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The self-portrait has long been a traditional means for an artist/art
to reflect and learn valuable artistic skills while becoming aware of the
power of the visual.
I often tell my students that the self-portrait is convenient in terms
of the model, and they, as both artist and model, have the ability to reveal
as much or as little as they choose.
It is up to them to give false information: a gesture or expression that
is unlike their real personality. They may obscure part of their face in
shadow, or behind a plant-not unlike other great artists of history (Marc
Chagall and a young Rembrandt) that did just that, as if they were unsure
of their acceptance in the art world.
I try to show reproductions of around 30 artists and their self-portraits.
It is interesting to see how often artists repeated this procedure in making
a visual journal of their lives, times and circumstances. Some artists
were quite prolific in terms of the self portrait. Vincent van Gogh did
several, Albrecht Durer also painted many.
But, Rembrandt van Rijn left behind something like 49 self-portraits that
chronicled both his successes and the periods in his life when things were
very difficult. It is all there, painfully truthful, and poignant because
of his honesty.
The actual assignment to create a self-portrait-though basically the same
each year for my drawing and painting students-is made unique only by the
materials I choose and the focus.
I devised a technique that really tests their skills. I look through fashion
magazines and cut out crisp photographs of single eyes, noses and mouths,
which are put in lunch bags marked for that particular feature. Students
reach in and pick one picture out of each bag. If one feature is from a
3/4angle and the other two are frontal, the student must adapt and have
all the features in either pose. They must also visually measure the
using correct spacing and placement with the information given.
The three features are taped to the paper and the student then builds a
face. Often, students are stumped when they have picked a photo of a smaller
mouth or nose, while the eye they got is large. A few make the eyes
forgetting that they are trying to create a "real" face. They are even
expected to draw what might be a logical shape of head and neck. It is
fun and challenging at the same time.
This semester I wanted the students to apply the knowledge they had gained
about building the features of the face and interpreting their own features.
I was especially concerned that they build the features correctly, not
falling back into poor habits of stylizing the features. After spending
time talking about how the eyes, nose and mouth are made, how they move
and how to build them properly, students became adept through practice.
Based on the actual self-portrait assignment, I focused on the eyes,
and a chiaroscuro approach. The results were striking, and the students
and myself were excited and proud of the results. We have had so many
and teachers stop by and stare at the finished portraits-everyone is
The kids did a remarkable job and we are gratified to receive such a
to our work.
The technique I wanted them to try is unique in that they used mixed media.
I had them tint hot press watercolor paper with a veil of ink wash, then
use black charcoal as the actual drawing tool. The very last medium used
was soft, white pastel to create punch-dramatizing the features.
Other than using vine charcoal infrequently, my students were not all that
familiar with charcoal. This was a challenge in many ways. Their thumbnail
sketches drawn from mirrors or photos that I took of them were used as
references only. The students were not allowed to use an opaque projector,
nor copy or grid from any photographs.
In addition to the techniques used, the other criteria were that the
be expressive, and it should "focus" on their eyes-perhaps the most
feature (other than the mouth which is expressive and mobile). The eyes
are said to be the window to the soul and I knew the students would be
proud of themselves if they could achieve a good skill level on their
Once the ink wash was dry, they drew their expressive face on the paper
and started to model and shade using charcoal. The charcoal pencil was
fine for detailed, linear areas, but ineffective for larger areas of the
face, often streaking the cheek areas, so we used either vine or powdered
charcoal for these places.
The subtle, unmarred planes of the faces of students so young were perhaps
the most difficult part of the assignment; it was here that a case of the
"flats" gave us a hard time in making the face look rounded and dimensional
without the creases and wrinkles of older models to guide us.
In chiaroscuro, light and shade are of great importance, so we constantly
critiqued attempts to make dramatic tonal changes to our portraits. The
white pastel became the catchlight in the eye, frequently the white of
the eye itself, and occasionally the suggestion of a rounded cheek.
These expressive portraits are stunning in their effect. They show us so
much while revealing so little of the face. They show us how exquisite
black and white can be. They also show us how powerful an expression can
be, and how we appear to others. We're convinced that the eyes truly do