Why I Hate Self-Portraits

Norman Rockwell's layered self-portrait

Honestly, I think a lot of artists struggle with the process of it. And yet so many people want us to do it. Maybe it’s the “you’re your own worst critic” thing, because you know how picky a regular model can get. Or maybe it’s our glasses – heavily colored by our own mental self-image that the physical can’t begin to recreate. In most cases even those who pull a self-portrait off have a very strong mood or message in them. You can tell a lot about the artist by how they choose to portray themselves. Even if they’re not overly “realistic”.

But then again, it could just be me.

Possibly my biggest problem is finding a photo that I can look at and concede, yes – that’s me. Half the pictures of me, I can’t help but cringe at. I know camera’s are deemed pretty solid evidence, but even so, if I hadn’t been there myself, I don’t think I would believe it. I have the same problem with tape recorders. I absolutely hate hearing the sound of my own voice played back to me.

Well, those who follow my posts might remember my January Report where I posted a bunch of artwork that I was doing for an Elven Anthology to be published by Port Yonder. So, eventually they informed us that they wanted bios for all of us to put in the book, but instead of photos, they wanted drawings – self portraits.

Now… why in the world did I ever sign up for it again? Somehow it had already  snowballed into more than I anticipated. But to tack this on as a final project? I felt like I was back in college and I had just been slapped with the final project.

But then again, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe… just maybe, I was psyching myself out over no big deal.

… or so I told myself.

Truth to be told, it was worse – much worse.

You see, one of the advantages of drawing fictional characters – particularly my own – is that they never complain. Now my Husband has often contested that he envisioned some of them much differently than I, but in the end, I have the indisputable final say. Granted, sometimes I’m not overly satisfied and eventually do it over. However, as opinionated as some of them are, the subject of the portrait doesn’t get much of a say and has never actually even seen the work. So there is no break down of tears, angry words or scarred feelings of self-worth.

And in terms of real people – yes, I have drawn some. For the most part they were all well received. I did have one that I was deemed as having totally missed portraying the person accurately, but all in all that case had been under rather limited resources and a long story.

So I started off hopeful with high aspirations, using a photo that all in all I actually liked. It’s not like I didn’t have the skills to do a decent job. I drew on my past for confidence and set myself to the task.  However, please note… I started it back in February. To this day, even friends and family closest to me were not aware of me doing a self-portrait, let alone seen it and I certainly haven’t mentioned it on here. That’s no coincidence, believe me.

When one’s self is both the model and the artist … it’s a whole different ball game. What once was simply a “I can do better than that” now becomes… “I deserve better than that…” and guilt ensues.

I think one of the real low points was when a good friend came over and I showed her the drawing (without telling her who it was or showing the starting picture). She decided it was either a young boy or an old woman…

You can bet I lost eagerness for the project real fast as fears, doubts and that confounded perfectionist came to peer over my shoulder. So it sat on my desk and I glared at it, picking at it only occasionally. Then in March, morning sickness hit and I really lost interest. With how miserable I was for a while, I didn’t dare touch it and probably even hated it being there. Something about nausea just doesn’t help one feel … um, attractive.

Even after I started feeling better, I just let it sit there collecting dust. I tried to ignore the nagging thought of the inevitable deadline. I toyed with the idea of just being the odd man out who didn’t have a picture. After all, the important thing was the illustrations and I had done those, right? I certainly had plenty of excuses.

Then the fateful e-mail came… the hard deadline to have all artwork turned in. I had two days left.

I sank into self-inflicted despair. I had forced myself to the wire still undecided. Should I just try to make do and finish the one I started? Do I try to do a quick sketch from scratch in the time left? Or do I cop-out?

In the end, it was very much a resigned, “I said I would do it so I will.” So I took a deep breath, pulled down the drawing pad and blew the dust off of it. I really didn’t have a better photo or any more promising ideas so I continued on with what I had.

With drawing real people, there is always one feature that makes or breaks the person. And it is different with each person. That’s the foundation of caricatures. The idea of taking those particular features and blowing them way out of scale. For one it’s ears, another their nose, for some lucky people it’s the eyes. Sometimes it’s a pretty feature and sometimes it’s just the focal point of that face or the first thing you notice. But there’s usually one thing that sets the person apart from the “average”. If you get it, the rest soon lines up and the portrait will be recognizable to those who know the person. If you miss it… well, you miss and it’s just a drawing.

For me… I must confess, it’s the hair. Granted, I have other features that play a role (rather unsymmetrical eyes and at least what I consider a wide nose), but only after I abandoned the details of getting the face “just right” and attacked the hair, did I get anything better than raised eyebrows from my Husband. Another hour of working on the hair and I finally got the nod from my Husband that I was getting closer.

Go ahead… ask me if this is “truly” me.

I will say both yes and no.

I didn’t “air-brush” myself if that’s what you want to know. I altered a few things for the ease and flow of drawing, but I tried hard to be real. And yes, I stylized the hair.

However, I stylized it so that I could draw it easier and faster, especially since I waited until the last-minute. In other words, for the most part, I simplified it. My hair is naturally straight. However, whenever I do nice pictures, I curl my hair. So in the end, I settled on a stylized mix of the two.

From an actual photo of me

For the curious and the skeptical… this is a glimpse of my hair. Except that now it’s much longer.

Yes, I’ve done crazier hair jobs, like with the character Serena but the time it took me to do that … well let’s just say I wouldn’t have made the deadline. Thus you see why I simplified.

Am I perfectly satisfied with it… no.

Although I’m sure I’ll fiddle with it some more on my own, I think I realize that for any level of perfectionist (even a part-time one) that a self-portrait is never really “done”. Even if the details and techniques can be absolutely mastered, the self-image of ourselves is always under a constant evolution.

lol, just what I needed… another project stuck in an endless cycle of revision and second guessing. Sounds all too familiar to me with the years I’ve spent writing.

So… You ever feel stuck in such a spiral with certain projects?

About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

9 comments on “Why I Hate Self-Portraits

  1. Most of them. Thank the Lord for deadlines or nothing would ever get done.

    Self-portraits. Tried one in grade school. If you turn it upside down and squint, it sort of looks like me. And cameras lie with their absolute accuracy – like mirrors. They show things the human eye could not see without help, and therefore doesn’t see unless it’s pointed out.

    • lol, hey, I gotta admit, I have some drawings that I liked much more upside down… but they were each portraits of other people so they didn’t get the upside down thing.

      Thanks, Robynn

  2. Right. There. With. Ya. Sister.

    I hate self-portraits. You probably know that, though! For you readers who don’t know, I’m also an artist for the anthology Ren is talking about here. The way I got through it was focusing on making mine a representation of me rather than trying to do a realistic drawing. But we all have to go about it our own ways.

    You have mad skills, Ren, and I think the portrait is beautiful. Whether it perfectly captures your physical likeness or not, it captures your style–that attention to detail and wanting to present yourself as who you are. I say, great job!

    • Yep, I saw yours and thought it pretty creative. I think part of my problem is that drawing people, particularly the faces is sort of my specialty.

      I do think I liked how mine turned out too… so don’t be surprised if I start using it instead of the actual photo on here. Now all I gotta do is the actual writing of the bio to turn in. lol. Then I’ll actually finished and turned in all the stuff for the Anthology.

      And thanks for the compliment, Kat.

  3. The cool thing about being an artist is that we have the liberty to interpret our subjects — doesn’t have to be a photographic likeness. I did a self portrait for the anthology, too. Kind of challenging because I don’t have many pictures of myself — I had one somewhat blurry pic for position and a mirror. For the most part, it was easier to disassociate and think “subject” rather than “me”. But I claimed artistic license to leave out the crow’s feet and deep lines between my eyes plowed by years of migraines. Kept the scars but minimized their depth — scars are the visible grades of lessons learned. Kept the glasses, too, although my husband says it’s not how he sees me **chuckle** but that’s the only way I can see what I’m doing.
    But the hair — (LOL) I’ve razor-cut my own for many years and don’t always do such a great job. Neatened that up a bit for the portrait.

    I think as women, we’re more self-critical of our appearance so the self-portrait is one of the toughest to do. Whether or not you think the portrait captures “you”, your skill and talent as an artist shines! I felt deeply honored to work with you as you interpreted my characters and the demon-woman for “Tools of the Trade”.

    BTW, I still have your daughter’s drawing on my desktop. I wish that one could be in the anthology, too! You’re passing on your awesome talent to your children! 🙂

    • Thanks Glynda… speaking of passing things along… I am probably about ready to mail those drawings to you! Have held onto them “in case” in terms of the publication and stuff, but with the “hard deadline” passed, I think we’ve passed all the checkpoints.

  4. Great work, Ren! Yes, it does look like you – very much.
    With you on the camera thing. How is it that most pics are so cringe-worthy? The perils of tech…

  5. Don’t fear the self-portrait! It’s about the most honest piece of art a person can make. I just wrote a blog post about self portraits also.. cleanstudio.blogspot.com!

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