A Guide to Painting a Self-Portrait From Life

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Painting a self-portrait from life can be a powerful addition to your art practice. Throughout art history, many artists including Rembrandt, Velasquez, Sargent, van Gogh, Kahlo, and Freud, have all painted several self-portraits throughout their careers. Painting a self-portrait at least once a year is a fantastic way to practice and experiment with new techniques, without the pressure of creating anything for anyone else. It’s been a beneficial way for me to document my artistic and technical abilities. In this article, I will share some tips on setting up a space to paint a self-portrait from life, techniques used, and some guides on getting a likeness of the subject.



A Guide to Painting a Self-Portrait From Life

You may ask yourself “Why bother painting from life, why can’t I just use a photo?” Well to that I say, the beauty of painting from life is to capture life, movement, light, and colour. A painting from life can capture hours of moments, it holds within it a beauty that breathes life and movement into an artwork. Photography can be a useful tool for the painter, however, I invite you to give painting from life a go.



Materials for Painting a Self-Portrait

The process I will share with you is using oil paints. I use a Zorn palette of Ivory Black, Cadmium Red Light, Yellow Ochre, and Titanium White, with the addition of Ultramarine Blue to make stronger blues and purples.




You’ll need a mirror, easel, and a light source whether it be a lamp or natural light, and you can either stand or sit depending on the space you have. Often sitting is great as you can mark out the chair which helps keep your positioning consistent, however, make sure you take breaks to stand back from your painting at times to check your overall painting/drawing.



Things to Consider Before Getting Started

Consider what you’re wearing. A particular item of clothing, a hat, or piece of jewellery, can all help tell a story or narrative. Self-portraits are often the most personal and most vulnerable paintings an artist can create. Think of Lucien Freud’s Painter Working, Reflection, 1993 where Freud paints himself nude. Painting a self-portrait is a brave act in which we put ourselves on the canvas instead of always being behind it. Maybe your painting is just to practice techniques, or maybe it’s to express emotions, all these motivations can affect the outcome of the work.



Make sure you play around with your light source, move around, move the mirror around, find interesting shadows or light shapes on your face, and be happy with your setup before starting. Taking this time to play can help you avoid being three hours in and realising the pose, lighting, or shadows could have been more interesting another way.


Self-Portrait Painting Stages

Start by toning your canvas. Toning a canvas means creating an initial thin layer of a fairly neutral colour on the canvas that will be underneath your painting so that no white canvas will show through. I use a mix of Ivory Black, Cadmium Red Light, and Yellow Ochre with a touch of solvent however Raw Umber is also a great traditional colour to start with.


Painting a Self-Portrait


I use a thinner mix of Ivory Black and Cadmium Red Light to draw/sketch with. The most important thing is to look and observe. You should spend more time looking and mixing than painting. Painting from life is all about observation. To start my drawing I use a wet brush (with paint) and a dry brush (no paint) to sketch. I use the dry brush to correct marks and the wet brush to apply them. I start by marking out the top of the head and the bottom of the chin, thinking about the angle of the head. I then added the sidelines to make a box the shape of my head. Think about this box as the basis of your head shape, do you have a long face? Or wide? It’s an important first step. Placing this box on the canvas is also an important stage, try not to paint too close to the edges of your canvas, nor too high or low.


Painting a Self-Portrait


Think about the angle of the box (your head), this will help to depict the gesture of which you are posing, sometimes I place a middle line down the box to cement and hold on to this gesture. Gesture is really important and exaggerating it can be a beautiful way to enhance your painting.


Painting a Self-Portrait


Finding The Likeness

Once your box is in place and the gesture figured out, it’s time to roughly mark out the features of the face. Halfway down the box, I mark out the bottom of the eye socket, halfway below that, I place a line for the bottom of the nose, halfway below that line, I place a mark for the bottom of the top lip, and lastly halfway below that, the shadow under the bottom lip. These are placements of the features and will move based on your pose, but they are a great stepping-stone to getting started. I then find the top of the eyebrow and the connection between the nose and the top of the eyebrow. Now these are in place I sketch out the “five essential darks” which are the two eye sockets, the shadow of the nose, the top lip, and the shadow below the bottom lip. Using more dramatic Chiaroscuro lighting makes it a lot easier to find these shapes, making it easier to find a likeness.



Once you’re happy with these shapes, block them all in with a general dark value; I tend to use my drawing colour to block in this stage. Keep them all the same value, colour, and temperature at this stage. Once blocked in you can continue to correct them with your dry brush until you’re happy. Ask yourself do the eye sockets look big enough? Does the light space between my nose and lips look big enough? Is there enough space for the forehead and chin? Compare all these light/dark shapes to each other and keep correcting until you’re happy. At this point, you also want to sketch in the hair or hat, find the shapes of the ears, and other features. During this stage, you want to still keep everything very geometric and blocky. Keeping your drawing simple at this stage will also mean you’ll be willing to move and change it at any point. If you overdraw an eye or ear and you’re happy with it, but it’s in the wrong place, you’re more likely to change everything else to suit that one feature, but each feature should be at a similar point and vagueness at this stage so you can keep correcting and moving the shapes around to find the likeness.



Building Up The Lights

The forehead is a great place to start as it’s a large flat plane and often has the lightest value, so you can start building up the paint here and experimenting with finding the colours of your face, then move down towards the cheeks/side of the face/chin once you’re happy with the forehead. Remember, at all times we’re still finding the likeness. Keep brush marks big and simple to begin with and slowly work smaller and smaller throughout the painting. It’s also a good time to start sculpting out the head shape using the background colour. The shape of your head, or anyone’s head, is also an important part of the likeness. If you walk behind your friend or family member you often know it’s them due to the shape of their head, so keep this in mind when painting yourself from life. The biggest mistake I see when students of mine are learning to paint portraits or figures, is the overuse of white to lighten the value of a colour. White is cold so it will make the temperature of the face cold. Be careful with using it to lighten, often you will need to warm up the lighter values with Yellow Ochre or Cadmium Red Light as well, to keep the warm temperatures of the face.


Painting a Self-Portrait


Spend time in the lights before you go back into your darks. Remember your dark shapes are what helped you to find the likeness and the drawing so keeping them simple sometimes is all you need to have a great self-portrait. Slowly move into them and remember that they’re in the darker areas of value so don’t over-lighten or over-whiten. A good tip is, whatever is within the dark of the eye sockets won’t be as light as any of the lights on the face. The whites of your eyes aren’t that white at all, and your eye sockets are quite dark so keep this in mind.



At this stage you will spend hours, days, and months, going around each area of the portrait. Remember to think about the starting stages at all times whilst continuing to move ahead, think about your gesture, and the top and bottom marks of the head. You can always add in drawing lines or accents to help. Think about the five essential darks, sometimes actually unifying these back, taking two steps back will help you move two steps forward. That’s the beauty of oil paint, its ability to be scraped back, sculpted, pushed, and pulled to suit the artist’s needs. The values are the most important thing, the relationship between light and dark. You can also practice by doing a grisaille self-portrait before doing a full-colour painting, or even do a master copy study before tackling a self-portrait from life so you can get a hang of the colour mixing and the measurements of a portrait.


Painting a Self-Portrait


Finishing Up

If you decide to continue your painting another day you’ll need some tips on getting back into the same position. When painting from life, you want to get yourself back into the same position and conditions as the previous session. Firstly, mark out your feet placement with masking tape, your chair placement (if seated), mirror placement, and anything that will or can move. If you place a small amount of tape on the object it will help you reset yourself up. You can also take photos of your setup to help you recreate it.


Painting a Self-Portrait


The most important thing when painting from life is to enjoy the process, we may make a brushmark here or there that may “ruin” a shape or colour but keep pushing ahead, with each mistake we are about to make the correct brush mark. Learning to enjoy the mistakes and mishaps will make you a better artist. That is why painting a self-portrait from life is so enjoyable. It gives you the space and time to make mistakes, to play, to experiment, to learn, and to enjoy the process.




Further Reading

Preparatory Drawing Methods for Painting

Recreating Philip Guston’s Grimy Pink Palette

Colour Mixing: Exploring the Zorn Palette

The Relationship Between the Artist and Their Materials


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