Part 3, project 2, exercise 1: Looking at faces – self-portrait

Updated on 10 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and changes to content).

4 August 2016. I will need to set up my easel in our small shower room, there are no other suitable mirrors in our house. Sounds like fun, not quite looking forward to spending so much time in that room. On the other hand, thinking of claustrophobia and inadequate lighting I might be able to convey an atmosphere containing a certain amount of suspense. I have been thinking of painting not just my self-portrait, but me looking into the mirror from the side while painting the self-portrait. Will see whether I am able to do this and therefore off to some research about this type of indirect self-portrait (Collins, n.d.).

5 August 2016. It is hard to believe, but the surviving record of painted self-portraiture starts as late as the 15th century with the ingenious Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441, Netherlands) (Jones, 2002). His famous Arnolfini portrait (Fig. 1), for example, contains, in a mirror behind the portrayed couple, a tiny representation of himself. This conceptual trick provides a link with the real world in a fictitious environment (Jones, 2002):

Figure 1. Jan van Eyck: “Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and His Wife” (detail), 1434, oil on oak panel. Source: Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441) [Public domain] via The National Gallery

A hundred years later a similar idea – reality mingling with fiction by the presence of the painter and the mirror image on the back wall –  forms part of Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velásquez’s (1599-1660) masterpiece  “Las Meninas” (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Diego Velásquez: “Las Meninas”, 1656-57, oil on canvas. Source: Diego Velásquez (1599-1660) [Public domain] via Wkimedia Commons
This approach of using a convex mirror to include more than juts the artist’s face but the environment he is working in, has been popular throughout the ages, see also 20th century painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939, UK) (Art History Today, 2009) (Fig. 3):

Figure 3. Mark Gertler: “Still Life With Self-Portrait”, 1918, oil on canvas (?). Source: Mark Gertler (1891-1939) [Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988] via Art UK
Since the approach to solving the problem of how to include a truthful likeness of the artist seems to have been mirrors for a very long time due to a lack of other devices, I decided that I would jump to the increasing possibilities derived from the advent of more modern materials and imaging systems.

The stunning effect of using a mirror in a self-portrait in an unconventional way can be seen in the brilliant photo “Invisible” by Laura Williams (*1995, UK). To transport this effect into a painting has certain obstacles regarding the use of brushes and seeing one’s own face while holding the mirror, so this may not be readily feasible.

Looking for more feasible options in environments close to my own idea I quickly came across a self-portrait done by Jenny Saville (*1970, UK) in her bathroom in 1991. I am always amazed at the casual naturalness some artists have in approaching their own body and I envy this grace. Still, the setup of this self-portrait is “conventional” insofar as no indirect source of information is included. Of course, there are several kinds of indirect self-portraits, of which Tracy Emin’s (*1963, UK) “My bed” (Emin, 1998) is particularly talkative, but I am quite sure that this is not what is expected from us at this point of the course.

I had a concluding look at lots of conventionally set up self-portraits done by other contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol (1928-1987, USA) Kear, 2015), Chuck Close (*1940, USA) (Artaic, 2016), Scott Rasmann (*?, USA) (Rasmann, 1999), Daniel Lumbini (*1978, UK) ((Lumbini, n.d.), which I liked a lot!) as well as John Singer Sargent via a John Myatt video (The ArtyBartfast, 2012), a wonderful early work by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959, UK) (1914) (Day, 2013 and Fig. 4 below) as well as an uncanny picture by Johannes Kahrs (*1965, Germany) (Schwabsky, 2002).

Figure 4. Stanley Spencer: “Self-portrait”, oil on canvas, 1914. Source: Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
With all these wildly different viewpoints and ideas at the back of my mind I realise that there is no other way to myself than my own and there is no shortcut. Which takes me back to my reluctance here. As long as there is a message I want to convey that has nothing to do with me as a person, I am quite fearless, but as soon as I need to have a closer look at what I am, there is a complete change. So, my idea of leaving the bathroom in semi-darkness with light coming only from behind me through the door (no window in this room, hence the claustrophobia), setting up the easel with my back to the door, there is a very interesting and disturbing distribution of light both in the room, leaving most of my face in darkness. This is what I will go for. Hiding for a good cause ;o).

7 August 2016. It took me two days to come up with a result and, not surprisingly, the bad lighting conditions caused problems. So I produced three investigatory sketches, one ink pen sketch to get accustomed to the setup and the rough overall distribution of tonal values, another one with my wonderful new artist’s quality Schmincke paint and some aluminium foil, another one using monochrome watercolour to have a look at my face. The exercise itself I completed on my 36 x 48 cm 420 g acrylic paper. Here is the sequence (Fig. 5-7):

Figure 5. Sketchbook: ink pen sketch
Figure 6. Sketchbook: preliminary acrylics painting on A4 paper and aluminium foil
Figure 7. A3 watercolour self-portrait

I was extremely happy to have done the preliminary investigation, otherwise it would have become very difficult to make the painting in the dim light.
For the finished piece I prepared a black and brown background, to which I glued another piece of aluminium foil, but this time with the reverse, matt, side up. Then I prepared a thin glace of bluish and light violet to allow light into the room. The actual mirror image I painted mostly on the foil. This is the result (Fig. 8):

Figure 8. Finished painting – acrylics on A3 paper and aluminium foil

There are many details I would need to improve to make this painting more than a sketch, but although in the final piece my face was much smaller (about 6 cm in size) than in the above watercolour sketch, I managed to get the main features correct, in particular the tonal values were mostly fine despite the darkness. I know that both the white of the eyes and lips would be darker in real life, but I liked the strange effect both of them had and decided that I would leave them as they were. I also like the effect the aluminium foil has, I believe that it helps to make the mirror image somewhat believable.
Here are two details I am very happy with – the T-shirt and the towel – and, since this exercise is about portraiture after all, my face (Fig. 9-11):

Figure 9. Detail of finished painting
Figure 10. Detail of finished painting
Figure 11. Detail of finished painting

The Schmincke paint is quite incredibly good, I could not believe my eyes. It was so easy to blend, so smooth and effortless to spread even with the smallest brush I have and I hardly used any paint. I have read one or two warnings regarding student quality acrylic paint and I have used the highest quality Schmincke watercolour paint for almost 20 years now, but somehow it took me four years to realise how big the difference in acrylics really is. On the other hand, in the few week-long courses I had taken over the years no one ever mentioned the quality problem, they just told us to get big bottles of whatever we could get hold of, since it was to be experimentation only and a waste of money to buy any better. Never mind, I found out for myself and to get started I will switch to smaller size canvasses, until I can handle the properties of the new colours with confidence. Also, before it was hardly possible to paint on small size canvasses, because I was simply unable to use small brushes, they would get clogged with paint, which would be dry the next minute.
I am immensely happy to have tried out the better quality, it makes the world of a difference to the outcome and to the joy of painting. Looking forward to seeing what I can do with them.

9 August 2016. Just noticed that I forgot to answer the set questions on p. 65 of the study guide:

  1. I am not sure whether the likeness is good. My husband tells me otherwise, but when I look at the paintings, both watercolour and acrylics, and compare them with self-portraits I did during Drawing 1, I get the impression that I really see myself that way. The outward likeness is probably better in the watercolour painting, also because the acrylic version is to small. I will produce a true self-portrait in the next exercise, where we are asked to paint a head and shoulder portrait, and compare that with the rest.
  2. There were no parts of the face I thought were more difficult than others, but I have been practicing painting and drawing portraits for a long time now, as part of my work as a caricaturist, where simplification is essential.
  3. By switching to high quality paint a lot of technical problems I used to experience (as described above) did not occur at all. I had to get used to wearing my reading glasses for painting, because of having chosen dim lighting conditions. There were surprisingly few problems overall.


Artaic (2016) Chuck Close: Mosaic Artist [online]. Artaic, Boston. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.) Self-portraits [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Day, T. (2013) Self-portraits: Stanley Spencer [blog] [online]. The Art Room

Emin, T. (1998) My Bed [frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects] [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Gertler, M. (1918) Still Life with Self Portrait [n.k.] [online]. Leeds Art Gallery. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Jones, S. (2002) Jan van Eyck [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Kear, J. (2015) Andy Warhol: Self-portrait, 1986 [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Lumbini, D. (n.d.) Self-portrait (not photorealistic) [n.k.] [online]. 5 Pieces Gallery, Bern. Available at:

Rasmann, S. (1999) 24″H x 15″W [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Saville, J. (1991) Self-portrait [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Schwabsky, B. (2002) Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting. Phaidon Press, pp. 164-165

Spencer, S. (1914) Self-portrait [oil on canvas] [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 10 March 2017]

TheArtyBartfast (2012) The Forger’s Masterclass – Ep.08 – John Singer Sargent [online]. The ArtyBartfast. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Van Eyck, J, (1434) Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and His Wife” (detail) [oil on oak panel] [online]. The National Gallery, London. Available at: [Accessed 10 March 2017]

Velásquez, D. (1656-57) Las Meninas [oil on canvas] [online]. Museo del Prado, Madrid.  Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]

Williams, L. (2013) Invisible [photograph] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2016]



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