Painting a Self Portrait: A Step-by-Step Demo

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Self Portraits: The Motivation

Painting Self Portraits
Self portraits aren't about narcissism. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

There are many reasons for painting self portraits, not least being the continuation of a long tradition of self-portraiture among artists (just think of those by Rembrandt and Van Gogh). Then there's the advantage that it's the one model who's always available, at any time of the day).

I've been hooked on self portraits ever since I first attempted one (which was not a success, though my second self portrait I framed and still have on display). I don't paint self portraits for any narcissistic reason, but for the challenge. After all, if I can't capture my own likeness and a feeling of my character, how can I attempt to get someone else's?

I've done self portraits in charcoal, pastel pencils, watercolor, and acrylics. The results have varied from as realistic (in terms of color and likeness) to strongly Expressionistic. From pleasing (the self portraits I show others) to strange (the self portraits few people see). I regard getting a feeling of character more important than a photorealistic likeness, for which I personally prefer using a camera.

I rarely set out with something specific in mind, other than to paint a self portrait, and just let the painting evolve on the canvas, following the mood I'm in. I use a mirror set behind my easel so I could see my whole face and shoulders, plus a small mirror attached to my canvas board with a bulldog clip. The former is to get the overall shape, proportions, tones, and shadows. The latter for seeing detail in specific features.

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Self Portrait: Getting Started

Painting Self Portraits
This self portrait is dominated by Prussian blue. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

I used a very limited palette of colors for this painting: Prussian blue, unbleached titanium, raw umber, and gold ochre. I'm very partial to Prussian blue, which when used thickly is very dark and when used thinly is a lovely moody blue. Unbleached titanium is a mixture of titanium dioxide, raw sienna, and raw umber, and is a great color for pale skin tones.

I used Prussian blue for the background, blocking this in, initially leaving the area where the face was to appear as the white of the canvas board. I did, however, make the area where the neck would be as dark as the background, as I knew the neck in the final portrait would be in shadow.

Once the background was done, I used the Prussian blue left on my brush to roughly mark where the eyes, eyebrows, and nose would go. I then used raw umber to block in the hair.

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Self Portrait: Reworking the Composition

Painting Self Portraits
Don't be afraid to rework a composition. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

I decided that I wanted the face at more of at angle, not quite so upright. I used unbleached titanium, which is very opaque and thus has great covering power, to block in the revised face shape.

Before this was dry, I used raw umber to place the the eyelashes (the eyes are closed) and eyebrows. I was working straight from the tubes of paint, placing the a little paint directly onto a brush and then the canvas, not mixing them on a palette. I regularly dipped my brush into clean water to keep it damp and the paint fluid.

Using the raw umber to put in a shadow on the side of the nose and below the eyes started to give these features form, as did the shadow on the forehead and the right-hand side of the face. I used some of the raw umber/ unbleached titanium mix on my brush to place a skin tone on the neck, but keeing it darker than the face.

I cleaned my brush and added a little raw umber to the hair, but nothing was done to the background.

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Self Portrait: The Price of Working without Sketching

Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.
If you don't plan a painting, be prepared to rework it. Painting Self Portraits

I continued working with the raw umber to add more form to the eyes, nose, and eyebrows. Nothing was done to the mouth, which remains the vague suggestion created in the previoucs step.

I widened the neck, which was far too thin, using a thinned wash of unbleached titanium – you can really see here how usefully opaque it is.

I stepped back to assess what I'd been doing. The proportions of the right eye (right as you look at the painting) and eyebrow were well out – eyebrows extend beyond the corner of the eye. And I needed to take another careful look at the shape of my eyebrows, given that I'd depicted the one on the left as going up and the one on the right curving down.

If you're going to paint without a careful preliminary drawing, then you need to be prepared to rework parts of a painting time and again. To regularly step back and look critically at what you've done. Nothing must ever be 'too good' to paint over. All too often it's the very piece you're so pleased with that isn't working with the rest of the painting.

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Self Portrait: Adding Some Glazes

Painting Self Portraits
Glazing is great for subtle changes in color. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

I now introduced gold ochre, lightening up the hair to reflect its highlights. This changed the mood of the painting, from sombre and dark to something more contemplative.

The gold ochre was put straight from the tube onto a brush, then applied to the canvas, starting at the bottom (tips) of the hair, brushing up towards the top of the head.

Some of the paint was allowed to remain thick; some was thinned with water. This created variation in the hair, rather than a solid mass of color. It also allowed the underlying layers to show through in places and influence the colour of the gold ochre in the areas where it was thin (it's a fairly opaque color).

Very thin glazes of the gold ochre were applied to the cheek/nose bits of the face which were going to be in light, rather than shadow.

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Self Portrait: Adding Form to the Mouth

Painting Self Portraits
Look critically and add detail. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

In this stage I gave more form to the mouth – not by outlining the lips, but simply with a line indicating where the lips meet (never a straight line) and the shadow on the chin below the lower lip. Remember, not every feature needs to be defined in detail, just give enough information for your brain to interpret it.

I looked critically at the shape of the face, which was too square, so added shadow on both sides to get this more accurate. I also used raw umber to add shadow to the right-hand side of the nose (right as you look at the painting), to give it form.

At this stage I was extremely pleased with the lips, nose, chin, and shadows under the eyes. I needed to work on the forehead, which didn't reflect the shadow on it cast by the hair; the right eye, which was too broad and seemed to go all the way to the hair; the shadow and hair on the right-hand side of the face; and the hair on the top of the head, which needed to be made a bit darker.

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Self Portrait: Overworking Always Ends in Disaster

Painting Self Portraits
Beware of overworking a painting!. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

As you can see, quite a bit had been done to the self portrait between the previous photo and this photo. I had intended to take more photos, but got sucked into the painting and the digital camera lay forgotten on the shelf where I'd put it safely out of paint range.

The painting had got a lot darker, the lips and nose have been defined more. The streaks of hair had got broader (not a successful move!), moved further down the forehead towards the eyes (which does anchor the hair onto the head better), and across the neck a bit.

I'd lost the light, delicate feel I had in the previous stage. The downturned mouth made the face seem sad rather than thoughtful. The right eye (right as you look at the painting) still wasn't working. And there's too much hair, I needed to hide some of it on the sides with Prussian blue.

So what did I do next? I can't tell you because, feeling that I'd overworked the painting and was going to continue 'aggravating' the situation, I put it aside, facing the wall. When I eventually get back to it (if at all), I'll either use the titanium buff to work some light back into it, abandon it, or paint over it with white and start again. But I wanted to make a decision with the objectivity you get by ignoring a painting for a while. So instead I started a new painting – also a self portrait, but this time starting with a Cadmium red background.