Artists Explain Why They Paint Self-Portraits

Male artists painting in art class studio
Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek / Getty Images

A photographer friend asked: "Why is it that artists always seem to try self portraits? I mean what's up with that? I have never tried to photograph myself in portrait ... largely because I know the results will be all to shockingly real! Maybe that’s why artists who paint are so keen to do themselves ... I suppose you can paint what you hope others see, and not what they actually do. Do you think that’s what you look like or is that what you hope others see? Excuse my art-philosophy for a second, but I've always kinda wondered about these things."

Many people paint self portraits because it means always having a model available—and one who didn’t complain about the results when a painting session was over. We posted the question on a Painting Forum to find out what other artists thought. Here are some of the replies: 

“If you cannot capture the essence of your own self, how are you to capture the essence of someone else?” -- Bridgetbrow

”You're always available to pose for yourself, and it's one way of keeping busy if you're not doing anything else. It's also a way of charting your progress in a way, to see how far you’ve come, if you have at all, from the last time you did one.” -- Taffetta

”I believe that in doing so you show the world how you perceive yourself. Some of the masters have actually been quite shocked at their finished work and have shocked the art world as well.” -- Annasteph

“Personally, I think I'm too darned ugly (hehe) to put on canvas. I'd rather paint something beautiful. Just joking....but speaking of ugly....a lot of self-portraits are just that. It's a window to the soul. A perception, not necessarily a likeness, unless you're doing it to practice your skills.” -- Ruthie

“Self portraits are notoriously hard to sell. That being said, finding a (free) model is always difficult, unless you have very good or very narcissic friends! I always find that working from a mirror gives you a 'staring quality', so a closeup photo is a good reference to help with self portraiture when combined with mirrors” -- Moondoggy

“I really like to look at the self-portraits the great artists have done. I think, to paint oneself, is one of the harder things to do, especially if the painter is honest. I also think it should turn out to be the best piece one does, even if others do not agree with you. You know yourself best, after all. I suspect the hard part is in being honest, not dolling yourself up, nor dulling yourself down. If you can do it for yourself, you can do it for others.

I've done one self-portrait and everyone says it isn't me. I'm neither that old or that ugly... they could be right but I was down at the time feeling both old and ugly and it sure came out.” -- Tema

“I did [a self portrait] about six months ago and actually liked it. And it did look like me. … I think when I do the next one, I will try a different medium. … I want to try something different and push myself -- both in technique and perception of the subject matter. Make the next one a little edgier than the last.” -- Terry

”Where else can you get someone to look at for a long enough time so that you can figure out the basics of the eyes, nose, mouth, hair, etc. You can simply throw them away when you want and not feel bad about it. I got much better at portraits after doing this. Don't just do it once, though that would be better than none!” -- Mseunell

”For someone who really want to learn it's the best exercise, because when you draw someone that you know well it's often more difficult than draw a person that you don’t know at all. I recommend using a mirror and place a little spot of color to help you to look at the same direction after you look at your piece of paper.” -- Johanne Duchaine

”The most important reason is because the creative process is one of self discovery and realization and not just technical know-how. This makes painting a very introspective art form since one of the requirement for great art should be individuality and uniqueness of style, and although these are not the only strengths required, any serious artist who has held a paintbrush in their hands will tell you they wish to paint their subject matter as no one else ever has before them.

There is a unique psychological thing that takes place when you look into your own eyes and face and paint your own portrait. Your own face suddenly becomes a mirror to your soul, the real you, and strange things happen as you paint. I would recommend it to anyone in pursuit of the prize, ‘know thyself’. Do it often, you will be amazed at what you discover about yourself.

The other obvious reason is that not every artist has access to or can afford good models, and any face is better than no face if you want to paint portraits." -- Gary O