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Sunday, 23 November 2014





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Creating a self-portrait thru related medium

I intend to demonstrate the techniques of portraiture through the art of the self-portrait. I primarily concentrate on watercolour my favourite medium, but intend to introduce a series of work through related media such as pencils, ink, chalks and pastels.

Creating a self-portrait begins with a short introduction looking at the history of it and the work of some of the world's most famous artists.

Artists always reflect themselves in their paintings if not in self-portraits, then in the mood and colour schemes of their work. This series of articles is dedicated to all artists, and amateurs and to the art of self-portrait.

For millions, self-portraits have been of great interest to viewers and painters alike. For the spectator, they can provide a marvellous insight into the character of artists and also into their art itself, as the work of old masters, such as Rembrandt, William Bowyer and Graham Sutherland in 1903.


For artists, the attraction of the self-portrait includes the fact that it enables them to paint from life without hiring a model or being limited by time other than their own. In a studio, if an artist hasn't got a sitter, he will either paint a still life or a self-portrait. Self-portrature is also the best way of learning how to depict the human face and in a range of media and styles.

Diana Armfield's self-portrait in a landscape in pastel.

What I feel most strongly about in self-portraiture is that the artist must be honest in his vision. Only by being objective will you understand how to depict yourself. This will also enable you, later to paint the portraits of other people convincingly.


Self-portraiture has existed at least since the ancient Egyptians, when a few artists in the middle of the second millennium BC were sculpting narrative reliefs on tomb walls and adding their self-portraits to the carvings some of which were later painted.

Much later, Roman artists were painting portraits on to wood panels, canvas and walls. Although no identifiable self-portraits remain, undoubtedly some were painted. During the European Dark Ages, the light of culture was shining bright in the East. In China, Wang Hsi-Chi, a calligrapher, is documented as having painted his portrait with the aid of a mirror.

But secular paintings were frequently destroyed by succeeding dynasties and unfortunately the self-portrait no longer exists. However, later self-portraits are extant, many of them painted in watercolour, ink and wash.


The earliest traceable two dimensional self-portraits in Europe are illuminated manuscripts. Painters soon found another means of introducing themselves into their work. In their images of St Luke painting the Virgin, artists frequently depicted themselves St Luke, their patron saint. One of the first painters known to do this was the Netherlandish artist Rogier Vander Weyden. Other artists were incorporating their images into paintings of a more secular nature. In the 16th century mirrors were first made from glass backed with a mercury. This gave a better reflection than the metal mirrors that had been used until then.

At the same time, there was a greater appreciation of the creative powers of artists, which coincided with a widespread cult of the ego and glorification of the individual.

Perhaps because of these factors, artists were more aware of themselves than before and that period saw a rapid increase in the amount of self-portraits produced. It is surprising that the two of the most prolific Renaissance artists, Leonado da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) have left us with very little.

Michelangelo left only two identifiable self-portraits, one of which is quite startling. It is the scene of the "Last Judgment, on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

At the same time Michelangelo produced a paint of his reflection in a convex mirror in 1525 and used it to promote himself as an artist.

It was not until Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rign (1606-69) that self-portrature really became an art form in its own right.

Women artists

After Rembrandt, almost every successful artist painted a self-portrait. In Spain, Velazquez (1509-1660) painted Las Menin as showing himself at work at an easel.

One of the few women artists of the time, Marie-Antoinette's favourite portraitist, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) was also producing self-portraits. In England there were no great English-born portrait painters until the 1740s.

Sir Peter Lely a court painter of Netherlandish origin painted formal self-portraits. Later artists such as William Hogarth painted relaxed, almost unflattering self-portraits.

In North America, the first generation of American born portrait painters were working at this time. They included Robert Feke (1705-1750) and Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) whose self-portraits were in the tradition of the English painters.

In the 19th century, self-portraits became increasingly subjective. The advent of the camera furthered this trend and also enabled artists to see not a mirror image, but now they looked to others.

Every artist has his own way of analysing the self-image and expressing individuality.

Observe the landscape shown here. Its a self-portrait in a landscape done in pastel. A self-portrait does not have to be done in a studio, staring at your reflection in a mirror. You can do it almost anywhere as this lovely pastel done by Diana Armsfield shows. She has used a tree in the image, with her skirt blowing.

There is a good sense of the movement of the wind. The whole image is held together by the L-shape.

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