4 Tips to Master Self-Portrait Painting

2 Jan 2014
Rembrandt painted self-portraits throughout his life, creating subtle masterpieces that really seem to capture who he was.
Rembrandt painted self-portraits throughout his life,
creating subtle masterpieces that really seem to
capture who he was.

When it comes to choosing a subject to paint, one of the most convenient is the face you see in the mirror every day. But self-portraiture comes with a complicated set of questions—how do you see yourself versus how do you present yourself? What are you trying to communicate with the work? Who will see it and why? Perhaps the most important questions of all: What are you as the artist hoping to get out of this kind of portrait painting process?

Old Masters and new alike seem to find common ground in a few areas of self-portrait painting. Here’s where many of them come together: 

1.    It isn’t all about you. Painting a self-portrait all but begs a painter to become self-absorbed in physical presentation, but you want to focus on making a statement that comes through visually. Instead of asking yourself whether or not your eyes are spaced just right, David A. Leffel urges painters to think about how to communicate with brushstrokes, edges, values, and color choices. Executing a painting with these formal ideas in mind will give a self-portrait more gravitas, and the process will be more rewarding in the long run.

2.    The possibilities abound. You may just be doing this as an exercise in your studio, but you still want your self-portrait to have some zing. Be willing to experiment: use a camera with a timer to capture different expressions, or use a mirror to show yourself at a different angle or in profile. Most of all, think about what your facial expressions are saying. You don’t want to necessarily give a toothy grin, but the face is capable of infinite subtleties. A painting where the figure is looking out at the viewer or looking down or away creates an entirely different feeling.

Frida Kahlo often included symbolic objects and personal mementos in her self-portraits.
Frida Kahlo often included symbolic objects
and personal mementos in her self-portraits.
3.    Don’t nip and tuck. Give yourself permission to show yourself as you are. That can be tough as we get older, but in order to paint a moving self-portrait, you don’t want to shave off your years. That would do little to enhance and strengthen your observations skills. Something you can do to sidestep the issue is to use a bigger brush to render forms in loose, broad strokes. That can mitigate some of the signs of time’s passage.

4.    Do another. And do it differently. Self-portraits can tell a lot about an artist and they can teach us so much for no cost except our time and commitment. Build on that and stretch yourself in your self-portraiture. If your first one doesn’t turn out quite as you intended, leave it and start again in a different vein. Give a three-quarter turn, stand where you previously sat, incorporate objects and a background if you did a tightly cropped composition before.

If I could have one kind of art collection, and only one, it would be solely self-portraits. I find them powerful, interesting, and always unique. And if we can turn that kind of acuity of observation from ourselves to another model, our portraiture painting skills increase by leaps and bounds. In the Jean Pederson Premium Palette, you'll find an artist revealing the processes, instruction, and knowledge on the qualities of all kinds of portrait painting, as well as other essential painting skills in mixed media. If you are looking for an artistic mentor with strong ideas, passion, and ability, you couldn’t do better than to start with Pederson and her teachings. Enjoy!



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