5 Things Painting A Self-Portrait Will Teach You
18x24, oil on birch panel, this is Marooned By The Muse (self-portrait).
It’s an odd thing, painting a self-portrait. Unless you're deluded by a narcissistic fog, staring at yourself on an easel for a couple of weeks can be a cringe-inducing exercise.
I have an eyelid that droops in quite a pronounced way - a trait inherited from my father. For about two hours at the start of the day, I look relatively even-eyed. Then the muscle in the eyelid weakens and droops. By mid-afternoon I look like a pirate who lost a fight with his own parrot. (Ow! My eye! I'm not supposed to get parrot beaks in it!). Anyway, this is an early morning pose. Or should I say, "dis be a pose what arrrrre early to the day, matey"...
This painting is inspired by - in the manner of, to use Artspeak - Le Désespéré (The Desperate Man, self-portrait), a Gustave Courbet masterpiece.
Marooned By The Muse - my final painting for 2016 - is the 108th painting I’ve completed this year. That’s about the level of productivity required in order to be able to keep the lights on in my studio.
Of course, with art, what you make is a life not a living. The living flows therefrom with a bit of effort and good fortune - the purview of the dark art known as 'selling'...
108 paintings. Ever since turning "pro", my target has been to get to 100. This is the first year I’ve actually hit the mark. All things considered, that's a lot of ideas being moved from brain to brush.
Now I just need to repeat the feat for the next 30 years or so and I'll have cobbled together a decent painting career. So 100x30=3000 paintings.
Huh. Excuse me a moment. I suddenly feel the urge to go lie down.
The desperate man, indeed.
I like how this piece turned out. Of course all self-portraits are vanity projects - and this is no exception. But I think I've resisted the urge to present a romanticized version of myself. This was my fourth attempt at a self-portrait. The others foundered off the coast of Cape What-Were-You-Thinking?... All souls aboard were lost. But this one works. It feels honest.
Lucian Freud was not afraid of a little unvarnished truth in his portraiture. I think that's why I love his work so much. Because life is messy. A human being is not always - not even often - a conventional thing of beauty. But cognitive dissonance aside - it is quite possible to see beauty in all things if you open your mind and spirit to what is before you. Ah, but opening a mind, a spirit - this is the eternal struggle.
In this 'post-truth' age of social media, when the ideal you is the only version you are advised to project, honesty seems a quaintly old-fashioned notion. But frankly I’ve lost count of the number of hours spent in the studio, in front of the easel, with this very expression - if not literally, at least figuratively - etched on my face. In search of inspiration. Marooned. Desperate. Such is the artist's lot on occasion.
So, what did I learn from this exercise?
1 - The model will get grumpy.
If you think asking someone to sit still for a few hours while you paint them is a stretch, just wait until you have to do both the job of sitting and painting. Fortunately, there's no rush. You can take your time because whenever your schedule allows for painting, the model will be available to sit for you.
2 - Facial geometry is a personal thing.
It's one thing to take life drawing lessons and come to understand the ideal proportions of the human head and its inherent geometry. It's quite another to be confronted with the fact that your own proportions deviate from the ideal in ways to which you were quite oblivious. Fragile egos beware.
3 - The ugly duckling phase lasts a really long time.
All representational paintings, be they still life, landscape or portrait, go through an ugly duckling phase. For a good while it's going to look like - well, crap. And if the crap you're looking at for a week, a month, a year is your own face, the urge to haul the whole damn thing out to the refuse bin is going to be overwhelming. Try to resist.
4 - Mix the paint once and move on.
This applies to any portrait or figurative work. Mixing flesh tones is tricky and the odds of being able to mix exactly the same colour from one session to the next are slim. So the advice is to mix enough of each colour value to complete the piece and store it all overnight in the freezer after your painting session. It could well save your sanity.
5 - Now is not the time to be your own worst critic.
Flaws? Got 'em. And a self-portrait is like a magnifying glass. As a painter, the exercise will expose all technical and artistic weaknesses. As a subject, a self-portrait lays everything bare for the world to see. But ultimately, it is your imperfections that make you interesting, right? Embrace them... Unless you have deep pockets and a reliable team of psychiatrists and plastic surgeons on call.
Have a great New Year! Thanks for reading along. And may 2017 bring you all the joy your heart can contain - and more than a little art.
See you around the studio.