The self-portrait: the bravest form of art?
Self-portraits are immensely interesting. Most of us have painted them. It is easier and more convenient to reach for the mirror than to get someone else to sit for a long time. Yet, the image we see is always in reverse, and our own ideas and preconceptions of our self may get in the way of a great painting.
When painting a self-portrait, should you paint the face that you feel the world sees or try to capture the depths of yourself that often stay hidden? Is your self-portrait going to be purely an exercise or will it form part of your collection? If there is interest, would you sell it or would it feel too personal? All of these questions make the self-portrait a highly challenging painting to realise.
So how do you go about it?
Any accomplished artist knows that you need to observe things before you can paint or draw them. The hardest part of a self-portrait can is really looking at yourself. Most of us may glance in the mirror while brushing our teeth, or check our outfit before leaving the house, but we rarely focus on our faces. Even a person wearing make-up may isolate their features individually, rather than examining their whole face.
Before you paint a self-portrait, study the shape and form, and try to distance yourself from the reality of the face before you.
Capturing facial expression and personality can be especially hard when you are doing a self-portrait. Mirrors can be limiting and only offer a few solutions. Sit still so that the light is consistent and ask a friend to snap pictures of you talking to capture changes in expression. Alternatively, you could use a time-lapse camera to collect a number of different faces. To capture your true likeness, you’ll want natural facial expressions, rather than anything posed or contrived.
It can be tempting to try to embellish our own face, to hide the crinkle of crow’s feet or soften dark areas. Before you start, make a decision to present exactly what you see. Likewise, don’t highlight flaws or emphasise features that you find less becoming. Be real and honest. Don’t let the portrait be a revelation of (low) self-esteem, see it as a study. In time, your portraits may develop into pieces that address the theme of self-perception, but before you tackle anything in such a vein, it is vital that you can paint or draw yourself with startling physical accuracy.
It is important with self-portraits to not see the challenging first self-portrait as the ultimate painting. Even if you are immensely proud of it, think how else you can interpret your face. Artists such as Rembrandt painted such a wealth of self-portraits that we can really extract his personality from them. They display his physical likeness as well as an immense sense of spirit; the execution of the paintings is also very revealing. You may want to play with media, or add symbolic objects in the manner of Frida Kahlo.
You can often pick out a self-portrait as they stand out from portraits of other people. They seem to reveal more, there seems to be less distance between the canvas and the person, and the honesty is louder than ever.
It is the intimacy of a self-portrait that makes it so very difficult, as well as so rewarding. Of course, a self-portrait is technically challenging. Most of us prefer to draw from life, and that is something we will never be able to do when drawing ourselves. Using a mirror involves the change in focus from mirror to canvas, which means we never have a static model but may also find our painting technique becomes more restrictive as movement and freedom is inhibited. The practical elements aside, it is so difficult to look yourself in the eye and say ‘Here I am’ in a bold flurry of paint, ‘This is me in my most naked state’. Having the technical ability, artistic sensitivity and creative honesty to produce a decent self-portrait is a landmark moment in any artist’s career.