This is the final day of my self-targeted 30 Day Self Portrait challenge. Outside of simply gaining some intensive portrait practice I think I have learnt quite a lot. I thought I’d share a few of those lessons as well as a few of my plans for the next few months.
We can so often overestimate and underestimate what we can get done. Sometimes we give ourselves New Year Resolutions which are so outlandish it’s hardly surprising we have crashed by March and given up on our Ninja-fitness/language-fluency/published-novel. However, we also think that a month is so short we can barely do anything and so we don’t bother starting. The truth is we just need to be realistic, and I think I actually managed to do that and I’m more surprised than anybody.
I put aside an hour(ish) a night to create a self portrait, and having a routine allowed me to give myself this. I tried not to expect too much of myself so if it was a tricky day I might do a quick sketch, but if I had a little more time I could really plan out a style.
I have often struggled with my sense of worth, often connected to how I look, but completing so many self portraits forced me to look differently at myself. It wasn’t about somehow believing I’m a supermodel, but instead I had to look at shapes and colour and textures in the same way I would look at someone else.
All of this was more honest. I wasn’t picking out my flaws but I didn’t airbrush them either. Clearly some worked out more accurate than others but that wasn’t due to a hope of making myself thinner or rosier or glossier, it was just because I need some practice – and hence the point of the challenge.
The last time I really had time, and lots of it, to work on art I was in Sixth Form (last bit of school before university for those who don’t know). Even with all that time and practice there were certain mediums (charcoal, oil paints and pastels) which I found ridiculously difficult and tended to avoid. It was just easier to stick with pencil and painting at high-speed than to push myself, especially as I was dealing with the deadlines that came with coursework and exams.
Due to a few accidents I was challenged to try again and I was pleasantly surprised. It has given me more confidence to keep trying even when I might not have felt confident in them before. There is so much information around to give tips and tricks that it shouldn’t feel overwhelming. I also found that the mediums I was most cautious of were the ones which turned out the best pieces because I was forced to slow down and really try rather than lean on past experience.
4. Catching up.
One of my main difficulties with sticking to challenges in the past has been failure. That seems like a strange thing to say but I’d push through a week or so, then I’d have a bad day or miss a target and I would slump, unable to figure out how to catch up.
This time round I let myself off. If I missed a day I wouldn’t beat myself up, I’d just figure out what to do the next day, whether I could squeeze in another quick portrait the next day, how they would work together, etc. Knowing how to deal with the setbacks was such a great lesson and it made getting here, to the finishing line all the more enjoyable.
6B Pencil. This was inspired by the amazing Margaret Keane and her Big Eyes. This came from watching the film of the same name and being fascinated by how she tried to catch so much emotion in the eyes of her models.
6B pencil and fine tip pen. Today I watched a couple of awesome Pixar films with my little daughter and remembered how much I love them. For a long time as a kid/teen I desperately wanted to become a Disney animator, but then the studios closed, and reopened and my plans had changed. Even so I have so much respect for the incredible artists who bring characters and stories to life. This is to honor them.
Pencil, black and green fine tip pen. Today in the UK it’s Election Day, it reminded me a lot of one of the first political campaigns I really followed, that of Barack Obama. I will be sitting up to watch what happens and will be hoping for a positive result for our country. This is a quick duo-colour line drawing in the same style.
Acrylic paint on canvas. Today I was reminded of a technique with acrylics that I saw a woman use on a painting challenge. By painting the entire background she worked colour straight onto colour and I wanted to test it out. It also reminded me a lot of Vincent Van Gogh’s brush work, blocks of colour and yet the texture in his work. This is my interpretation merging both these ideas.
6B pencil, fine tip pen, and coloured markers. I kept thinking of those traditional silhouette portraits and wondered about doing one. However, I didn’t want to lose all the detail, and I felt like I would be tempted to cheat, so instead I tried to modernise it but keeping some details and colour involved.
6B Pencil Whilst cooking lunch for the family I accidentally burnt my right hand quite badly on the heating elements of the oven. As I wanted to give it a rest I thought I would attempt a left handed drawing and thought I’d get reinspired by one of the things I read which made me start the challenge in the first place.
Graphite pencil. When I was younger I was fascinated by eyes. I think it probably had something to do with my own never seeming to work as well as I wanted them to, but also they seemed to carry so much emotion and expression in such a small place. I remembered this part of my life and thought of Escher. Although mine is nowhere near as accurate or detailed as his I really enjoyed doing it. I’m also going to partly blame the bad-quality photograph I was working from!
Marker and Fine Tip Pen. Today was Zumba and I love it. When I first started two things were told to me: Firstly, that the gym would make you feel good, whereas zumba would make you feel happy. Secondly, it wasn’t sweating, it was glowing. I love these both because I feel better for it. This is my attempt at expressing myself at Zumba, not accurately, but expressively.
6B Pencil Second one of the day, as promised is inspired by my wonderful Art teacher/pastor Laura and her incredible collection of books. This was a challenge from one of the books where students would be asked to only use diagonal lines where they saw them. By hindering movement you were forced to look a little more closely. I’m not sure this is my favourite so far but I think it’s one of the more interesting.
Pencil, coloured markers, and fine tip pen. It was a suggestion by an awesome artist I know, Gillian Gamble: Illustration and Photography, to do a Picasso-style self portrait. I haven’t done anything like this in about a decade so I thought it was worth a go. I took a number of photos from different angles and tried to combine them for this effect.
6B Pencil. Tonight’s drawing was a little rushed and definitely not my best, but my quick sketch is important for other reasons. It is based on a challenge (again from a wonderful book belonging to my former art teacher) which asked what part of your body could stand as a metaphor for you. I have had a tattoo on my back for a number of years and so this sketch is based on that feature.
6B pencil. I am very lucky to know and be inspired by the wonderful Gillian Gamble: Illustration and Photography. She has in the past created some stunning pre-raphaelite inspired photographs and I was blessed enough for her to be my wedding photographer too! Taking on this style for today’s self-portrait was daunting to say the least but actually I think I’m the happiest I’ve been so far with the final result. I am hopefully going to properly finish a few of the images from this month’s challenge, and this might just make the cut!
6B Pencil. This idea sprung from a book I was wandering through on Tuesday evening. It asked quite simple: if you could be anyone, who would you be? This could be an alter ego. However, I couldn’t think of who I wanted to be that wasn’t basically someone further along in some of the areas I’m already attempting. So instead I looked back and once upon a time I considered joining an RAF-linked boarding school. I would have likely picked up cadets in order to receive flying lessons on school premises. I may well have followed my mother into medicine and could have become an RAF Medical Officer. This is nowhere near something I would want to do, but it could have been me. I will have probably been more disciplined, in better shape, and this is as close to that self-portrait as I could get.
Pencil, marker and fine tip pen. This was a recommendation and one I was really interested by. I’ve seen many paintings and pieces in this style but never attempted it. I sadly didn’t have time to colour it, but maybe that’s something I do if it beats the rest to be properly finished. The bluebells and holly are what is currently filling the woods near me and I was inspired to include them as my pieces of nature.
Graphite pencil (w/ additional colour fine tip pen) On the left you will see my quick eyes closed attempt at a self portrait. I personally don’t think it was too horrendous. I tried to used my hands to measure and remember where details had already been drawn, in part this worked.. on the other hand I do not have a half nose/mouth thing. It reminds me of some sketchy illustrations I’ve seen whilst reading to Cub, so maybe I need to loosen up a little. On the right is the same image but with some details exaggerated with colour. This shows both my mistakes, as well as my strengths, off quite well. In general I think both images remind me that I had just come from a wet and windy dog walk so they’re pretty accurate after all.
Markers. Tonight is a Haring-inspired one. After a very busy day I feel a little like this. I must also remember to get more of my art supplies out because I’m going to run out of pen/pencil type styles soon. I hope everything in this is pretty self explanatory, if not, it’s just a bit surreal.
6B Pencil Miniatures are arguably the most impressive type of portraits, they are completely tiny and utterly realistic most of the time. I decided to attempt sketching in various tiny sizes and learnt a few things: 1. I look a lot like a monkey in miniature. 2. My pencil seems to decide on size even when I try my best to get gradually smaller. 3. When you make tiny mistakes they REALLY show up on tiny pictures. Probably not something I’ll try in portraiture again…
No. 18: Colour Self Portrait Colour pencils This came from the idea of attempting a piece only using the shading. However, after finding my coloured pencils again today, and promising myself a little more experimentation over the bank holiday weekend, I decided to do a coloured shading exercise. This was the result.
Pencil, fine tip pen, and computer edited. I’ve always had a little soft spot for pop art, I think it’s the amount of colour and comic-look. Plus in self portrait form I feel more like an X-men superhero, which isn’t a bad thing! This one mainly took time because of the editing, layers over layers, but I do like it.
Coloured pencil and fine tip pen. Recently I watched a documentary about Grayson Perry building a shrine to a fake mythical Essex woman, a kind of every woman. I didn’t exactly relate to it but I did find the entire thing fascinating. Tonight I wanted to try to design a collection of tiles in Perry’s style but more based on myself. Sadly my hand decided it didn’t want to play ball so I only got this far, but I do quite like it.
Watercolour paint. I was flicking through The Art Book this morning with my daughter who was loving it. I rediscovered Lucian Freud and the honest portraits, focusing particularly on skin tone, even when the image is less than flattering. I decided to try this style whilst simultaneously rediscovering watercolour. I had been searching for days and I finally found them! Success!
Watercolour and pencils. I struggled a little with tonight’s idea but remembered Gillian Gamble: Illustration and Photography’s gorgeous child-like interpretations of women she admires. I decided to try and recreate a photograph of me from when I was about 8 years old, almost as a now-and-then kind of aim. The watercolours didn’t get half as much time tonight but I like how it came out.
Papercut, then marker and fine tip pens. Sorry this is late. Technically I did finish it last night but I was exhausted and so uploading it just felt like faff. Not my favourite but I had fun experimenting with it even if it did come out a little like a weird laser light show.
Acrylic, watercolour and primer (silly mistake) on canvas board. So I found a particularly grouchy picture of Degas and thought I’d try something similar out. Mine looks far angrier than I was and has a bit too much contrast, but mainly running out of paint and using primer was the biggest mess. Nevermind, but I think it has some character anyway… even if that is Bond-villian type of character. Update: Sadly due to my stupidity, this picture doesn’t quite look like this anymore and is more… drippy. Live and learn!
6B Pencil. I was challenged by a friend to attempt a self-portrait where I did not let the pen/pencil leave the paper. This idea was reminiscent of how I have seen Quentin Blake’s work, sketchy and full of striking marks which give character rather than an accurate representation. This is also one of the few I have done by watching myself rather than taking a photo. I couldn’t not move so I was the worse model, although it’s really good practise.
Coloured paper and watercolour. This was thought up by collecting a number of pictures, and if I had more time it may have been a little more detailed. Although I loved using the colour, I’m not sure this is quite my style.
Acrylic paint. Once upon a time I used to use acrylics A LOT, in fact I would do huge 8×6′ boards covered in paint and at times use blades and whatever I could get my hands on to add texture to a piece. This was much smaller but the aim was the same – texture. I also used an old photograph (hence the miraculous long hair) and in my defense the airbrushing and makeup meant it barely looked like me so I’m not surprised this doesn’t.
Oil Pastels on coloured paper I keep finding that the materials I disliked and struggled with most in school seem to be the ones that force me to try harder and get better results with now. I picked up oil pastels as a mistake yesterday and took it as a push into trying again, and I think I quite like it. Need to get quite a bit better, but could’ve been much worse!
Charcoal pencils. Done from an old photograph. I wanted to go back to some of the more basic mediums to see if I’d learnt anything, and this one (unlike a few recent self portraits) to me actually feels a little more real. It’s meant to be peaceful and a little vintage. The hat in real life is a beautiful red but is now heading off elsewhere to hopefully give someone something to smile at. I do like hats..
Computer-manipulated photography. If this challenge has taught me anything it’s that variety is not a bad thing. I have often felt ashamed that I didn’t have “my own style” and tended to eclectically pick and choose from many, many areas of art and life. To me it felt silly to stick to just one thing when the world is so diverse. To be honest I’m pretty diverse, I love a number of different things, and I’m not willing to pidgeon hole myself. This is a representation of that eclecticism.
Above are the 30 imperfect pieces of work completed over the last 30 days. They are not the best quality images but as my works-in-progress I’m OK with that. What comes next will be much more important.
30 pieces in 30 days is for me quite an accomplishment. It came out of my dear husband deciding that enough was enough and helping me clear out some desk space specifically for art supplies. I decided I needed to give myself a challenge, some practice, and self portraits seemed like something both easy (because you hardly have to put much effort into looking at your own face) and challenging (because you know it well enough to know when it just doesn’t look right).
Of course, having finished my month I’m now working out: now what?
My first aim is to properly complete three pieces based on favourites of the 30. It may seem a bit strange to be finishing 3 self portraits but it is about truly completing a work. Plus portraits are sold as works of art when the customer has no clue of the model and so self portraits aren’t so unusual. It will also help me slow myself down and really spend some time getting it right. I was so used to pushing out sketchy pieces that I missed the potential for accurate detail, texture, and realism. Hopefully, by completing 3 pieces I can gain some self-determination and control to allow myself to take on bigger projects more successfully in the future.
Once the 3 pieces have been completed (ideally in another month), I will be trying to accomplish another 30 day challenge, again practising technique, mediums, and subject matter to improve my work overall. If I continue on a pattern of 3 finished pieces then I could really start adding to my portfolio.
Subject matter is endless. It has been recommended to me to go for landscapes next, then still life, then human form. With my Masters starting again in September I’ll be rejigging how things work in order to get work done but my aim is to keep art firmly in my life from now on.
My second aim is to start working properly on the illustration projects and websites that have been waiting for me.
My third is maybe to sell some of my work. This could be in the form of commissions, or prints, or anything really, but to properly learn how to be a successful artist is so important to me. I feel as if I’ve been self-sabotaging a large part of that dream for a really long time, simply believing I wasn’t good enough, but I need to try to do my work without trying to catch the latest trends, just by creating great pieces. Hopefully they’ll get better, and will be more and more influenced by the theology I study, and I will get gradually closer to my dream.