Oil Painting Lessons- Paint the Self Portrait

The Self Portrait

"Self Portrait" by Lucien Freud
"Self Portrait" by Lucien Freud

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

Angle your mirror so you can get a front facing portrait.  Use a strong light to create contrast (lots of dark shadows, lots of highlights)
Angle your mirror so you can get a front facing portrait. Use a strong light to create contrast (lots of dark shadows, lots of highlights)
This is a sample of facial proportions.  This is an average head, most people are similar to this, though there can be some differences.  Notice how far down the eyes begin, the space between the nose and lips and the space between the lips and chin.
This is a sample of facial proportions. This is an average head, most people are similar to this, though there can be some differences. Notice how far down the eyes begin, the space between the nose and lips and the space between the lips and chin.

Examples of Student Self Portraits

Beginning to paint under color mapping out values in Raw Sienna.
Beginning to paint under color mapping out values in Raw Sienna.
A little further along...still sculpting in value scales.
A little further along...still sculpting in value scales.
Same student as above.  This is their first try.
Same student as above. This is their first try.
First self-portrait - underpainting.  It is missing it's darkest values/black
First self-portrait - underpainting. It is missing it's darkest values/black
Final painting.  This painting looks good for a first time try.  However, look at the brushstrokes - Larger shapes show more confidence and a more solid painting rather than all the little brushstrokes used.
Final painting. This painting looks good for a first time try. However, look at the brushstrokes - Larger shapes show more confidence and a more solid painting rather than all the little brushstrokes used.

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

Black and White underpainting (Grisaille) Look at the shapes painted using a value scale
Black and White underpainting (Grisaille) Look at the shapes painted using a value scale
Black and White underpainting (Grisaille) Look at the shapes painted using a value scale
Black and White underpainting (Grisaille) Look at the shapes painted using a value scale
This is a finished painting.  The shapes are interesting and there's a wide variety of values in the face.
This is a finished painting. The shapes are interesting and there's a wide variety of values in the face.
This is a finished painting.  The shapes are interesting and there's a wide variety of values in the face.  This is an excellent first painting!
This is a finished painting. The shapes are interesting and there's a wide variety of values in the face. This is an excellent first painting!
This is a series of 3 attempts on the same canvas.  This first one I was not a fan of at all...I thought it was boring and not really "me"...It's also too refined/blended.  Since I'm not a beginner, I wanted to experiment.  I let this sit in the corn
This is a series of 3 attempts on the same canvas. This first one I was not a fan of at all...I thought it was boring and not really "me"...It's also too refined/blended. Since I'm not a beginner, I wanted to experiment. I let this sit in the corn
This is what it looked like when I painted over it with a palette knife.  I still didn't like it very much - it was "in the middle" neither one style or another...  So I continued...
This is what it looked like when I painted over it with a palette knife. I still didn't like it very much - it was "in the middle" neither one style or another... So I continued...
This is a blurry picture of the final painting.  I still used all of the methods of value scale, shapes and color blocking to create this piece.  It also took a tremendous amount of patience.  I'm pretty happy with the final work. The face is abstrac
This is a blurry picture of the final painting. I still used all of the methods of value scale, shapes and color blocking to create this piece. It also took a tremendous amount of patience. I'm pretty happy with the final work. The face is abstrac

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Comments 23 comments

HubCrafter profile image

HubCrafter 6 years ago from Arizona

Hi Laura:

(Lost my text when I went to Google Search for the correct spelling of Chocquet, as in, Portrait of Victor Chocquet, by Cezanne.)

Anyway. I was mentally comparing the Freud with the Cezanne.

The Freud background is too distracting. The face is a marvel of angles and chunky designs. The main ground is typical brown mud and greys to match the portrait. But I hate the added brushwork over the right shoulder. It's bright, simplistic simple brushstrokes have no relation to the palette knife face. They distract, becoming too emphatic. They are surely too...too...and that's it. They do not play second fiddle. They prance to the viewers attention like solos. Out with the second fiddles!

And why this right angled turn behind the head? Bah. Humbug.

Be a fish. Be a bird. But bird-fish don't fly, don't swim.

The tone and color of the ground is fine. If it's gotta fly then it's like a ground in a Cezanne still life. It's a jig-saw puzzle related to the main image; the shapes of their parts; whether by harmony or contrast, the pieces of the puzzle gotta work together to make a whole.

The ground here is like a Rembrandt. Muddy, ruddy and brown. Why's he messin with it?

I can't get the face done without flickering back into that background. It just doesn't lay down. It jumps up to the surface. It's like somebody came in later and messed with it. You could go unrelenting black and I would be happier.

Your last image, the final version of self portrait.

Are you comfortable with abstraction? You seem to be representational. Without the palette knife it looks Greek. Full frontal. Large eyes. Prominent earings. Contrasting, darker ear tone to frame the face.

I'd flip it upside down and work the shapes...to make it more abstract, break up the planes more...I like jewel tones myself...tiny little jewels to pull the detail seeking eye....just two cents from a guy who doesn't even paint.

No. I do, I guess. I paint on my photos now. Most folks don't notice it.

Hey. I've been rambling; probably made you unhappy by talking without all the embroidery of courtesy. You know. The essentials of well-oiled conversation. It's hard to talk about things like art as if they were just things. sorry. under-socialized and over-talker that's me.

HubCrafter


IslandVoice profile image

IslandVoice 6 years ago from Hawaii

Bravo! Thanks for such a thorough and informative hub on a subject i am so curious about. Well done! I do digital photography and has done a couple of self portraits. I want to try using acrylic.


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

IslandVoice,

Thank you! The same rules apply for acrylic as for oil. Acrylic is a bit more forgiving because it dries quickly and you can just paint right over it. Good luck!

And, thanks for stopping by!


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

HubCrafter,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope that as an instructional hub, that everyone who visits learns something. And, I certainly hope with all of the information you have to offer, that you also give it a go - and make your own self-portrait one day! Cheers!


antonrosa profile image

antonrosa 6 years ago from USA

Very impressive, thanks for sharing!


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Thanks antonrosa! Glad you stopped by!


LindaKay profile image

LindaKay 6 years ago

I learned quite a bit from this hub. Thank you muchly.


RosWebbART profile image

RosWebbART 6 years ago from Ireland

Great hub; great skill.


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

LindaKay - You are VERY welcome! Good luck!

RosWebbART - Thank you very much!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Wow, Laura, you really give full, well thought out instructions here. You make it seem like anybody can paint a self portrait. It would be fun to create a self portrait to use as an avatar here on HubPages!


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Thanks Dolores! I do think anybody can do it - it just takes some patience and practice. It would make for a great avatar. if you get some extra time, I encourage it! If you try it, just go slow and don't get stuck in one spot!


tim-tim profile image

tim-tim 6 years ago from Normal, Illinois

Wow! You are a wonderful artrist! Love it. Thanks.


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Thank you tim-tim! Thanks for stopping by!!


free-recipesnow 6 years ago

Hmm

Very Nice i like this very much


dnrkrishnan25 6 years ago

interesting...


Suki C profile image

Suki C 6 years ago from Andalucia, Spain

Fascinating hub - I'd love to try this!!


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

free-recipesnow & dnrkishnan25 - Thanks for stopping by. I hope it is inspiring for you!

Suki C - Thanks! I hope you do - let me know how it turns out for you! Cheers.


MCWebster profile image

MCWebster 6 years ago

Very informative hub!


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Thanks MCWebster!


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 6 years ago from Australia

You have some great tips there. I love doing portrait work.


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Thanks Manna - I found a fantastic website today that I'd love to share with painters... http://www.tadspurgeon.com/

It's not necessarily about portraits, but he has some really interesting techniques listed. Always good to meet other artists practicing their craft! Cheers.


ramnarayan1 profile image

ramnarayan1 5 years ago from INDIA

thanks for your this hub.pls suggest me how to paint portraits.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia

laura - that web site is brilliant. I have a 25Kg bag of calcium at home... guess what that's going to become. Yup. Putty.

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