Portraits of Polarising Figures

Lone N. Sorensen, The Joker, 2024


Portraits of Polarising Figures

By Lone N. Sorensen

I created these portraits alongside my ongoing research into populist leaders and other polarising figures. In this research I have sought to understand the meaning-making practices of these people (see e.g. my book Populist Communication: Ideology, Performance, Mediation, 2021) through their verbal and nonverbal social performances and their presentation of self to the world. This research has at times got me into unsavoury places – such as their heads – and establishing distance was challenging in the kind of immersive qualitative research I conducted. The portraits became a way of disarming these figures by approaching them with humour and exposing the absurdity of their communication practices. With time, portraiture also became a research method.

Lone N. Sorensen, If Boris Johnson Felt Remorse, 2023

Portraiture in research

Drawing – and specifically portraiture – was used in early ethnographies as a method of observation and recording. Drawn portraits have since been superseded by photography, discarded with the assumption that a supposedly objective and accurate record of reality, achieved with the efficient click of a button, was superior to slowness, close observation and subjective aesthetic expression. But drawing is now experiencing a resurgence, not only in ethnography (see e.g. Causey, 2017; Taussig, 2011), but also in the social sciences more broadly (Heath et al., 2018; Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 2002), and in medicine (see e.g. Gilbert, 2020’s use of “clinical portraiture”), in a range of methodological applications.

The objective of drawing as a research tool has less to do with capturing or creating aesthetic beauty or displaying artistic skill (neither of which are the intentions behind the pictures here). Instead, the emphasis is on drawing as a generative method of knowledge creation. Here I focus on the qualities of looking, sketching and imagining as core aspects of such a method.


The first thing you learn in a drawing class is not to draw but to look. Looking is a skill that demands your full concentration, rigorous and systematic attention to detail, and that continues to reveal surprises over extended periods of time: somehow you expect to see it all at first glance; you don’t. It is rare for us to spend any length of time observing someone, especially so closely that you come to know intimate features and notice details that our quick visual scans and polite diverting of eyes normally miss. In the period during which I painted Nigel Farage (from a picture, rest assured), I spent more time observing his face than that of my husband (upsetting but true). Being a scholar of social performance, close attention to the nonverbal cues in Farage’s face let me know it intimately, not just in its architecture but also in its plasticity and the way he presents himself to the world. Close observation opens up a new form of perception that we do not otherwise practice. This can lead the researcher into what Heath and colleagues describe as “new spaces for creative thinking” (2018, p. 723) by activating the imagination.

  • Lone N. Sorensen, If Trump were Churchillian, 2023

  • Lone N. Sorensen, The NFT of Dorian Grump, 2023

  • Lone N. Sorensen, Presketch for The NFT of Dorian Grump, 2023


Drawing and painting have a sketchy quality that contrasts with the inscriptional character of photography: they offer different forms of representation. Drawing and painting involve conscious selectivity of what is represented, beyond the compositional choices made when we take a photograph. While engaging in subtle, complex description, the portraitist also searches for and contributes to a narrative of the subject. This involves construction and selective representation: choosing themes, strategically deciding on points of focus and emphasis, leaving things out. This, along with temporary but full attention to detail detached from the bigger picture, can generate insights through engagement close-up with selected parts-of-the-whole and their role in the central story. The object being sketched is seen less for its likeness and more for its dormant meaning (Heath et al., 2018, p. 720) by both portraitist and audience. Portraits can also include information that is missing in a photograph, such as atmosphere, mood and imagined presences. In The NFT of Dorian Grump, I constructed a narrative surrounding Trump’s release of a series of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in 2023 that he termed “digital baseball cards” and that depicted him as various iconic American figures – the superhero, the astronaut, the cowboy. The artistic value of the NFTs was perhaps negligible, but they were excellent examples of populist self-presentation, which had long been a theme in my research. Trump’s digital self-indulgence became the central narrative of a painting in which several contrasting forms of sketchiness created a conversation between the natural, the artistic and the artful.


In portraiture, imagination is given form through aesthetic elements that involve expression, not just representation, and the portraitist plays an active role in constructing the story that they listen for (as opposed to listen to) (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 2002, p. 12). The self of the artist is here a tool in the generation of knowledge. Leaning into, rather than attempting to eliminate, the influence of human imagination allows us to access, on the one hand, the political alternatives to the status quo – what Olufemi calls “the otherwise” (2021) – and, on the other, instances of the unknowable, such as those so beautifully conjured up by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved. The two What if… portraits play with the construction of alternative realities. Emphases in line and shade subtly shift mood, posture and expression sideways to let us consider alternative identities of the persons portrayed. The imagined near-doublegangers of Trump and Johnson may be more or less desirable than the real things but, nevertheless, they tell us something about the person and their role in our current political moment.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation.


Causey, A., 2017. Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method. University of Toronto Press.

Gilbert, M., 2020. Practicing Regard in Clinical Portraiture. AMA J. Ethics 22, 470–475.

Heath, S., Chapman, L., Centre Sketchers, T.M., 2018. Observational sketching as method. Int. J. Soc. Res. Methodol. 21, 713–728.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., Davis, J.H., 2002. The Art and Science of Portraiture. John Wiley & Sons.

Olufemi, L., 2021. Experiments in Imagining Otherwise. Hajar Press.

Sorensen, L., 2021. Populist Communication: Ideology, Performance, Mediation. Palgrave, Cham.

Taussig, M., 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own, Illustrated edition. ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago ; London.

| stay informed | stay connected


We are in this together – and our newsletter is the best way to connect and be inspired. Competent, constructive, creative. A wealth of insight and guidance in a world in turmoil.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.