Oil Painting Lessons- Paint the Self Portrait
The Self Portrait
Exploring the Self Portrait
You are your best model. You are always on time and always accessible when you are ready to paint. You don't have to dress up for yourself and you are not responsible for sharing your painting practice with anyone else. These are some of the reasons why so many artist's choose to paint self-portraits.
Since this is a lesson taught to beginning artists (installment 6 of 6 on my beginning syllabus), this exercise will go slow - mainly focusing on the underpainting which is either grisaille (gray scale) or monochromatic (using only one color on a value scale - I recommend Raw Sienna).
There are a couple of things to notice as you begin your self portrait. First, it is a psychological experience. You will begin to either really enjoy looking at yourself and how amazing you are, or like most people, start picking apart your flaws. Secondly, and more important, you will notice all the shapes, angles, shadows and highlights that make up your face. The second part of this is the most important part to begin working on your practice portrait.
I recommend to my students to go to a mirror (bathroom is ideal) and stare at your face for 15 minutes non- stop. Don't apply make up or pop pimples, just simply stare at yourself. Look at your entire face and get familiar with it. Typically what students report back to me is that at first they notice their flaws or things they'd like to change. Then after about 10 minutes, their face starts breaking up into shapes. This is the part you want to look at as you paint your underpainting.
Give yourself a break. Painting a portrait is already complex enough without all the emotional baggage you could potentially add into the mix. When you are painting your portrait do not attempt to correct any features on your face - or alter them. All information that you see in the mirror is perfect for your self portrait because it will help accurately convey your personality, history and emotion to the viewing audience. Be truthful to yourself and your art will follow.
Your self portrait will look serious. This is because if you are accurately representing what you see in the mirror, you will be concentrating and studying - thus making for a serious face. That is the face you should paint. If you're constantly smiling or trying to look sexy by pouting your lips or posing, your painting will take a lot longer to accomplish.
Portrait Set Up
Examples of Student Self Portraits
How To Paint Your Self Portrait
Set up your mirror so that your portrait is front facing. Creating a 3/4 view portrait is very challenging to do, so try not to attempt this angle on your first portrait.
Set up your light so that there is a lot of contrast - shadows and highlights
Choose your under painting. You can create a grisaille (gray scale) or monochromatic. I recommend Raw Sienna on a value scale and mix the black using ultramarine blue and burnt umber. A value scale means starting at white and mixing a tiny amount of your color into white creating different values (tones) of that color until you reach the color from the tube, then start adding your black mixture into it, until you reach black. I like using a 12 square scale - it tends to give you more than enough values to use in your painting. Raw Sienna helps to set charcoal so it doesn't smear into your painting. It also acts as a highlight when allowing your underpainting to show through to the surface of the final paint layer.
Wash your canvas....meaning, paint a thin layer of paint either acrylic or oil onto the entire surface of your canvas and let it dry before you begin. This helps to "mess up" the white canvas so it isn't so intimidating to make a mark on it. Painting on and ragging off the wash is a nice way to begin a portrait and adds interesting texture to the background. Oftentimes, this texture can be helpful to use in the portrait as well.
Using vine or willow charcoal, draw on the major features of your face to get the proportions correct. Do not create your face smaller than it is. Enlarging is always a good idea. Draw lightly. And, don't draw too much - afterall...it is a painting and not a drawing...
Blow off any excess dust from your charcoal. Begin filling in major shapes. Work from largest shapes to smallest shapes and work over the entire canvas at the same time. This means, don't get stuck in one area. If you are having problems with one area, move to another - usually this helps solve any issues you're fighting with. Work from large brushes to small brushes. Never start with details or you will paint yourself into a corner of misery.
If your paint gets too wet and it's difficult to put new information into the painting, stop and let it dry and come back to it.
After you have your major shapes in (this can also be considered color blocking), you can blend the edges of them together, or use a dry brush and "scumble" or scrub the paint together.
Walk back from your painting often. This helps to get a new perspective and see what is working and what isn't.
Photograph your painting with a digital camera if you have one. A camera can help fuse the shapes together and gives you an instant idea of what needs fixing or areas that are working perfectly. It also lets you know immediately where your value system is having problems and needs more work.
Build up your layers - "Fat over lean", start with thin layers of paint mixed with turpentine to block in your values. Slowly work thicker and thicker to attain details and texture.
Make sure your eyes aren't circles. You have eyelids, make sure they cover part of your eyeball.
Hair is a system of shapes, just like the face. Follow the shapes you see in your hair. And, make sure to leave enough room for your forehead.
General rule of backgrounds...they are usually darker on the side where the face is lighter and lighter where the face is darker. This will help to pop the face out with more dimension.
Don't forget your neck - same rules apply. Make sure to get the darkest shadows in to help pull your face forward.
The first self portrait you create will more than likely help to familiarize you with the process. It may not look much like you. It may end up looking like a mask, and that's ok. With practice, new skills are acquired which can't be taught. Painting is a process and the more you do it, the more you'll learn. Look forward to the "Aha!!" moments - they're what makes all the practice and mistakes worth it! And, if you ever feel like giving up and trashing your painting...wait a few days without looking at it, and come back to it.
Take photos of all of your work so you have something to look back at and see how far you have advanced over time.
For final layers of painting, I recommend Filbert paint brushes - they are great for blending.
Good luck! If you have any questions as you go, please leave me a message and I'll see if I can help!
Examples of Self Portrait Paintings
More by this Author
The Value Scale is the basis for all painting. This is an easy guide to get you started!
The difference between paint brushes
I've been teaching oil painting classes for about six years now. Every student has their strengths, but one thing that most of them have in common is they get stumped when it comes to which colors to use. This is a...