Create two interesting images of your own face. Don’t worry about producing an attractive or accurate likeness, the aim is to create a believable face with features in more or less the right place! Try to create several small studies before embarking on full self-portraits.
In this exercise I became aware very quickly how I usually draw from life. I like to look at the subject and the paper simultaneously. This isn’t possible for self-portraits and more use of visual memory is required. I found it incredibly difficult to hold a pose that was interesting and mostly I found myself reverting to the frown of concentration and the disconcerting stare (or glare)!! However here are my results.
These were not necessary small (ranging from A3 to A2 in size but they were done quickly in the spirit of investigating positions of facial features and areas of deep shadows and bright highlights which are crucial for creating a 3-dimensional face. I have divided these into two groups as i was unable to continue with the exercise after a few quick studies at my first attempt. The second sitting was completed about a week after the first sitting.
To loosen up I started with a quick study in black marker pen on a 12 inch stick. This was down with the drawing pad on the floor in front of a large mirror (i am kneeling). This meant that I managed to get a pose in which my head is slightly tilted forward which shortens the facial plane from brow to chin
The result is quite pleasing to me. Some of the main highlights have been preserved, although I have gone in too heavy with many of the lines around the mouth! I think that the proportions of the face are ok, given that it was a slightly foreshortened view, however, given this my skull line is probably a little small (although I do have a shorter forehead to hairline than average).
Next I tried a sideways pose in graphite. Here I am standing, holding the drawing pad in my left hand whilst drawing with my right.
I messed up my eyes here – the line isn’t quite right for the midline angle of the face, and I have made my left eye (left side) too big. I have also lost the highlights around the eyelids which are very important for believable eyes. The result is quite disconcerting!! I was concentrating hard (I couldn’t maintain a smile!!) but I don’t normally look quite this severe!
Next I wanted to try a different media – I do feel that graphite in my hands is quite ageing! So I chose to draw with a pigmented, water-soluble, sanguine graphite block from Art Graf. The idea behind this choice was to remove the temptations to add detail – it is very easy with a pointed drawing implement to get bogged down with the finer details. A block of pigment is not fine enough to allow this. I sprayed water onto areas of the paper and used the edge of the wet block to draw and spread the colour around.
Using the same pose as the previous drawing I got the line of the eyes right this time but not the line of the nose!! This distorts the face a little. I liked the less fussy nature of the drawing, and have managed to use the white paper as the highlights. The hair looks flat so more tonal variation is needed here. The other issue I have with this is the outline of the cheek and jaw on the right. The block was too chunky to make a fine outline. On reflection i could have got around this by making the line of the face a found edge against a darker background.
I tried this exercise again, this time looking straight ahead. I used compressed charcoal to experiment adding a little line detail to the drawing.
This isn’t me at all, but as a random person it does work as a believable face but not without faults. The hairline is too low and the eyes aren’t quite level. What I think has confused me is that my face has been turned to look directly in the mirror but my shoulders are still at an angle. However I also don’t seem to have a right ear which suggests that I turned my head back a little at the point I re-found the line of the cheek. The result is a hybrid of a straight on look and a slight turning away look.
I am pleased with the highlights on my left cheek and forehead. I tried to get some tonal value into the hair but have lost the really dark areas as a result. Perhaps I should have added more with the black charcoal as I have with the eyes, nose and mouth. The use of compressed charcoal has allowed more detail to be added (compare to the previous drawing) but it does cause some spontaneity to be lost.
At this point I was unable to continue with the next part of the exercise as planned.
At my second attempt to complete this exercise I reviewed all my drawings above before embarking on another couple of quick studies (to get me back into the swing so to speak). In order to loosen up I stuck my paper onto the mirror and drew my self in graphite using my left (non-dominant) hand.
This was an interesting experiment, not least because it was with my left hand, but also because I was drawing to the side of me (so I could see in the mirror by standing next to the paper). The result very much was that my whole face is skewed. If you look at the drawing from the side it is in fact a better representation of a person (even if it doesn’t look much like me!) – a sort of Holbein skull effect in his ‘The Ambassadors’ painting.
I repeated this exercise of sticking the paper actually on the mirror but this time drawing with my right, dominant hand and moving back in front of the paper for each mark. This meant I was very much having to remember the image I was trying to copy. I couldn’t look from one to the other as you can in the object is behind your paper is some fashion. The result was very different and once again, it isn’t a portrait of me!! I have a believable person, although those eyes are still wrong (too close together I think) but it’s not a good likeness. I quite like the tension I have created in the neck with the twist of the head, but the fine line of the jaw above the neck on the right side has been lost, resulting in a thicker but flatter area of the drawing.
I needed to move on from the quick drawings and do my two longer poses. All my quick drawings had been done in front of a large mirror on our landing. it has the advantage of being large so poses aren’t a problem but it is very near the top of the stairs so moving back isn’t really possible, also the landing is quite dark with an overhead bulb. This means the lighting isn’t brilliant and tonal variation can be hard to see. In order to get some greater contrasts for the longer poses I took an oval dressing-table mirror down onto the kitchen table next to the back door on a very sunny day. With some careful positioning of my easel I was able to capture some poses with greater definition of tonal areas. The downside was that the mirror was quite small.
I decided to include some of my body in this drawing, to try to put a narrative to my drawing. I am very aware that my quick studies above really ignored the room that I was standing in. I decided to draw the whole mirror image although simplifying the background (the kitchen door). I didn’t want to confuse the background behind the mirror itself so blacked the surroundings in.
I am pleased with the outcome of this drawing in the sense that it has narrative and possibly humour. I found that having my body in the image gave me a reference point to return to as I peeked out from behind the easel to look in the mirror so it was easier to map out the drawing and return to the correct pose. However it isn’t a great likeness. I still haven’t got my eyes right! The line is very slightly off and the right eye marginally too small and too close to the left. it is definitely harder to move on from drawing individual body parts to the face as a whole. All the features need to be drawn from exactly the same viewpoint. Tiny variations in alignment really stand out and distort the face.
I am pleased with the tonal variations in my hair by I haven’t observed the line of the light correctly – as such I have the illusion of waves but the direction of the hair comes out wrong making the back of my head look a little too big. I find that whist drawing individual hairs is not recommended, unruly hair such as mine requires a certain amount of direction drawn into it for it to look realistic. With charcoal it is easier to draw the hair in then remove streaks to get the highlights in.
For my second pose I chose to do a more traditional head and shoulder pose, but with me leaning back against the door frame looking down. I chose to draw in pen and ink, but at the last-minute panicked that there is no way I could do that and maintain the pose so changed my mind to a light sketch outline in graphite, with blocking in tonal areas with an ink was afterwards. I had come across work by Mark Horst in the research exercise leading up to this set of exercises and liked the way he uses ink for tonal variations with a little line added to ground the portrait.
Of all the self-portraits I have done, this is the one that my family says has the best likeness to me. My children have all mentioned over the last week or so of doing these that I don’t look nearly as old or as scary as some of my images portray! I still haven’t got my eyes right in this drawing, but the actual proportions of my features are better in this attempt. I have lost some of the highlights on my eyelids here (I did try to take some of the ink out of the left eyelid to improve this, with some success). I also failed to get highlights on my hair (let down for this exercise) in a convincing manner. I am pleased with my found edge for the left side of my neck by adding a very light wash to the background. I concentrated so hard on my face that I neglected my clothing and the result is a bit of a mess, especially on the right hand side. here my shoulder line has got a little muddled as sometimes I stood back whist still had my arm outstretched. The lines that you can see are actually the line of my clothing but it comes across as my shoulder twisted forward. There was more of a shadow on the door post, created by my head. That has got a bit lost with my hair.
Overall self-portraits are a hard thing to do. Not only do you have to find ways to deal with not being able to see yourself and the paper at the same time (or at least not in the same relationship as you do with something such as a still life) but you also have to deal with the fact that your images may be very unattractive! For me I definitely found that my drawings in graphite were very harsh and unforgiving – I was told I don’t look that severe and cross by some very good judges – my family! I enjoy working with the more fluid mediums such as pigment and water, or ink, but they are harder to control – rubbing out is not an option. The highlights on a portrait are so important to give the 3-dimensionality of a face you really do need to map these out carefully so not to destroy them. Taking it slow and planning/marking out however can work against you in that it can remove the spontaneous energy of a drawing.