Why do artists paint self portraits? Is it out of vanity or is there a deeper or more modest reason? Does it feel weird to paint your own self portrait? Self portraiture is a very old genre and remains popular today amongst artists as well as art lovers. Let’s have a look at ourselves.
Many artists paint self portraits; it wasn't just Rembrandt. But it was him who probably propelled the whole thing into popular culture. Those brooding images seem to speak volumes. Rembrandt's self portraits not only provide endless imaged or real (psychological) insights, a fabulous guide to painting in different styles, but also a narrative; as Rembrandt painted himself from a young age well into his twilight years. Knowing of Rembrandt's sad ending we tend to read all sorts of emotions into his kind face. But are we right to do so?
Our Deeper Inner Self?
Self portraits have fascinated art lovers, artists and art historians for centuries. Yet artists nowadays often paint their self portraits for different reasons than what art lovers and art historians find in it. Do we, as artists, really intend to portray our deeper inner character, our essential self and our feelings? I am not so sure.
A Vehicle for Meaning
Many artists I know paint self portraits out of convenience. They might have a concept for a painting in mind, and their own face suits the bill pretty well. Those paintings are not about themselves, but their face or body function as a vehicle for the concept. They could probably have used a different model for it if they had found a suitable one.
An Available Model Who Does not Complain
Some self portraits are painted as practice pieces: the artists wants to paint a portrait from life but has no money, time, patience or other resources to find a model. The quickest way to get started is to just grab a mirror. And using the face you know best is a perfect way to focus on what you need to focus on: your painting techniques and your visual language.
When I asked some fellow artists why they painted self portraits I received comments such as “easiest person to boss around”, and “free to experiment”, and one artist joked "A free, accomodating, pleasant, cultured, intelligent affable, witty sitter, with great stories”.
I have always found that it is easier to paint faces I know well. That's why it helps so much to spend some time with a portrait client, do some sketches, take photos and just get to know the person a little. Painting myself or my children is much easier because I instantly know when the nose is off or curve of the eyebrow wrong. So painting a face you know frees you up to focus on other things than just a likeness.
Painting your own face is the perfect subject matter if you want to work on colour, edges, values, mood, composition and so forth. After all, the subject matter will become secondary to the goal.
Yet sometimes the goal is simply to get the face down on canvas as honestly as I can. And painting something in an honest way (ie painting what I see) is hard. It is hard when painting 'just' a fruit bowl. It is hard when painting a stranger's face. It becomes seriously hard when painting your self. In fact I think it might well be the hardest of all. To paint yourself honestly is like asking yourself to paint something eternally fluid in a fixed state. You know yourself (a little), you know what you look like, yet how many times have we not looked at ourself in the mirror and wondered who that person was? All those thoughts and feelings inside and yet there is simply this face and body staring back at us from the mirror? Is there any way to even begin to put all that onto canvas?
I don't think there is a way to put 'all that' onto canvas; not for me at least. I would not know where to begin. I would be happy if I can get just a bit of it, if any. And so I do not pretend that my self portraits are anything more than just an interpretation, or a depiction of what I see in the mirror or in that photo. I try and take distance and treat my face as if it was a fruit bowl: there are colours, shapes, edges and values to put down on canvas.
Every Painting is a Self Portrait
And yet, we probably hint at what lies beneath in every brush stroke, without even realising it. Even though we might just be trying to get the fruit bowl onto canvas, something personal gets painted into it, whether we like it or not. And if the fruit bowl is our own face it really seems to become more than just lines and shapes.
A Recent Self Portrait in Pastel
I recently painted a self portrait in pastel and I filmed the progress for you to follow. I often find many self portraits incredibly grumpy looking. In fact, I find myself quite grumpy looking when I just have my 'normal' face on! And I am not a very grumpy person (or so I'd like to think). I researched some Old Master selfies and found some with a hint of a smile and din't think it looked odd. So I smiled at myself in the mirror. It felt a bit stupid to smile at yourself, but I got used to it and it was ok. I finished the painting and that was that. Video edited and published on Youtube. Done.
Yet that painting sat in my studio and the smile became increasingly daft looking over time. It lacked a twinkle and any other sense of the moment. It seemed frozen and silly. I did not manage to create a smile like the old masters could - one that looks normal and natural.
I told myself that I needed to fix the shape of the head (it did actually need fixing) as an excuse to get back into it. Get rid of the stupid smile. Never mind a friendlier looking portrait. Let's get the typical self-portrait-stare in. I give in.
So I concentrated, looked at my concentrated face and painted it. Yep, it has more character and is more true. And yet, when is something 'honest'? Was I really? Or did I just fight with my painting materials until it looked ok? Honest is such a big word.
Me and My Model
I have used myself as a model in lots of my paintings. For some I used myself as a model to portray something completely different. For some paintings I simply needed a 3-dimensional body to drape some lace on. Sometimes my face would suit a concept I had in mind. For other pieces I just wanted to practice my drawing skills. After many paintings in which I used myself I am not so bothered anymore about how pretty, ugly or old I look. None of my paintings are about that. None of my self portraits are going to hang on my parents lounge wall as a friendly depiction of their daughter. These are not portrait commissions. These are rarely about me at all.
And yet they all depict a concept I wanted to portray, an idea, a mood or something beautiful I wanted to show. And so, in a way, they are all me, or at least part of who I am. Darn, this self portrait stuff is deep.
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