Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Artist and the Self-Portrait

My 2014 version of myself, completed during a painting
class on abstraction taught by Steve Rose.
To the artists out there: Have you ever painted a self-portrait?

I take classes now and again, for various reasons. Sometimes I want to try out a new medium, but have no idea where to start. Sometimes I'm feeling bored with what I'm doing and need an injection of something new. Sometimes I just need a kick in the butt to get me back on track. Over the years I've been given a lot of assignments, and creating a self portrait seems to be a favourite of instructors everywhere.

I did a week long retreat in August that focused on abstraction. One of the first exercises we did was a self-portrait. We had looked at a few abstract expressionist painters and were to do one in an "expressionist style". I think it turned out decently, and very different from ones I've done in the past. I thought I would dig out a few of the older ones and compare... just to get the sense of how I've changed over the years.

This one was painted, I think, in the late 80s/
early 90s. It wasn't dated so it's hard to know.  I am much
better at documenting my work these days.
When I was in school... many, MANY years ago, this was a regular assignment. I can't tell you how many times I was up late, mirror propped in front of me, trying to get something vaguely resembling a likeness. I had quite a few in charcoal on paper... smudged,  shadowed, line only, close up, far away... depending on what that particular teacher was trying to drill into our heads. Unfortunately I don't have any of those. They were in a portfolio in my basement, and destroyed during last year's flood. I did, however, find a painting that I had done around the same time.

When I look at this I see the dreaded "one brush painting". Ugh. Why didn't anyone tell me not to do this? Well... I suppose I couldn't have been much older than 20 and had only been painting for a couple years, so I shouldn't judge it too harshly. I did notice this though... the artist that painted this was timid. The colour is blah, the expression is unsure. There's a hint of something... in the brushwork maybe, perhaps in the bit of red and blue peeking out from the background. The recent one has me boldly looking out at the viewer. There is nothing timid about that one. At all.

A collage and charcoal self-portrait from sometime in the mid-90s.
This one I did a few years after I was out in the working world. I had given it to a friend shortly after it was finished, and she had recently given it back to me. Since all my other drawings were destroyed, I was happy to have it back, fully intact. Stuff was going on in my life at this time... I had a job that was really demanding and I was working stupidly long hours for little reward. I hated my job, I thought my boss was more than a little bit insane, and felt like my life was going nowhere. I know when I was working on this I was taking a class on mixed media, and playing with collage and transparency, but not really thinking that much about the subject matter. When I look at it now, I see someone drowning. No wonder my friend didn't want that hanging in her living room. I've put it away myself.... it's not really something I want looking at me every day.


A self-portrait done in an art journal. I was playing with carving stamps... the turtle was one of mine, but as a stamp
it didn't work all that well so I went over it with white paint pen. This was the first paint pen I'd ever purchased, and
I used it a few times, put it away and forgot about it. I pulled them out again a few months ago, and have been
using them constantly ever since.
This one I did in my very first art journal... maybe about 3 years ago. I had discovered art journals online, and after a bit of hunting around, found a video by Teesha Moore on how to make your own book out of watercolour paper. I couldn't paint in a traditional sketchbook (the paper just seemed to disintegrate) so this seemed a great format for trying out painting techniques. Can't remember exactly how I did this... I think I gessoed the paper first with black, then with white and used plastic wrap in the wet paint to get the texture. I find it interesting that I chose a turtle image for the opposite page. Again I hadn't really thought about symbolic significance, but looking at it now... well... I can see how relevant that was. Like a turtle, I was keeping most of myself well hidden. I was shortly after that I decided to put myself out there, create some sort of online presence, and try to turn my "hobby" into something more in line with my authentic self. It's amazing the difference a few years can make.

So, has anyone else gone through this exercise? Artists all through history have done this... If you haven't, it's certainly worth giving it a go. If you have, leave me a link in the comments... I'd love to see how other artists see themselves and what those images reveal.