Reasearch point – investigate some artists self portraits.

This research has been an eye opener and very helpful to understand the various reasons artists do self portraits. Reasons to show emotions, sorrow, look for identity, improve skills, portray reality and imperfections,etc.

A portrait that blew me away is by Giovanni Bellini of the Doge Leonardo Loreda, around 1501. Though it’s not a self portrait, I will mention it because it’s incredible detail on the face and clothing.


This self portrait by Michael Landy looks simple, but it’s drawn precisely and tightly, every hair and fine detail of the face. The portrait is intense with each mark made carefully. There is no tone but you can still feel the depth of the features.


I like Maggi Hambling’s style. It has an ethereal quality that reminds you that you are in this world temporarily, makes you think of life and death. It also resembles waves of a stormy sea.


Lisa Stoke’s portrait here isn’t about looking alike but about emotions. she is expressing intense sadness she was feeling. An inner turmoil and sorrow.


Again this is not a self portrait, but I like Das Berlinner Zimmer by Owen Normand-winner of the Young Artist BP award 2013. I like his choice of colours, the way green from the wall is reflected in the eyes and the unusual angle of the face. The judges remarked: thoughtful work, contained in a quiet stillness that was impressive of a young artist.


Stuart Pearson Wright refers to his own paintings as ‘pseudo portraits’ presenting a subject’s ‘inner state’ rather than just an accurate record of their outward appearance. His self portraits are largely to narcissism but also to heal the vacuum of his identity as he was born by artificial insemination and never having known his father. By inhabiting different male archetypes, he tries to expose them as a metaphor of life as theatre. He is fascinated by masculine role-models as seen in film, art history and advertising.

When you look at self portraits of Kath Kollwitz, you see expressions of blatant emotion. She was tormented by poverty, social misery, death of her son Peter. She often used her self as a model to draw poor mother with hungry children. She kept portraying them again and again as a safety valve, to help her make life bearable. Quote: all my work hides in it life itself, and it is with life that I contend through my work.



One of the reasons why Vincent Van Gogh painted so many self portraits would probably be that he could not afford to pay models and he did not get many people commissioning him to do portraits. This could be a valid reason or when he did his self portrait something more got through, he witnessed definite moments of his life. His portrait with Bandaged ear, his back to the easel and a Japanese print could state that he was going to overcome that incident and carry on painting.
In a letter to Theo he explained that painting self portraits would help him develop his skills as an artist. Quote”I purposely bought a mirror good enough to enable me work from my image in default of a model, because if I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not be be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint heads of other good souls, men and women”.

In this portrait of himself, in ashen tones, the swirls in the background almost makes you feel that its a hallucination. The colours are similar to absinthe. There is a lot of energy in the marks.


You can follow the change in his style of painting over the years by looking at his self portraits.

Anita Taylor’s All or Nothing- layered marks sculpt her body. She has drawn and erased, drawn again, leaving her lightest marks at the deepest level of the image and applying darker marks above. This order of light below and dark above give the impression of luminosity glowing from within.



Portrait from memory

Some initial sketches of P.J., a lovely calm lady who always seems to have a serene smiling expression.



Lost in thought


Here is my drawing from memory in Creta crayon


Here is an improved version in charcoal.

Check and log
Which drawing materials produced the best results? Why?
I preferred using water soluble ink and pencil. The ink is very easy to use and gives you the subtlest tones, from solid dark to just a hint of colour. It’s permanent, yet can be modified with some water.
I haven’t been using charcoal much because of the dust and the need to use a fixative.

Does your self portrait look like you. Show it to a couple of friends or family members and note down their comments.
The watercolour one, my mum thought that looked like a younger me. The ink and the pastel ones, there are some resemblances.
I looked at so many portraits of artists and tried to figure out how they managed to get them to look like the person it’s meant to be. I think all the features, shape of the eyes, nose, head need to be accurately depicted to get any kind of resemblance.

Did you find it easy to convert your sketches into a portrait?
The sketches were fun to do, especially as I was just quickly putting down what I saw and not particularly worried about trying to get a resemblance. I don’t think I got the proportions accurately. Also I found it hard to draw by looking into the mirror. Every time I looked into the mirror, the to the paper to draw, I seemed to have lost my place when I looked back into the mirror. Also the image is inverted, I.e. Left side appear as right and vice versa, while as drawing from photographs, the image is not inverted.
I need a lot more practice. What I did so far has been an eye opener and an enjoying experience.
I think I feel more relaxed about how I look.

Were your preliminary drawings adequate?
The preliminary drawings helped me get shapes of some of the parts of the face, but were not enough to help me get the portraits to look like me. I took lots of photos on my iPad, close ups of eyes etc which really helped me.
The sketches I did for the portrait from memory, especially of individual features helped tremendously. I think that would be the way forward to improve on getting a likeness.a>
An improved portrait in charcoal


A self portrait

James Abbott McNeill Whistler said “it takes years for man to look like his portrait”. The way I am drawing I will never make it!

The very first attempt is on an A3 size paper with a hand made soft pastel by Pip Seymour – French red ochre. I had to be very careful to leave white areas. It was not possible to correct or erase. I started off with the eyes, which i am reasonably happy to get a contemplative look. I did this very quickly without much thinking but as soon as started to hesitate, it didn’t work. The lips did not turn out well.


I then tried a pencil sketch. The proportions are not right.


I then tried a portrait using water soluble ink and a second one in the style of Maggi Hambling.



I then did a water colour for the fun of it.


People watching

In a pub



At the airport




At the ATM


Check and log
How well did you manage to create the sense of a fleeting moment rather than a pose?
In some of the sketches I put in too much detail, more of a pose, and some I managed to create to catch the moment without too many lines.
How successful were your attempts to retain an image and draw later?
The first couple of attempts were not successful at all, but after some tries I managed to improve a little and get in a reasonable idea or suggestion of the figures. I found it very daunting at first to draw ordinary people, compared to the models in a life drawing class. I still need a lot of practice to get the shapes correct and make confident marks.
Were you able to keep to a few descriptive lines to suggest the person’s movement or were you tempted to keep introducing more elements in you work?
Most of the sketches I managed to keep to a few descriptive lines. Sometimes I might add or enhance a few lines later on or at home as the lines may have been faint. I feel with a lot of practice it’s easier to get the proportions of figures quicker and I don’t have to erase at all. I still get it wrong now and then, but usually if I do I just carry on drawing over it so I can see later where I went wrong.