Painting self portraits is fantastic painting and drawing practice, I paint them a lot, not because I love the sight of myself or through vanity, I hope you don’t think that!
The main reason is that I am a willing model for myself, I pose how I want and I will give up time to do so.
I live in a house of mostly unwilling models and I don’t have easy access to professional models to draw from (at the moment). If you want to paint people you need to paint them as frequently as you can to become familiar with face and body structure. That way your brushstrokes will be confident and not tentative whilst you try to negotiate the hills and valleys of the human form.
The other reason is that I can use myself (literally) as a canvas onto which to impose emotions, whether or not they’re actually how I feel, with no worries about upsetting the sitter and purely as means to experiment.
Mood can be set in a painting through colour, brushwork, line and tone and it’s great to try to mix these things up to see what effects you can achieve.
Self portraits in history
There has been a long tradition of self portraiture in art but it took a while to get started. The earliest Christian painters weren’t allowed to paint self portraits as they thought only God could recreate the human form; there is certainly a sense of guilt about perceived vanity that comes from painting self portraits.
When mirrors became more advanced in medieval times, painters began to add themselves to paintings and eventually paint themselves for their own sake.
One of the most famous painters of self-portraits is Rembrandt, who painted himself over and over and provided us with a social history of the age in which he lived as well as throwing a spotlight on the change in techniques and art materials available to him over time.
Nowadays many painters portray a huge range of styles and emotions through painting themselves, and it’s fascinating to see and try to read the stories they tell.
To find out more about the history of self portraits try ‘The Self Portrait – A Cultural History’ by James Hall published by Thames and Hudson
My self portraits
Here are a few of the self-portraits I’ve painted over the past few years with a bit of the reasoning behind them.
I painted this picture of my husband and I (finished this week) to mark our 25th wedding anniversary.
I wanted it to be a formal painting to mark the occasion which is why I used a very formal and traditional palette and composition, suggesting solidity and stability.
It’s more of a self-portrait than a double portrait as we’re unequal in size, but that’s because I wanted to show that Julian “has my back” and always supports me with my painting.
This self-portait is from 2016 and I drew it in pastel.
It was accidental, I noticed the light on my face as I looked in a mirror early in the morning whilst on holiday and the light streaming in through the narrow gap gave a fabulously dramatic effect. I drew it because I couldn’t resist the image, but because this was a time when I was painting and drawing more and more and my confidence was growing, I called it ‘Out of the shadows’.
I painted this large self portrait in acrylic in 2016 as the culmination of a painting course focusing on developing an image based on emotion and experience. It’s a response to the stroke I had in 2008.
I wanted the painting to show how I felt immediately after suffering a stroke. At that point I was immobile in bed, scared, with a lack of sensation on my right side. I was also experiencing synaesthesia and could temporarily ‘see’ music – it was green and sinuous and twisting. I wanted the right side of the picture to show these sensations and the left to be more positive and hopeful in colour.
Another 2016 painting, this on is very large at 4ft x 3ft. I was trying to think about how I was getting a lot of ideas and becoming more creative. Prosaically, as a lot of ideas come to me in the bath, that’s where I painted myself.
I was very happy with the way the greens and purples give a dreamlike, floaty effect, but I never quite finished my face.
This one was a fun experiment where I put myself into one of my favourite paintings, which is Matisse’s ‘The Dessert: Harmony in Red’ which I’ve had as a reproduction on my wall since I was a student.
It was great fun to paint even if it didn’t entirely work, and gave me the freedom to use full-on colour and bold brush work.
Not unreasonably I’ve had quite a few comments about how my self-portraits always look miserable when I’m actually quite a happy, smily person.
I think it’s because it’s quite therapeutic to paint out your worries and bad experiences you’ve had, I certainly find that it helps me work through feelings. I’m also keen on strong tone that lends itself to dramatic effects.
Anyway, I thought I’d try to do something a bit more ‘me’, so I painted this one ‘Here I am, this is me’ in oils to portray myself more as I am. I wanted it to be honest, punchy, humorous and strong, which is why I’m full length, full on and and the colour is bright with visible brushwork.
I also had a bit of fun putting some texture into the background, making it a bit roughed up and grubby in the kitchen sink realist kind of way that I love.
I’m sure there will be many more self portraits to come in lots more different styles. I’d like to expand them and make them more ‘storytelling’ in future, so I need to get to work!