 through 6 with you as the model and them as the artist.
  8. Review your sketches and consider the lines you’ve chosen to include, how they fill the page, and the negative space around the figure. What does each pose communicate about the figure? Compare notes with your drawing partner. Remember: this activity is not about making perfect illustrations, it’s about exploring the importance of pose to a portrait.


Viewpoint in portraiture is:

What is Joan Croll’s legacy?

John Brack was Head of which Art School in the 1960’s?

Next lesson

6. Speak for the trees: Narrative and storytelling

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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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