Habits of Mind

  • Understand Bias
  • Develop Grit
  • Communicate

Now and Then: Investigating Portraiture

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Distinguish the correlation between specific characteristics and influences of various cultures and contemporary artwork
  • Create original artwork using multiple solutions from direct observation, original sources, experiences, and imagination in order to expand personal themes that demonstrate artistic intent
  • Examine selected historical periods or styles of art to identify general themes and trends



Bato con Sunglasses fosters communication and development of endurance/ grit as a habit of mind in several ways. For this work of art, create a short handout for students to write answers to questions Iike the earlier examples. Allowing students time to look at the art quietly, and write about it using guiding questions helps facilitate the discussion/ critique. Since many students are unaccustomed to verbal critiques, this time prepares them for the discussion. It is this very issue that calls for more practice with communication as a habit of mind. In addition to being adolescents developing the courage or grit to speak their ideas in front of a classroom of peers. This also offers students whose native language is not English a chance to articulate their ideas in safe learning environment.
Each time a student is challenged to speak their thoughts and opinions, or ask provocative questions in class, he or she is strengthening those habits of mind (communication and endurance).

  • Observe work of art in pairs, using the Turn & Talk method, answering the following questions:
    •  What is the general purpose of portraiture?
    • What is the first thing you notice?
    • What colors are used?
    • How is the composition organized/ subject placed?
    • Are there any inferences you can make about who this guy is?
    •  If so, what clues lead you to those inferences?
  • Examine portraiture at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (either through an in-person tour or online at mfah.org). Connect historic portraiture of the western cannon to contemporary portraiture from different cultures.  Explore the sitters’ identities and rationales for having portraits painted.  Do any common themes emerge?
  • Select 2 works of art from the western cannon and two from contemporary portraiture that represent those common themes.
  • Create a portrait incorporating the themes of both the western cannon and contemporary portraiture.

  • What do you notice about the colors in this painting? How would the image change if the artist used more naturalistic colors?
  • Notice the composition. Would the impact of the image change if the figure was larger? Smaller?


  • Consider the mood of the painting. How might the artist’s color choices contribute to this feeling?
  • What associations might one have with the color red? Yellow? Green? How do these associations contribute to a feeling of intensity within the work? 

Facilitating this kind of critique that develops endurance with communication skills fosters positive risk-taking in the classroom.

Cesar A. Martinez’s Bato con Sunglasses presents a vividly hued portrait against a contrasting, equally rich background. The figure sits in the bottom half of the square canvas with the background dominating a large portion of the composition.  The intense, warm red color-block extends upward until interrupted by a band of russet red at the very top. Martinez’s choppy, swirling brushstrokes utilized for the background create a heavily textured surface around the central figure. Rendered with varying shades of bright yellow, lime green, and an inky blue-black, the figure sits in stark contrast with the surrounding field of red. A green outline serves as a barrier between foreground and background. Seen from the shoulders up in bust-length fashion, the male figure faces the viewer with shoulders square. Martinez highlighted the man’s face with lemon yellow and used varying shades of green to form subtle shadows. The figure holds a confident expression with his eyes gazing out from behind dark-tinted sunglasses. The deep shadow found in the sunglasses, slicked back hair, and flannel shirt create a visual rhythm leading the viewer’s eye around the figure. The high-contrast shading in the face suggests a strong light source directly overhead. There are few indications to the figure’s identity.    


The captivated quality of Bato con Sunglasses is by design: “The operative word has always been ‘effectiveness.’ I'm interested in effectiveness … sometimes people have made these wonderful comments about how stunning the work is, and I said, ‘I planned it that way.’ If it dazzles you, it's because I made it dazzle.” [1] This statement from the artist in an interview reflects the confidence and intention that can be observed in the painting.


This striking work is one of many in the Batos series created by one of the most important living Chicano artists, Cesar A. Martinez.  Born in Laredo, Texas, Martinez enjoyed visiting family often in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and this cross-cultural interaction is reflected in his work. Martínez attended Laredo Junior College and earned a BS degree in art education from Texas A&M University, Kingsville.[2]

In this series titled “Bato,” meaning “guy” or “dude” in Chicano slang, Martinez reveals how he developed his visual language:

“Probably the most effective images that I have come up with have been from recollections that I have reconstructed not exactly as I saw them, because it wouldn't work, but I would kind of like merge characters, make composites, sort of like [how] a writer comes up with a character that is based on real people, only this was a visual thing. And that is how it developed. Very few of the work from that series is actually real likenesses of real people, but it's the essence of real people. And I was also very consciously … trying to come up with characters that were very specific, but at the same time also very universal to the Chicano experience.”

Thus, Bato con Sunglasses can be seen as a distillation of likenesses rather than a specific portrait. In addition to the main inspiration found in his Chicano culture, Martinez was deeply impacted by the work of photographer Richard Avedon, with the stark composition of the artist’s images suggesting "the individual's unique characteristics [and his] loneliness in the world.[3]" Similarly, Martinez was influenced by color field painting, a style of abstract painting that seeks to center color as subject, as well as Alberto Giacometti, with his use of heavy texture in his sculptures.[4] We can see these influences referenced in the dominant, textural red background that isolates the figure, the band of russet red at the top of the image, along with the vibrant coloration used to render the man. Here, the colors and the sculptural rendering of the figure become the focus. While this is not a particular portrait, Martinez is presenting, as he says, a character that is very specific but at the same time universal to the Chicano experience.


[1] Jacinto Quirarte, "An Interview with César A. Martínez,"1997, at ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art, San Antonio, Archives of American Art. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/martin97.htm

[2] Quirarte, "An Interview.”

[3] Quirarte, “An Interview.”

[4] Jacinto Quirarte, "Foreword," in "César A. Martínez: A Dual Heritage, 6

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider