In the waning days of the self-isolation portion of our COVID program, I bought new glasses to replace the ones I’d broken near the end of March. I took a selfie and posted it on Instagram, complete with a goofy expression. Someone said, “you look like a caricature of yourself,” to which I replied, “I AM a caricature of myself.”
That planted the seed for this painting, although it became more of a self-portrait than caricature, with little exaggeration. My face just looks like that when I ham it up.
Isn’t Shonna a lucky lady?
Why do artists create self-portraits? That occurred to me while painting this.
Is it narcissism? Sure, that’s part of it. Though artists are notorious for self-criticism, we wouldn’t bother to put our creations out into the world without at least a little conceit.
Self-portraits are also about process and practice. I’ve painted caricatures and portraits of myself a few times over the past twenty years, mostly for promotional reasons.
It’s also a way to see the evolution of art skills, an exercise in progress, and an opportunity to poke a little fun at myself. And I’m a model who works cheap.
I paint portraits of people for my enjoyment, primarily characters from movies, though I have done one professional portrait commission of Canadian Paralympian Rick Hansen for Canadian Geographic Magazine. I only accepted that one because the editor’s proposed vision was clear, and he hired me because he liked all of my other portraits. I’m not actively seeking other such opportunities but never say never.
I know some excellent portrait photographers whose editing abilities are one of their most laudable skills.
It’s a common photography practice to augment reality by taking portraits using excellent lighting, backdrops, great gear and the all-important artistic eye. If a blemish can easily be removed, have at it. Nobody wants a head-shot, especially for business, that shows a pimple, stray hair, red eyes or deep shadows in undesirable places.
When it stops looking like the person, however, that’s a clear indication you’ve gone too far. A skilled portrait photographer knows just how far to take it without it becoming surreal. Unless of course, that’s what the artist is going for, which is a whole other realm of artistic expression.
It’s easy to spot those social media selfies where the result is more filters than photo because nobody looks like that in real life. The lines in our faces are part of who we are. We age, we weather, we’re asymmetrical and imperfect.
Even though we pretend to go along with the ruse, to obtain that perfect selfie, some take two dozen shots, fix their hair many times, change their shirt, apply makeup, filters, suck in their belly, adjusted the lighting, primp and preen, all to make it look like the photo was spontaneous.
The next time you see one of those serene-looking yoga poses, that meditative scene with bright sun rim lighting, in the mountains, by a river, or any other idyllic setting, take a moment to consider that they had to set up the camera and position themselves into the pose. Using either a timer or remote, they took the shot, went back to the camera or phone, checked the result, then repeated the process until they got the one that looked most like they had achieved nirvana and oneness with the universe.
The photo I used for reference for this painting had less than ideal lighting, my eyes were a little redder, I hadn’t shaved that day, and the background was my kitchen. But in the painting, I was careful to alter or improve only the things that I could do naturally in real life. Had I taken the shot following a better night’s sleep and after I’d put a razor to my face, it would look more like what you see here.
Naturally, it’s still a promotional painting and done in the same style I paint my animals and other portraits. It’s not supposed to look just like the photo, but it still needs to look like me.
Had I removed the grey or stray hairs from my beard, the lines in my face, or painted a perfectly coiffed hairstyle, I’d only be fooling myself, but not really.
While painting this portrait, I often forgot that it was me. It was just about getting the likeness right, the shape of the features, the values in the shadows and highlights.
Shonna is always my harshest critic. She can spot the flaws in my paintings, and it used to drive me nuts. I now brace myself before asking her opinion because she’s going to be honest. While it’s always frustrating, the nits she picks will usually result in a better-finished piece.
When I asked her about this portrait, her only critique was a structural problem with the bridge of my nose, easily fixed once I could see it. Other than that, I’m confident it’s me, or at least how she sees me.
While she liked this painting, she has suggested I should do another, one that shows my dark side, a glimpse of the inner demons with which we all wrestle. I told her I find that idea frightening, which she said was probably a good thing, kind of like art therapy.
Yet, one more reason for this artist to paint a self-portrait.