How to paint a Self portrait
Fine art & painting from life:
For Centuries artist have been fascinated in painting people, the face, the self portrait and figures. Life is constant inspiration and portrait painting is something I do firstly for myself. I try to paint exactly what I want, whatever inspires me at the time. Whether or not they might sell just isn’t an influence on what I paint. I find it is really an exercise in looking, story telling, and painting that isn’t rivalled in other painting areas such as still life or landscapes. Like many artists before me I often turn to the self portrait when I don’t have models. It allows you to be creative and try things that can otherwise be more difficult when using a model. If you can get comfortable and learn how to paint a self portrait it is something you can enjoy coming back to over and over again. This blog is not so much a strict ‘how to’ but more a way to get you inspired & show you the process so you can have a go. I’ve included a few tips and things to watch out for, or avoid doing in order to make the process a little easier. I hope you enjoy.
Self portraits are a collectors favourite, It’s not only because of the impact and skill of the painting but also their story and how they came to be painted, why. For a serious collector it’s a piece of the artists life. Who would pass on the opportunity to own a Rembrant or a Van Gogh Self portrait, I know I wouldn’t! There are a few notable self portraits which have inspired painters over time, so below are are a few of my favourite to get you thinking.
Great art doesn’t necessarily make you feel good or happy. I always think, if it draws me in, and I end up standing in front of it captivated for some time I consider it a successful work. Sometimes these works might well be light, colourful and heart-warming but they can also be dark. Many of the most famous paintings are in fact quite arresting. Take Eduard Munch – ‘The Scream’ for example. Or nearly any one of Caravaggio’s works. The best artists have always challenged our regard, inviting us to consider art as something more than just a decoration of colours and gaiety for our wall.
My latest painting that I write about here is about Creative block. Creative block is a real thing if your an artist, a writer and musician. Inspired to paint something different and new, but it never comes. Many creatives struggle with depression as a result of creative block. For some time now I have wanted to put this into a painting. It’s a painting about self doubt, expectations and creative struggles. All of which are part of being a creative person and being an almost professional procrastinator myself it’s really is something I experience.
I’ve chosen quite a theatrical look for this portrait. Wanting the story-telling to be done through the figures themselves rather than the scene or various attributes added in. It’s painted recently – last week in fact, during a period of quarantine due to the Corona Virus pandemic which has touched all of us around the world. Whilst most people on planet earth are practicing social distancing the atmosphere in the painting feels rather fitting. The dark space around the figures adds a sense of solitude which I think resonates with all of us during these times.
How to paint a Self Portrait and what you will need:
- 2 easels, 1 for your canvas and 1 for your mirror.
- Canvas, board or painting /drawing surface of choice.
- A waiters trolley is pretty useful to be a able to move around. Moving in and out of the sight-size technique which can be tricky depending on the pose is made a lot easier if you equipment is manoeuvrable.
- Some masking tape to mark the floor where you stand enabling you to repeat the pose with ease.
- The rest is the same as any other project you might paint or draw.
Painting from life is all about lighting, which can be a beautiful thing if you’re able to manage it well. For an indoor portrait where you wish to paint in a ‘life like’ manner I recommend north light which comes from a window. Ideally one starting at about 2 metres up from the floor. By creating this set up the light will land brightest on features that protrude the furthest (or are nearest the light) – usually nose & forehead. A hierarchy of tones and highlights is created with good shadows to contrast in the eye sockets, under the nose, and under the chin.
As you can see in the photo above I am using a space with high windows and have blocked out the lower half using a make-shift curtain. If I could I would have blocked the light out a little higher but it wasn’t possible in this case.
How to paint a self portrait – the hands:
If you are a right handed painter depicting your right hand holding something can be rather complicated. It requires a lot of patience. The best tip I can give is to take careful note of the pose position and objects in your palm before you start. Once you can repeat it easily start painting. You can use some references like masking tape on objects etc etc. If you paint in a direct manner, the hands might just require a little more ‘drawing’ before you start to put a lot of paint down. This will save you the trouble to moving paint around too much. There really is no right or wrong approach and everyone has their own ‘style’ so do what feels most comfortable.
Self portrait troubleshooting:
- Proportions are possibly one of the main things people stumble over whilst attempting any type of portrait. One trick you can use to help get started is to make reference marks on the canvas edge nearest you head. Mark the top of head, chin, nostrils and ears. Now make sure they all line up (with your refelction) at the same time before continuing. By constantly standing back from your painting you can see the painting as a whole. This will improve your chances of spotting any mishaps where proportions are concerned.
- The mirror will make things further away and harder to see detail. This is great to get started as you can concentrate on the overall measurements and larger picture. As you begin to need more detail move the mirror closer. Do not move your standing position as this will change the light on your face and confuse everything. Continuing to move the mirror back and forth throughout will help keep a fresh eye on the painting and you should be able to notice and correct any mistakes as they happen.
- Keep the mirror vertical at all times so that heights don’t change as you move back and forth.
The Video Timelapse:
Just Press play to see the first 9 days of painting in 3 minutes or so.
A fresh eye:
Below is an image of the painting as it was at the end of the timelapse.
At this point I had been painting for 9 days straight. We had rented the studio space and I didn’t want to waste any time so I was painting during the day and then Alicia would pose for her portrait in the evenings while it was still light. We both needed a few days rest. Taking a break on your own conditions is usually a good idea, if anything it enables you to have ‘a fresh eye’ when you come back to the painting and helps you to decide what needs doing or visa versa.
At this point I know everything will be more or less dry when I come back so if I am not sure, or unhappy with any of my work I scrape it off and re-paint it completely. In this case I was unsatisfied with Alicia’s portrait and I had began to fiddle with a few mistakes which had compromised the brush work I wanted so that was scraped back. I re booked the studio space for the following weekend giving me another 3 consecutive days to repaint Alicia’s portrait.
Below: The painting with 1st attempt at Alicia’s portrait before being scraped off.
Below: Detail of Alicia’s portrait after being re-painted.
Working on a large scale can be very daunting but equally rewarding. One thing is to consider is where will the viewer stand to look at your painting from. Generally the larger the canvas, the further back a viewer will stand in order to take in the whole scene. With this in mind, generally the larger I work the looser I allow my work to become, focusing on the over all impact not minute details.
I have painted self portraits before, but never in a double portrait. To begin with I used the mirror to paint Alicia. Looking at our reflection together in the mirror, making sure that the size of her figure was correct relative to mine. Once I had done the bulk of the drawing and checked the sizes I switched to painting as I normally would.
Every now and then I switched back to using the mirror so I could check overall tones and colour. As I was painting Alicia all in black her skin seemed quite bright by comparison to her clothing. So by putting myself next to her in the mirror while I paint means I can also compare her skin tones to my white shirt and am able to keep all the tones relative to each other with the aim of keeping a certain depth to it.
How to paint a self portrait on a smaller scale
Starting small and simple might be the best way to build your confidence and test the process. My very first self portrait took me two weeks to complete so take your time and be patient. On a smaller scale things can be lot easier to manage and your mistakes much less costly Here is a video from a previous project last year showing you how to set up for painting a self portrait under life size using the sight-size technique. This one was painted in about 4 days if I recall correctly.
If you would like to learn more about the sight-size technique I talk about it throughout some of my previous blogs but I have also found this short news article about Charles Cecil and his teaching technique where I studied in Florence. You can Watch the video here and also follow the atelier on Instagram.
I hope you have enjoyed reading. If you have any questions about how to paint a self portrait please leave comments below.
The Instagram post: @danieljamesyeomans
Painting vs the truth! We’re not always this dapper. I’m actually wearing my painting clothes and if you look close you’ll see paint all over them. A recent hole has appeared on the rear which is far too embarrassing to go anywhere with. I’ll hide behind my paintings until the shops open again. It’s funny how the feeling of excitement you have when the canvas is blank is about equal to that of completing one. Everything in between just feels like a battle.
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